When I ran a series of posts on my blog last year in the hope of encouraging dialogue about how we talk about race in America, the comment above was made by a woman I worked with years ago who became a friend.
She’s an African American who has risen high in her chosen field—despite not having a college degree—by virtue of her extraordinary intelligence and diligence.
Her view was that she was tired of having to explain stuff to white people; it was our turn now.
I saw an identical comment on Twitter yesterday from another African American woman.
And yet the people demonstrating on the streets of Minneapolis and other communities throughout the United States—justifiably infuriated by the murder of yet another unarmed black man by a police officer who was arrested only Friday—are predominantly people of color.
Yes, there are a goodly number of white people demonstrating as well, but there should be more of us.
(Though during this pandemic, everyone demonstrating has to know the health risk of those crowds.)
It’s time we white people acknowledged that this problem is ours to fix—all of ours, as a country, but it will never happen if white people don’t recognize our role and responsibility.
First some facts. The video made it clear that Derek Chauvin is guilty of a serious crime. The Minneapolis police officer held his knee on the neck of George Floyd, who was not only unarmed but handcuffed, for nearly nine minutes.
Chauvin ignored Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe—and his cry for his “mama.”
Chauvin and the three fellow officers who stood by and did nothing to stop him were quickly fired.
That was good because otherwise actions against them would have taken even longer due to union processes.
Yet it still took days of protests before Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Floyd’s family wants a charge of first-degree murder, and one can hardly blame them.
The charges against Chauvin don’t require an “intent to kill,” though Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than two minutes after he’d become unresponsive.
As the increasingly angry crowds called for their arrests, the Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, said the investigation will take time because “We have to do this right.”
(The fact that there was violence by some protesters, which I’d never condone, is too lengthy to discuss here, but may be related to the increasing militarization of police departments, now equipped with the weapons of war for use against civilians. This does not look like America to me.)
Although Freeman agreed that the video is “graphic, and horrific and terrible and no person should do that,” he insisted that “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge.”
Freeman’s office later explained he was simply saying they wanted to uncover all the evidence that might come up in trial so that they’d be prepared because they faced a heavy burden to convict the officer.
Why is the burden so heavy? There are several reasons, but a major one is that in a 1967 ruling, the Supreme Court—in response to police violence against Mississippi civil rights demonstrators—specified that the officers had “qualified immunity”: protection against legal liability for law enforcement conducted “in good faith and with probable cause.”
A New York Times editorial, well worth reading, called that a “high standard to meet” and said each case had to clearly establish the violation of rights by relating it to another case with the same circumstances in which an officer hadn’t been found immune.
In practice, the editorial states, “it has meant that police officers prevail virtually every time” and there’s a “Catch-22” because plaintiffs have to find precedents—but there aren’t any because the plaintiffs always lose.
Do you find this situation bizarre and wrong? So do Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. If those two justices agree, one can hope that there’s some way to redress this judicial wrong.
And so, we repeatedly see these gross injustices, which seem to be increasing. (There’s no official data on the numbers, which is itself surprising and concerning).
Our country has been awash with innocent blood from unpunished crimes like these for years.
And Minnesota has had more than its share. It was only four years ago that Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop while his horrified girlfriend videotaped the encounter. The officer who killed him was acquitted.
That officer’s attorney is now representing Chauvin, who had received at least 12 complaints over his career but no disciplinary actions apart from a “letter of reprimand.” He had, in fact, been praised for his valor.
In what I think may be unprecedented, police elsewhere in the country weighed in with condemnations. David Roddy, the Police Chief in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, said this:
“There is no need to see more video. There is no need to wait to see how ‘it plays out.’ There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this…turn it in.”
Sheriff Jonny Moats of Polk County, Georgia was similarly unequivocal.
“I am deeply disturbed by the video of Mr. Floyd being murdered in the street with other officers there letting it go on…This kind of brutality is terrible and it needs to stop. All Officers involved need to be arrested and charged immediately. Praying for the family.”
But some civil rights advocates immediately pointed out that these words alone aren’t enough; what’s needed are substantial reforms to prevent such fatal use of force by police.
