The killing of George Floyd should shake each of us to our core. Far from an isolated incident, it is only the latest episode in a long history of police violence against black men. This violence is itself a only subset of the treatment of people of color that is a terrible and undeniable part of our history. That it remains unchecked, the perpetrators seldom if ever held accountable, is an ongoing stain. The past cannot be undone. What is damning is our failure to prevent it from being repeated time after time after soul-wounding time.
The outbreak of rioting and looting that accompanied demonstrations in Minneapolis and elsewhere was sadly predictable and sadly understandable. Just grievances fester and explode where injustice is unanswered. People in circumstances where they rightly feel powerless, oppressed, and without other recourse have reacted in this way throughout human history.
It is possible to understand this without accepting or condoning it. It is not okay. It is the innocent, those who live in neighborhoods where the destruction takes place, who must bear the consequences. An AP report quoted a 24-year-old woman in the neighborhood where a Target, a Planet Fitness Gym, and nearly every other business were smashed: "We're burning our own neighborhood. This is where we live, where we shop, and they destroyed it. What that cop did was wrong, but I'm scared now." Among the burned buildings was one under construction that was meant to provide 200 units of affordable housing. (Minnesota governor calls in National Guard)
Yesterday Jacobin featured an article that posed the rhetorical question "should we care about the looting of stores like Target and Autozone?" The author's answer is a resounding no: "the real looting in our society comes from the military, the police, the pharmaceutical companies, private equity, the landlords, the real estate speculators and the billionaires—not the protesters against police brutality." Not only does the author declare it wrong to condemn the rioting and looting, he applauds it: "it is a good thing that bosses, government officials, and the police who protect them are sometimes reminded that black lives matter through a little proletarian fury" (No We Should Not Condemn Uprisings). With this Jacobin discredits itself and the American left for which it claims to be a leading voice. If "a little proletarian fury" were what it takes, surely we would have made some headway when cities burned periodically from the 1960s on.
Nonviolent demonstrations and peaceful civil disobedience will not magically solve anything, but they can make a powerful moral statement that is a step, a painfully small one, but a step toward where we want to go. It is not just a matter of right and wrong. Riot and looting are counterproductive. Violence and wanton destruction harm the innocent and give individuals acting in bad faith an opportunity to make the conversation be about that instead of what it should be about: a policeman who killed a man lying handcuffed and helpless while three fellow members of the Minneapolis Police Department looked on.
Police Chief Medaria Adondo wasted no time firing the four policemen. Mayor Jacob Frye supported the firings and called for charges and arrests to be made. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he expected charges would be brought by the county prosecutor and soon afterward Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. These are actions and this is the stance we would hope and expect state and local officials to take. I stand with them.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who happens to be black and the son of a retired St. Paul police officer, put it as well as could be said in a PBS NewsHour interview on Tuesday:
There really can't be any distractions on this, as we traditionally see folks try to blame the victim or shame the victim. And there can't be any excuses. There's no argument that there was a heat of the moment. There's no weapon. There's no sustained aggression. There's no argument the officer could have been acting in self-defense or feared for his life.
Carter also voiced unequivocal support for his colleague Jacob Frye:
I will tell you, Mayor Frey is a good friend. He and I worked together closely on a number of things. I appreciated him making a very strong statement this morning, saying that this was unacceptable. It's unacceptable for being black in America to be a life sentence.
And I appreciate seeing them take strong action and fire these officers. I assume Mayor Frey watches this video, like so many of us do, and just can't live with it, can't sustain all of this.
I tell you, I appreciate him giving voice to that. And I know it's a difficult situation for him, because part of his job right now, too, is to make sure he doesn't do or say anything that will jeopardize the city of Minneapolis or the Minneapolis Police Department's ability to hold these officers fully accountable. (St. Paul Mayor)
It is not enough to convict those charged in the court of public opinion, however clear-cut the video evidence must be when even Mitch McConnell says the officers involved "look pretty darn guilty." The process required by rule of law is more uncertain and slower than we wish. The alternative though is rule by mob and vigilante justice.
I do not doubt that there are fine and honorable women and men in the Minneapolis Police Department, just as there are in police departments across the country. They are stained and their jobs made more difficult and dangerous by the everyday abuses and blatant crimes perpetrated by people like Derek Chauvin. At the same time there is the incontrovertible fact that the killing of George Floyd was not the action of a single rogue cop. The complicity of three others speaks to a malignant culture within the department, as does the report that eighteen prior complaints were filed against Chauvin, only two closed "with discipline" and reprimands (Fired Minneapolis officer had 18 complaints). Eighteen sure seems like a lot. As Jonathan V. Last, referring to ten complaints reported in another article, put it,
Being a cop ought to be like being a surgeon, or a pilot. You don't get to crash 10 planes in 19 years—even if not all of the crashes were your fault—and still have a job.
It would be good if cops policed their own. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be something that happens much.
The problem goes far beyond Minneapolis. Florida Congresswoman Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, demanded systemic changes "to address what she described as a much deeper issue plaguing the country" and called for 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."
Noting that "everyone wants to live in safer communities and to support law enforcement and the tough job they do every day," Demings said that the present situation is unsustainable. "We have got to get this right." (Politico report on Deming's Wash Post op-ed).
To be black in America is different from being white. It should not be that way, but it is and has been from the time blacks were brought here as slaves. This is a terrible and agonizing truth. It is possible to conceive that if I were a black resident of Minneapolis, I would be tearing things up too. It would still be unacceptable.
I cannot know what it is to be a black man in America. Nor can I know what it is to be a Native American, an Asian, a young woman groped by some blockhead in her office, a man old before his time after spending the best years of his life in a coal mine, now in failing health, unemployed and unemployable. I cannot know what it is to be any of these people. To know myself is problematic enough. It is possible though to imagine the thoughts, feelings, fears, dreams, hopes, despairs, griefs, anger of others, each a unique individual, each sharing something of what it is to be human, with sympathy, compassion, in good faith, and not be all wrong. This must be possible, for if it is not, what is left but wild beasts in a war of all against all? As hopeless as this day and too many like it may seem, I am not ready for that.
We cannot allow this moment to be just another outrage that sparks rage and destruction at which we wring our hands and after an all too brief time move on. We have to do better. We must find ways to be better.
Keep the faith.
References and related reading
Melissa Alonso, Fired Minneapolis officer had 18 complaints against him, CNN, May 28, 2020
Associated Press, Minnesota governor calls in National Guard as Minneapolis braces for more violence, Politico, May 28, 2020
Peter Gowan, No, We Should Not Condemn Uprisings Against Police Murders Like George Floyd’s, Jacobin, May 28, 2020
Jonathan V. Last, The Triad Newsletter, May 29, 2020
Amna Nawaz, 'Not the America that we want to live in,' says St. Paul mayor of George Floyd’s death, PBS NewsHour, May 26, 2020
Caitlin Oprysko, Rep. Demings slams police killings as a 'stain on our country,' Politico, May 29, 2020
Judy Woodruff, 'We want justice' for George Floyd, local activist says as violence erupts in Minneapolis, PBS NewsHour, May 28, 2020