By Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen
On Monday, a man named George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The entire incident was caught on video by a passerby. In broad daylight. From just a few feet away.
- George Floyd was face down on the bare asphalt of a city street as an officer’s knee — and full body weight — was driven into his neck for six or seven minutes.
- George Floyd was unarmed.
- He did not appear to be resisting.
- At first, he tried to inform the officer that he could not breathe.
- Even after George Floyd stopped moving — after he may already have died — the officer who was kneeling on his neck did not stop, did not attempt to check his condition, did nothing to provide medical help.
- Three other officers stood by and did nothing to prevent George Floyd’s death.
- The police apprehended George Floyd because they thought he resembled someone a store employee thought might have used a counterfeit $10 or $20 bill.
- George Floyd was black.
This is the reality — repeated far too many times to chalk up to a few “bad apples” — for people of color subjected to the criminal (in)justice system in America.
Meanwhile, angry Trump supporters in many states are storming capitol buildings and city halls wielding military-grade weapons in a flagrant bid to intimidate government officials into ignoring what experts are saying about safely managing the coronavirus emergency.
And the police somehow find the restraint to indulge this without summarily executing people.
At this moment when it feels like the country is plummeting into a kind of deranged chaos, there are so many things that need to be said, so many feelings that need to be expressed to make sense of what’s happening and to think sensibly about what we can do about it.
Here are a few thoughts about events that are still unfolding.
HIS NAME WAS GEORGE FLOYD
All decent people are right to be sickened by the horrific, televised police murder of George Floyd — even as those of us who are white Americans must recognize the special pain it causes to black and brown people, who know first-hand that police abuse and violence remain commonplace in their communities.
We all should be sickened by the killing of George Floyd, but no one should profess surprise.
That’s because there’s nothing unusual about his murder.
Police violence kills roughly 1,100 Americans every year, with African Americans killed at a rate almost twice their share of the population. The numbers are disturbingly consistent from year to year.
The numbers are disturbingly consistent, but they are not a fact of nature.
They can change with policy. Today, we joined 400 organizations in signing a letter led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights that outlined key federal steps to scale back police violence and abuse. Establish a federal standard that force be used only when necessary. Prohibit maneuvers that impede the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Stop transferring military equipment to police.
Communities that have adopted community review boards for policing, adopted community policing approaches and generally made clear that they won’t tolerate police violence have seen major reductions in police misconduct.
THE SICKNESS IN THE AIR
Police racism reflects the racism of our society.
The visceral inhumanity of one person taking the life of another rightfully draws our outrage, but the silent violence of racist policy and structural racism kills countless people of color every day.
The coronavirus pandemic reveals that basic truth. We don’t have complete data on the racial makeup of those who have contracted and been killed by COVID-19, but black and brown people have been disproportionately affected.
In fact, it appears that African American people have been killed disproportionately by Covid-19 at a rate that is roughly comparable to their disproportionate share of deaths at the hands of the police.
The Covid-19 disparities reflect inequalities in access to quality health care; the racially uneven burden of chronic disease among the population; and the over representation of people of color among the newly christened category of “essential workers.”
All of this, too, reflects political choices.
The choice not to make health care a right.
The choice to tolerate racial disparities in wealth and income.
The choice to allow predatory companies to target communities of color.
The choice to permit overt and covert, economic, social and cultural racism — and the resultant stress that helps drive health inequities.
There are alternatives to each of these choices: Medicare for All, fair housing policy, a living wage, unionization and protection of worker rights, civil rights law enforcement, and more.
Our racist president is super-charging our problems.
The president who claims to be upset about murder of George Floyd can barely pause to honor his memory — let alone acknowledge the terrible toll of police violence — before rushing to denounce protesters against racism.
The president who has stood by helplessly as a deadly pandemic sweeps the nation is eager to pound his chest to announce that he is the in-control, “law and order” president.
The president who has asserted that it is up to the states to make up their own plans to confront the worst acute public health crisis of the last 100 years has warned the nation’s governors that if they do not violently suppress protests, he will deploy the military in their states.
If this were just a matter of more maniacal tweets from Trump, we could simply ignore him.
But his calls for violence against protesters, using racist tropes, makes our country far more dangerous.
His denunciation of protesters as “terrorists” not only threatens civil liberties, it encourages violence not just by law enforcement, but by right-wing groupings — violence that will surely be directed primarily at people of color.
And his threat to deploy the military in our cities is a frightening warning of his existential threat to democracy.
All of this really may presage a slide to fascism — if we let it.
Against the backdrop of the daily death toll of the pandemic and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, Trump stands ready to divide us and spread chaos. He may well believe, with reason, that chaos is his best hope for political survival.
ALL OF US
This is a scary time.
As I write, helicopters are flying overhead to help corner protesters in Washington, D.C.
The image of a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man who can’t breathe plays over and over in hour heads.
So many of us know people who have lost their lives to the pandemic.
Our economic future seems perilously uncertain.
In this time of strife, what we have is each other.
We stand together, for each other.
This is not a time for Pollyannaish proclamations not to worry and that everything will be OK.
But for all the pain, fear and chaos, it’s not a time for knee-jerk pessimism, either.
Out of the multifaceted crises in which we find ourselves, our country has the opportunity to take great leaps forward.
To address racism honestly and steadfastly.
To promote solidarity instead of division.
To advance economic justice to replace revolting income and wealth inequality.
We’ll have much more about actions to take and policies to support in the coming days, as we always do.
For now, please stay safe.
Amid a pandemic that is isolating us all, know that you are not alone and that our strength lies in our togetherness.
Here are some organizations you can get involved with that are doing the important work of ending racist violence in our criminal justice system: