What George Floyd’s dying breaths tell our fractured nation

It’s past time for a radical restructuring of criminal justice.

For writers like me, one of the soundest pieces of advice over the last week came from columnist and film historian Mark Harris, who tweeted on Saturday, “I am calling on all my white colleagues to join me in a 24-hour moratorium on personal essays about our feelings.”

This prompted many to ask, why just 24 hours? Fair question, but sorry, time’s up and I have a few things to humbly—very humbly—offer. You can ponder or dismiss these as the random thoughts of a white, Vietnam era demonstrator who still remembers watching on live TV Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his “I have a dream speech” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the same sacred place occupied by National Guard troops just days ago.

I try to take to heart what Elie Mystal, justice correspondent at The Nation had to say a few days ago: “I perceive that white liberals who are reaching out to the black people they know are well-meaning and honestly confused about what to do. They want to help and have no idea how to, because ‘fighting systemic racism’ is not part of their daily lives or professional competencies.

“The most this country has ever asked of white people is that they not be individually racist, and most people struggle even with that. Tearing down the structures of institutionalized white supremacy, like the police, is just not something many white people have spent a great deal of time thinking about. In this moment, as they Columbus the deep pain and anger that black people live with every day, they really don’t know what to do.”

What does he want us to do? Mystal wants us to speak out every time we hear racist words from our family and friends—and neither politeness nor peacemaking should allow them to go unchallenged. He wants us to condemn outright the prejudiced acts of those we know, and those we see on the news and those who holler bigotry across the crowded roadways and sordid alleys of social media.

It’s a start. What has happened over the last two weeks has stirred the soul and given hope that maybe at last, the voices of the people, the enormous throngs marching on our streets in more than 700 American cities and towns in all fifty states are having an impact, that the death of a black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop, symbolizing all who have died or been wounded or beaten, will resonate and generate real change.

We’ve all been burned before by protests followed by inaction—too many unjustified wars, too many mass shootings one after another, too much poverty and inequality, too many promises made and unkept. The brutality and fear that lash out in hate never stopped, but all too often merely steered around the speed bumps of dissent.

But at least this time, the numbers are encouraging. And not just in terms of crowd size.  The New York Times reports, “Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of Americans support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.” A Washington Post-Schar School poll indicates, “Americans overwhelmingly support the nationwide protests that have taken place since the killing of George Floyd… and they say police forces have not done enough to ensure that blacks are treated equally to whites…”

A whopping seventy-four percent of the Americans surveyed are backing the protesters—87 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of the independents and even a majority of Republicans, 53 percent. What’s more, “The poll highlights how attitudes about police treatment of black Americans are changing dramatically. More than 2 in 3 Americans (69 percent) say the killing of Floyd represents a broader problem within law enforcement, compared with fewer than 1 in 3 (29 percent) who say the Minneapolis killing is an isolated incident.”

Which, sadly, brings us to another set of Washington Post numbers—five years ago, after the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the paper started keeping track of the number of people shot and killed by police: “By the end of 2015, officers had fatally shot nearly 1,000 people, twice as many as ever documented in one year by the federal government.” In 2016, “police nationwide again shot and killed nearly 1,000 people. Then they fatally shot about the same number in 2017—and have done so for every year after that, according to The Post’s ongoing count. Since 2015, police have shot and killed 5,400 people.

“This toll has proved impervious to waves of protests, such as those now flooding American streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The number killed has remained steady despite fluctuating crime rates, changeovers in big-city police leadership and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.”

Before Floyd’s murder came the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and so many others—Michael Brown, Nathaniel Pickett,  Eric Garner,  Tamir Rice,  Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, and more. Doubtless there are hundreds about whom we may never know. But as more and more videos of law enforcement violence surface—including new footage from all over the country of police brutally lashing out against protesters and journalists—our collective outrage grows.

Isn’t now the time, at long last, and with more support for it than ever before, for the radical restructuring of criminal justice so many have demanded and that so many desperately need? We have governments that reinforce and prolong systemic racism, fill courts and private and public prisons to overflowing, encourage the militarization of policing and turn far too many law officers into thugs patrolling the streets. They have unfettered license, protected by the concept of “qualified immunity” and police unions that use campaign cash and threats of retaliation to whip officeholders and candidates into submission.

That impunity translates on the street into the kinds of scenes we’ve seen in recent days, including the knocking to the ground by local police of a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, a pacifist Donald Trump has tried to paint as an “antifa” radical faking his fall. Rather than expressing regrets, Buffalo police upped the ante, cheering the men arraigned for shoving the victim.

The unions “aggressively protect the rights of members accused of misconduct, often in arbitration hearings that they have battled to keep behind closed doors,” The New York Times observed.  “And they have also been remarkably effective at fending off broader change, using their political clout and influence to derail efforts to increase accountability.”

But with the enormity of public opinion shifting against them, the police unions may be forced to yield. “I struggle to know if they have gotten more extreme, or if the world has changed and they haven’t,” Minneapolis city councilman Steve Fletcher said. “Either way, they are profoundly misaligned with the moment.”

The moment: In the wake of all that has occurred over the last two weeks, Congress and state legislatures, especially New York’s, are endorsing a variety of actions, including an end to police neck holds, chokeholds and other excessive violence; requiring the use of de-escalation techniques rather than yielding to the implementation of force; holding law enforcement accountable for the deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties; an end to racial profiling, prohibiting no-knock warrants and the Federal sale of military equipment to police; establishing a national database covering all 18,000 of the police departments in the US; the opening of hidden records revealing past accusations and disciplinary actions against individual officers.

There is a larger issue as well—calls to defund the police or even completely abolish them. It’s a tricky and complicated debate, challenging to negotiate—just observe Democrat Joe Biden trying to thread the needle, saying he’s against defunding but in support of reform. He’s attempting to deflect Donald Trump and other Republicans use of the phrase “defund police” in speeches and attack ads to make it seem as if Biden and other Democrats are somehow opposed to public safety.

In reality, defunding is about an important discussion of how money is spent building a society of fairness, equality and security. “Be not afraid,” Christy E. Lopez, co-director of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program, writes. “’Defunding the police’  is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need… Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”

Nonetheless, as House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest ranking black member of Congress warns, “I think all of us know that sound bites tend to get interpreted in all kinds of ways and if you’ve got to explain the sound bite, you’re losing the whole issue… if you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged—and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.”

Back to feelings: Four years ago, after the death of Philando Castile, I wrote that as hard as I might try, I could never understand what it is like to be black in America, and that no matter how liberal or progressive I profess to be, no matter how diligently I seek to be enlightened, I know that there still is a tiny, virulent nugget, a germ of prejudice that exists deep within me because I grew up white in middle America.

I wrote, “I think I know a big reason why Black Lives Matter: because for far too long they have mattered too little or not at all. Amends must be made and attention must be paid.” Now the stakes are higher than ever but many are facing the challenge head on.

There’s much to do—and all of it in the middle of a continuing fatal pandemic, which too many, especially Donald Trump, are trying to ignore, more than 40 million unemployed and the most important election campaign ever as we work toward making this president and his corrupt destructive cohorts an ugly memory.

As George Floyd’s daughter said, in death, her daddy changed the world. The least the rest of us can do is try to make that change permanent.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.

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