Sunday, May 31, 2020

Putting the Killing of George Floyd in Context

Photo of George Floyd from USA Today.

It seems as though we can hardly process the horror of one tragic murder of a black person by the police before there’s another one and another one, each more egregious than the last. The killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis is the main focus right now because it was all captured on video in broad daylight and inevitably strikes the viewer as an act that is heartbreakingly malicious and inhumane. A handcuffed man, face down on the ground, not posing any threat, suffering from an officer callously forcing a knee into his neck for nearly ten minutes. The officer kept that knee planted there even two minutes after they’d realized Floyd no longer had a pulse. All while other officers watched on. 

We’ve all seen the video by now. It’s horrific, it’s enraging. It’s hard to watch it without wanting to physically assault those officers. It’s painful to watch the bystanders trying to intervene, knowing this man is being choked to death, and not being able to prevent it from happening. 

I get these feelings watching the video as a white person. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to watch that video if you’re a black person. Burning buildings in city streets might seem a fitting response to such blatant institutional abuse, especially since it is just the latest manifestation of an ongoing American tradition of law enforcement brutalizing people of color. 

The George Floyd murder is the latest example of the same systemic issue we keep seeing again and again. We just saw what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man in Georgia who was lynched in broad daylight by two white men while he was out jogging. Shot in the chest with a shotgun by racist wannabe vigilantes, in the middle of the street, on video, in broad daylight. And then those murderers somehow lived free for months until the video was released and the story blew up. We were still digesting all of that when we learned about Breonna Taylor, a young black woman who worked as an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, who was gunned down by police when they raided the wrong house in the middle of the night. That rang a painful resonance with a similar tragedy that occurred in Detroit almost exactly 10 years ago when Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old black girl, was murdered in her sleep by a SWAT team that raided the wrong house, with documentary cameras filming the raid, and nobody would be punished for killing that innocent child. 

It's just like how the George Floyd murder by asphyxiation brought up the memory of Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island being choked to death as he yelled out “I can’t breathe!” I'll never forget the moment I first watched that video, shortly after it had occurred. A black man begging an approaching swarm of policemen not to harass him and take him to jail again. His infraction was allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Seeing him get choked out and piled on by a bunch of cops, the pile eventually giving way to a lifeless body, was gut-wrenching. It sucks that this is reality in America.

I knew the officer who killed Eric Garner, we went to high school together. All I can remember about him was that he was an asshole with behavioral issues who frequently started fights with people. I grew up in the blue collar borough of Staten Island, NY as the son of a retired cop, living among many cops and ex-cops and I have known people who, if you knew they were cops, you would NOT feel safe. I've got plenty of stories about guys I knew or encountered who were the least mentally stable, the most prone to violence and aggression, who happened to go into careers in law enforcement. Which is not to suggest all cops are bad, of course. I have known plenty of respectable and admirable people who work in law enforcement. Chris Rock explained it best, some jobs you just can't afford to have so-called "bad apples": "I know being a cop is hard. I know that shit's dangerous.... But some jobs can't have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can't be like, 'Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains.'"

What I can tell you is most cops that I have known are unyielding in their defense of fellow cops, no matter how egregious the abuse or brutality. It’s always the victim's fault. 

We see this manifested all the time. We saw this with the NY Post article trying to besmirch the character of the murdered Ahmaud Arbery shortly after the news of his lynching had become a national story. This is what happens, every time the same pattern. Carelessly take the life of a black person. Attack the victim’s character. Shame the black race for their reactions to these deaths. Shame the media. Shame the politicians. Do anything except admit there’s something wrong. 

There is something wrong. Very wrong. There’s something very wrong when we repeatedly see black bodies subjected to excessive violence by police forces, and so often it’s for some ridiculously trivial infraction, whereas if you think back through America’s recent and ongoing string of mass shootings perpetrated by white men, those men (look them up) are almost always taken into custody without a scratch on 'em. Not choked to death by an overaggressive cop, not shot to death accidentally or by an itchy trigger finger. White men who commit mass slaughter in cold blood are treated more gently than black men who sell loose cigarettes or write bad checks. That is an indication that something is very wrong in our society.

