Like so many people around the world, I am horrified, saddened and deeply unsettled by the death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25. His death reflected longstanding patterns of routinized violence against black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes. Last week, many people were horrified to see the video that captured the officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, indifferent as Floyd repeatedly cried out “I can’t breathe.” This phrase heartbreakingly echoed the words cried out by Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. in the moments before his death in 2014 after being tackled by multiple officers and placed in a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo. By the time of Floyd’s death, the murders of EMT Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and U.S. Air Force veteran Sean Reed in Indianapolis, Ind. by police, and the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., were incidents already in the news that had sparked protest and reiterated the need for accountability and reforms in law enforcement. Floyd’s death was the final tipping point in a series of incidents that have ignited protests in cities around this nation, as well as the world.
What happened to Floyd was unconscionable. The knee-on-neck hold approach that these officers used for restraint, which has been discouraged and is no longer recommended by many police departments, not only highlights their violation of his rights as a citizen, but also revealed their failure and unwillingness to recognize his humanity. Attitudes about blackness as being subhuman and inferior became entrenched during the Enlightenment era. They helped rationalize and fuel slavery in the Americas during the late eighteenth century as this nation crystallized as a republic, at the very time that its ideals of freedom and democracy were enshrined. To the extent that slave patrols of the antebellum era are embedded in the history of policing in this nation, it will be important to come to terms with this past, and to recognize how it may impact attitudes and actions for some toward black people even in the present day.
One thing seems certain. The death of Floyd and so many others is the outgrowth of systematized racial profiling and abuse of blacks at the hands of law enforcement. What does it mean that in some cases, rather than honoring the rights of blacks as citizens, including the presumption of innocence, some officers feel authorized to serve as judge, jury and executioner on the spot? By now, multiple episodes have documented how some officers are patient, considerate and respectful in encounters with white people, depicting how frequently officers manage to deescalate situations with them. Even armed and dangerous white fugitives, including perpetrators of mass shootings, have often been captured alive and unharmed. On the other hand, officers have been shown shooting unarmed blacks, declaring that “I feared for my life.” Such disparities well suggest that there may be double standards in how some officers engage whites and blacks and other people of color, and that some unconscious biases may exist. Black people and other people of color desire to be extended courtesy, consideration and respect in any encounters with the police as well, and to have their rights respected. That blacks who possess weapons legally have often been treated as a threat and met with immediate violence, suggests that their constitutional rights are not recognized, as witnessed in cases from John Crawford to Philando Castile and Atatiana Jefferson. Recently, the media captured images of officers who showed tolerance and patience when confronted by the predominately white groups protesting the restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, who entered the state house in Michigan armed, and carried assault weapons in some cases. It was not helpful for White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, as he has this week, to argue that there’s “no systematic racism” in law enforcement.
As someone born in the wake of the civil rights movement, I have long been committed to the struggle for black freedom. As a scholar at Cornell, I have studied and taught the history of protest on campus, including the Willard Straight Occupation of 1969, and its linkages to the larger black student movement across the nation. In 2015, when football players at MIZZOU took a stand against racism at their university, they revitalized and launched a new era of the black student movement, which Colin Kaepernick in effect nationalized in the NFL with #TakeAKnee. His protest built upon the longstanding linkages between civil rights activism and sports among black athletes. It was disappointing to see his efforts to draw attention to anti-black police violence dismissed as being unpatriotic and disrespectful to officers, the military and the flag, and the backlash against him, when the goal was to use his platform to draw attention to persisting injustice.
I admire and applaud officers who have finally heard this important message, and who have kneeled or marched in solidarity with those protesting the tragic death of George Floyd, along with officers who have widely condemned it. It will also be important to follow up such gestures with measurable changes in policing practices that have been problematic. Criticizing and pointing out shortfalls in policing does not translate into being “against” the police. Most people protesting abuses in law enforcement appreciate the work that officers do, care about the safety of officers and understand the challenges and dangers that officers face in carrying out their duty to protect and serve communities around the nation.
As this nation struggles with the persisting impact of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing remains vital for protecting public health, what happened last week made clear other forms of healing that it needs, and tore open its persisting racial wounds yet again. It is heartening that so many people around the world have come out in solidarity to protest persisting racial injustice. My prayers are with George Floyd’s family and with everyone everywhere impacted by his loss. I kneel in prayer for peace and justice and in solidarity with the protest.
Riché Richardson is an associate professor at Cornell in the Africana Studies and Research Center. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.