Uprising and George Floyd: Because Nothing Has Changed

Protests against police violence in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from Wikimedia Commons

The United States is experiencing days of rage. Starting in Minneapolis, but spreading to city after city, people are angry. They are angry at racism; they are angry at injustice. They are angry at being called “essential” while being forced to expose themselves to a deadly virus for minimum wage.

And what do we hear? Calls for “calm” and tongue clucking. It is not just the obviously hypocritical words from the immoral, narcissistic, and cowardly occupant of the White House, but also from ostensible liberals, claiming that people are “dishonoring” George Floyd with their anger, that they are debasing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory by rebelling violently.

Yet Dr. King, while always believing in nonviolence, also said, in 1966, “I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” We can’t know what King would have thought today, 52 years after his assassination, of the continuing, steady, unwavering refusal of white power to address the most violent racism. Nor can we know how George Floyd would have felt at the violent expressions of rage in the wake of his death.

They can’t tell us because racists killed them.

It’s not like we haven’t had warnings. Nor can we contend that peaceful protests weren’t tried, tried, and tried again to the point of absurdity and exhaustion. But now that the rage has boiled over, we call for calm, we tell people they are “hurting their own cause” and that they are “disrespecting the memory” of Black men who were killed. This, despite the remarkably low incidence of injury in these demonstrations.

We could have listened in 2012, when George Zimmerman — notably, a wannabe cop — gunned down Trayvon Martin. We watched his acquittal, his subsequent multiple arrests, and, finally, his sale of the gun he used to kill Trayvon for a quarter of a million dollars after which he turned around and sued Trayvon’s family.

And nothing changed.

We could have listened in 2014 when Michael Brown was killed by a cop. Instead we saw the town of Ferguson experience a military siege. And, as Marc Lamont Hill put it in his book, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable From Ferguson To Flint and Beyond, when a grand jury declined to charge the police officer who killed Brown, “…crowds of protesters appeared in Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York to stand in solidarity. They wanted to express its clear resonance, to speak with their own sense of familiarity with the circumstances that in an instant left an unarmed eighteen-year-old Black boy holding a pack of stolen cigarillos dead in the street.”

And nothing changed.

We could have listened in 2014 when Eric Garner was killed by the New York Police for selling loose cigarettes. Instead, we watched as a grand jury declined to charge the cop who killed Garner, the liberal Mayor Bill Di Blasio refused to remove him from the NYPD for five years, and then saw the Justice Department of Bill Barr refuse to charge the officer.

And nothing changed.

We could have listened when Cleveland police killed Tamir Rice, a boy of just 12, because he had a toy gun. No charges were brought.

And nothing changed.

We could have listened when Freddie Grey sustained mortal injuries in the back of a police van, a death ruled a homicide by the Baltimore medical examiner. Yet all the cops involved were acquitted at trial and, again, the Justice Department declined to pursue charges. The unrest that caused was unsettling for many.

And nothing changed.

We watched a South Carolina cop gun down Walter Scott, shooting him in the back as he fled. This time, the officer was convicted and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But nothing changed.

We saw Philando Castle killed by a St. Paul cop after telling him that he had a legal, licensed gun in his car. A jury acquitted the officer of manslaughter charges.

And nothing changed.

Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman simply standing in her own home was shot without warning by cops in Fort Worth. The officer has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.

And nothing changed.

Botham Jean was also killed in his apartment because he had the misfortune of being home when his cop neighbor stumbled into the wrong apartment. His killer was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. She has since filed for a new trial.

And nothing changed.

There are far too many more examples, and whether the killers, or simple assaulters, were convicted or not, there has been no change in the conditions that led to the deaths of these people. The only other common thread among them is that there was no justification for the use of lethal force. Indeed, in many cases, there was no justification for the use of force at all.

The unrest that is sweeping the country was sparked by what Derek Chauvin, aided and abetted by three of his fellow officers, did to George Floyd. But the root cause is much broader and wider than this one murder.

This is the result of our inaction. All of us. We have not done enough to stop it. We continue to treat police as if they are separate from the rest of society, as if they have a different set of rules. We continue to limit our imaginations about how order might be kept in society. Rather than imagining ways for police to use less force, to “serve and protect” without the use of lethal weapons, or at least with less lethal ones, we are turning police forces into paramilitaries.

We debate endlessly over a quarterback kneeling in solemn, respectful silence before a football game to protest police brutality. We argue about whether he should be permitted to pursue the career he worked his whole life for. But we don’t change our ideas about policing.

We give permits and set up barricades for protesters to march through when they want to say, publicly, that Black Lives Matter. And then we argue with them that all lives matter, white lives matter, or blue lives matter, when the whole point is that people don’t challenge, much less actually compromise, the importance of those lives.

We say there is freedom of speech and that people have the right to protest the killing of Black men, whether by cops, ex-cops, wannabe cops or plain old racists with guns. But what good is the freedom to speak out if that speech is heard and then moved on from?

What good is it if nothing changes?

That is why we have the unrest we see today. For the same reason, we have seen it before. And unless we change things — really change them — we will see it again, more and more frequently. It’s not just Black people who are fed up. More and more people of all races, including many white people, are sick of it too.

We have the chance now to change. We have seen some of the worst parts of America given free reign in the past three and a half years. We can’t fix it all in a day, a year, or one presidential term, but we can start right now. We can start to reimagine how we want our society to work, how we want to maintain order, how we want our laws to reflect justice, how we can treat the “other” as we would like to be treated, how to rethink a prison-industrial complex and an increasingly violent police force.

If we want to avoid uprisings like we’ve seen in the past few days, we need to make serious, fundamental changes that really address the immense grievances that are set off by a racist cop murdering a Black man just because he can.

If we want a better America, we must make it change.

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