What so often happens in all of these cases is a nitpicking, pussyfooting parsing of the details of the murder by the authorities, always subtly or blatantly blaming the victim, until the officer is acquitted, saved by a cloud of obscurity around his intentions and the results of his actions. The Mike Brown case in Ferguson was forensically broken down like a Zapruder film, its findings seemed to hold the fate of American racial relations in its conclusions. The Eric Garner death wasn’t a murder because the chokehold applied was actually not technically illegal or rather he died because he was a large unhealthy man who was resisting being taken into custody. Oh did we mention that he was also a felon? It’s always either the victim’s fault or some tragic accident, or it's always a one-off case that gets misinterpreted and exploited. This is the perspective of racists and of powerful people reluctant to upset law enforcement to provide justice for angry poor and oppressed people.  

They are already doing this with George Floyd and it is despicable and transparent. His death was due to "combined effects of Mr. Floyd's being restrained by police, underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system," is what the authorities say. Combined effects of "being restrained by police" and any potential intoxicants in his system. Forget what we all can see very clearly in the video, where a police officer leans his whole body weight into Floyd's neck as he begs for his life and says he can't breathe, there were underlying health conditions and he might have potentially had some intoxicants in his system. This is the dehumanization of George Floyd.

I don't know what the solution to all of this is. I don't think anybody knows how to solve this enormous problem. Martin Luther King, Jr fought against these evils more than 50 years ago, he has since become an American hero with a national day of remembrance dedicated to him, but he was also murdered for his efforts and we are still experiencing the same patterns carrying on to this day. 

Telling black people that they need to get out and vote does not solve this problem either because Republicans have made it their main election agenda to suppress the black vote for decades. Purging voter rolls of black citizens, shutting down polling places in minority neighborhoods, installing restrictive voter ID laws meant to target African Americans. On top of that, America has the largest prison population in the world and most of the prisoners are African Americans---all these black inmates have to surrender their franchise, losing the right to vote (fortunately, this was recently changed in Florida---the results of this reversal remain to be seen). Take a look at this chart showing the rise in the prison population of America, starting around the time Ronald Reagan went into office:


When you consider how many of those incarcerated Americans are black you can start to comprehend what it means when people talk about systemic racism. Adding to all of this is the fact that America also continues to have a growing economic inequality gap to an unsustainable degree. There's no ceiling to how rich you can be in America, but there damn sure is a floor to how poor you can be.

While the coronavirus ravages our nation (affecting African Americans disproportionately), millions of people lose their jobs and their healthcare, and a corrupt administration in the White House puts all its focus on protecting the Criminal-in-Chief from any accountability for his own felonious infractions, something's gotta give here. We're seeing that now. The irony and absurdity of the disparities we are seeing in America---Colin Kaepernick lambasted and blacklisted for kneeling in peaceful protest against police violence vs. police officer Derek Chauvin callously kneeling on a black man's neck until he dies; white supremacists with automatic rifles taking over legislative buildings without any police opposition vs. peaceful protesters being violently attacked by militarized police forces; America leading the world in cases and deaths from a global pandemic vs. millions of Americans losing health insurance, Republicans trying to destroy Obamacare, and Trump defunding the World Health Organization---these drastic ironies and absurdities are signs that the country is falling apart. Things can't go on like this for much longer.

I don't know what the solution is but I know that major change is required for America to embody its ideals in the 21st century. For one thing, starting at the top, Trump and his chief enablers like Mitch McConnell and William Barr need to be removed and held accountable. (Bear in mind, the Civil Rights Division of the Dept. of Justice was ready to charge the killer of Eric Garner with a crime when William Barr personally stepped in and squashed the case.) We need to enact legislation to make healthcare a human right, which is long overdue at this point. We need major police reform to help root out racists from working in law enforcement. Police officers patrolling black neighborhoods and districts should look like the people they are policing, or at the very least those officers should be vetted so there aren't racist policemen dealing with people of color. We damn sure need to expand the right to vote and put an end to voter suppression which primarily targets African Americans and other minorities. We also need to stop the escalating militarization of the police force---those resources can surely be better used in a different sector of society like improving our schools and hospitals.

These are all just hopeful fantasies and ideals at this point. The nation is gashed open with a bloody wound right now and I don't see that wound healing anytime soon. The lack of leadership at the federal level creates a void that local leaders try to but ultimately cannot fill. I suspect it will be ugly for a while. I've spoken to friends from countries overseas lately and was shocked how intensely they follow the developments of American politics and society, dismayed at the fearful events unfolding here. America has been coming apart at the seams for all the world to witness.

If you are a white person trying to figure out what you can do to help bring an end to America's systemic racism problem, read this and read this. If you've read this blog post and it offended you or you disagree, then there's a good chance you are part of the problem. I think a good first step toward fixing this problem is to acknowledge it exists and to learn about it. 

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