s you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. • Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
America has always been a deeply racist nation. One need not venture far into recent history or current events to find overwhelming evidence of the systemic persecution of nonwhites.
The latest incident is the May 25 arrest and murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by four Minneapolis police officers who had pulled him from his car as a suspect in the passing of a counterfeit $20 note. The savagery that followed was filmed from several angles, leaving no possible doubt about the intent of the arresting officers, who treated Floyd as prey. One of these officers, if you can call a wanton killer by that name, placed a knee on Floyd’s neck — notwithstanding that the suspect had already been subdued. He has since been charged with second degree murder. The three others with him face charges of “aiding and abetting” in the committing of second degree murder.
Further charges are pending as the all-too-familiar refrain “ongoing investigation” makes its predictable rounds.
In some respects, the Floyd killing is different from recent racial violence by police. No obvious mitigating circumstances, even slim ones, exist to rationalize the incident. The behavior of the officers was so egregiously cruel that even cautious politicians dropped all pretenses.
“I understand your frustration and pain following the murder of George Floyd,” wrote Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock on Twitter, labeling Floyd’s death a murder days before the officers were charged.
So stark and powerful were the videos that protesters took to the streets not only in the U.S., where national rioting has lasted more than a week, but also around the world. In a rare action, some American police have taken a knee with protesters as a sign of respect toward their response. Some police commanders have agreed that the system they serve is in fact a racist one. These actions are unprecedented, but by no means represent a consensus.
Plenty of old platitudes were rehashed as authorities urged a peaceful response. But the early response was ferocious. Rioters all but burned down the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s attackers had worked. Looters set stores ablaze and overturned police vehicles. The National Guard was summoned. Still, elected officials insisted that while they wanted to “see justice done,” citizens should “remain calm.” “March for justice,” the Denver mayor added, “and to see it served.”
Yet there was little peacefulness to be found, largely because rhetoric and reality have nothing in common: in matters of racial abuse by police justice is rarely served, since to do so would require the open and highly public prosecution of lawmen who warp law at their convenience. Historically, however, such trials have been few and it’s safe to say justice stands little if any chance if the offending police are white and their victims nonwhite.
Explaining the intensity of the response, one Minneapolis resident told a BBC correspondent, “When we weren’t setting fires and we weren’t burning down buildings, all you said is ‘everything takes time.’ Well, the time is up.”
On the video, Floyd is seen begging for his life. “I can’t breathe,” he tells the officer pinning down his neck. These are the same words Eric Garner spoke before New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo – also caught on tape – strangled him to death on Staten Island in July, 2014.
Justice? New York’s district attorney refused to prosecute Pantaleo although the coroner’s report lists Garner’s death as a homicide.
I defy anyone to untwist that Gordian knot of legal logic. I defy anyone not to sympathize with people of color who have been forced to endure these two incidents, and others.
Official pleas for peace often contain their fair share of irony. For generations, both politicians and police have been telling nonwhites that rioting is no way to redress the acts of violence committed against them. At the same time, police are all but implored to use violence as a tool.
Across the U.S., police undergoing training are told, “You fight violence with violence. Violence is your tool.” (Watch the training episode on Netflix’s “Patriot Act.”) Instructors make it clear to trainees that they must meet violence with “superior violence,” the “righteous violence” built into their policing mission. I am not sensationalizing. Both those terms are verbatim remarks made by instructors.
Nonviolent demonstrations of the kind once advocated by civil rights activists no longer work. Protesters know this and turn the tables on police, using the same “tools” officers are taught to apply to the “violent” citizenry.
Given the circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine why protestors consider their own tactics as representations of the same “righteous violence” to which they’re exposed.
It’s clear to me the U.S. won’t see the light of racial justice until it radically overhauls police training and revises the attack-dog instructions that flank it. As things stand now, the U.S. police force is among the most militarized, and at the same time most poorly trained, in the developed world. To wit: Anyone wishing to become a police officer must gain admittance to a “police academy.” There, the candidate is trained for an average of 13 to 19 weeks (the latest police norm). After the training period, the graduating rookie in most cases receives a handgun, a shotgun, a Taser, handcuffs, and a club. In North Carolina, it takes 32 weeks of school to obtain a hairdresser’s license, and only 16 weeks of training, exactly half, to become a police officer. Such disparities are indefensible.
Contrast this with police candidates in Germany, who must attend school for two years, at the end of which they do not receive guns, for which they require further training.
In today’s America, many communities coddle police, giving them an astonishingly wide safety net. You cannot sue U.S. police for wrongful death or injury. Disciplinary actions taken against them are expunged every 60 days, so they can begin service again with unblemished records. Any police caught in potentially criminal activity are sent home – unquestioned. Police unions and benevolent associations have seen to it that their members have at least 24 hours to come up with a viable explanation for contested actions, an amount of time no suspect ever gets.
There’s also the Supreme Court’s 1969 Frazier v. Cupp ruling that gave police officers the right to use deceptive interrogation tactics, in effect allowing them to lie at will to suspects “in the pursuit of their duty.” Why would anyone trust a person in power who has a free ticket to lie?
Revising this deeply embedded system will be hard. A lawyer for one of the police officers who stood by as another killed Floyd labeled the charges against his client as “bullshit.” He did not elaborate on this eloquent remark. The defense of the status quo is on.
The racism built into the U.S. justice system will not be expunged until the broad “rights” conferred on police are revoked so that they can face the consequences of their actions, the same accountability all citizens must face in a country that regards people as equal before the law. Police cannot be selectively above it.
Until such sweeping changes are introduced, talk of “healing” rings hollow and the murders of unarmed citizens on the streets of America likely to continue. Soon this violence will occupy the same circle of hell as mass shootings.
On both counts, pledges and promises long ago stopped being enough. America, repair yourself.
— This essay was completed on June 7, 2020.