Though this outrage against black men—and some black women—has been going on for years—and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which I believe is in the finest tradition of nonviolent protest—it should be noted that under our current President, both the law and the bully pulpit have made things worse.
Just before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in 2018, he “drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations,” according to the Justice Department.
Under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department and certain local governments had entered into “consent decrees” to facilitate law enforcement changes when police abuses were observed.
But as soon as Sessions took office, he said he’d review agreements that had been reached with Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson (Missouri) police departments following the deaths of black men by police officers.
Sessions’ changes “imposed three stringent requirements” reported The New York Times.
First, in place of the career lawyers who had previously signed off on these decrees, high-level political appointees would do so. (No surprise there; this is the Trump administration’s modus operandi.)
Second, evidence had to go beyond violations of unconstitutional behavior. (I’m not a lawyer, but that sounds pretty wacky to me).
Third, the deals had to have a “sunset” or ending date—instead of continuing until real improvements in police or other law enforcement agencies had been documented.
The other issue is, of course, the President, who struck a match a while back by telling an assemblage of police officers in a jocular tone: “Please don’t be too nice’ to suspects.”
And now, with the tinderbox already ignited in Minneapolis, Trump called the protesters THUGS, suggested military intervention, and warned “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
That phrase was directed against civil rights activists in the darkest days of the 20th century fight for racial equality. Trump later denied his tweet harkened back to that era.
Interestingly, his til-this-week beloved Twitter, which is now watching the President’s tweets, flagged that one for “glorifying violence.”
It is clear that we need systemic change in this country that will not come quickly but must emphatically receive a commitment from the public, law enforcement, and elected officials alike.
We know what to do; it’s all been laid out before. We simply must do it.
Congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief, wrote an excellent article in The Washington Post titled: “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”
She specified what’s needed quite succinctly.
“As a nation, we must conduct a serious review of hiring standards and practices, diversity, training, use-of-force policies, pay and benefits (remember, you get what you pay for), early warning programs, and recruit training programs.
“Remember, officers who train police recruits are setting the standard for what is acceptable and unacceptable on the street…
And she observed:
“Law enforcement officers are granted remarkable power and authority. They are placed in complicated and dangerous situations. They respond to calls from people with their own biases and motives.
“In New York, we’ve recently seen past pains of the Central Park Five dredged up in a new attempt to misuse law enforcement against an African American man. When you see people differently, you treat them differently. And when power is in the mix, tragedy can result.
“As law enforcement officers, we took an oath to protect and serve. And those who forgot — or who never understood that oath in the first place — must go. That includes those who would stand by as they witness misconduct by a fellow officer.”
Even if George Floyd had been forging a check, his act did not warrant force at all—and certainly not the death penalty he received.
Importantly, in addition to proper screening and training, those police officers who violate the law and use excessive force must be swiftly, consistently brought to justice.
We’ve got to address the nearly impossible legal hurdles that have protected too many officers who were obviously guilty.
And no black parents should ever, ever have to feel they must give their young sons “the talk” to protect them from unintentionally provoking police who are too ready to reach for their guns.
We white folks must make it clear that these black men (and women) who have been senselessly murdered over the years are as important to us as are our own families.
Until we start seeing each other beyond color lines, we’ll never escape the cruelty of our checkered history:
Slavery—Reconstruction…Jim Crow—Civil rights acts…Voter suppression—Police violence—White supremacy.
The arc of justice may be moving in the right direction, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me now. So I can’t imagine how it must feel to my brothers and sisters of color.
Some police incidents occur when white people, irrationally frightened of a black person for no clear reason, call the police. Once again, this is on all us white folks. Please spend the few minutes to watch the video below. I think it’s important.
And we’re not even talking at the moment about how we must address inequality in the job market, health care, and other major issues. Or all the deliberate or careless remarks or acts that sap the souls of people of color, who must endure them day after day.
We’re talking about life and death…sudden, senseless, irreversible.
These outrages simply must stop. We must, collectively, stop them. No more of these. Not…one…more.