There is a dreadful familiarity about the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by white police officers in Minneapolis.
Floyd’s final moments were videoed from a bystander’s phone. He repeatedly pleads for mercy. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for violent protests that have since shaken cities across America.
The widespread fury this killing has aroused is, tragically, not unprecedented. Similar eruptions followed high-profile police killings of black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; and nearly 30 years ago, a police near-death beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
Clearly, to understand the mayhem on display in Minneapolis and other cities is not to condone it. It goes beyond the death of one man who pleaded for his life as an officer’s knee was pressed against his neck for more than eight minutes.
It is about a cavalcade of other times when unarmed African-American men have been killed at the hands of police. It is about a history of justice that has proved so maddeningly elusive, time after time, as the egregious incidents captured on video have made so shockingly plain. It is about the reality that some Americans still remain vulnerable and unprotected as they go about their daily lives, and the shocking truth that they are treated differently on the basis of the color of their skin, decades after the civil rights movement brought laws designed to cleanse the discrimination that has haunted our nation’s history.
The fact that we have been here before does not lessen the horror of this crime nor mitigate brutal police actions. Quite the opposite. It’s right that all four officers involved have been sacked. One, who kept his knee pressed on the handcuffed Floyd’s windpipe for several minutes even though he plainly did not pose a threat, has been charged with third-degree murder.
All the same, this latest incident feels dangerously different, for three reasons.
One is the sense that increasingly militarized U.S. police forces, which often appear remote from and antagonistic to the communities they serve, have not learned the lessons of the past.
This is a multiracial protest movement representing what is best in America against what is akin to a modern-day lynching. African-Americans comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population. But according to data over the past five years, they accounted for 26.4 percent of those killed by police in all circumstances.
Put another way, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, who form 61 percent of the population. While this is not a new problem, the repeated, systemic failure to fix it has become critical.
A second exacerbating factor is Donald Trump and the unvanquished white supremacist thinking he personifies. When Trump tweets menacingly about “looting and shooting,” as he did last week, or mocks “shithole countries” in Africa; expresses a preference for migrants from Norway; or describes professed Charlottesville neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” he echoes an ingrained, bigoted belief among some people that black lives really do not matter.
The reaction from President Trump has been predictably irresponsible and inflammatory. While mayors from Minneapolis to Atlanta and Portland struggled to maintain order, rightly shaming those who used the Floyd tragedy to indulge in theft and arson, Trump’s main concern was to look tough in front of his unreflecting base. The protests will eventually, in time, cease. But injustice, bigotry and social malaise will not — not until all Americans want it to.
The true question, the profound issue, is what we do next, and the best answer to be found is that we look for leadership. We look for people who know that we have a hurtful residual of bigotry and racism in our communities.
We reach out for leaders who have the courage and circumspection to admit our problems and address true solutions.
Let’s start with this simple manifest policy that whenever any police unit has subdued a suspect of a crime, it must not employ life-threatening force against any person who can no longer physically resist. First, when a suspect is subdued and in physical custody, it isn’t necessary. Secondly, it removes the possibility that the result of taking control custody might become a video of brutality.
We should know that telephone videography is a fact of life. So, when we are in control, why don’t we act as though our actions will be viewed on this evening’s news? Actually, shouldn’t we do that in everything we do?
Let’s all act openly on the stage of life. Let’s assume that the world is watching — and be proud of what they see.