Five days ago, George Floyd, an African American Minneapolis resident, died after being arrested and subjected to lethal violence at the hands of local police officers. Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground while three other officers stood guard, despite clear evidence that Floyd did not resist arrest. The now-viral video clip shows Floyd pleading for his life, repeatedly saying “Please, I can’t breathe.” Since Monday, Floyd’s murder has ignited a maelstrom of protests in Minneapolis as activists demand justice for Floyd. These protests, the likes of which arguably have not been seen since the protests in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death in 2014, have continued nearly non-stop since Tuesday, resulting in numerous arrests. Just yesterday, Chauvin was taken into custody by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with third-degree murder.
Thousands of miles away from the deadly incident, I, like many others, have watched its aftermath play out over social media, across news headlines, and in conversation. With the footage of Ahamud Arbery’s murder fresh on our minds, there is an eerie familiarity to the public grieving of injustice. Surveying social media, I see countless tributes to Floyd: stylized illustrations, messages of anguish, and images of protest. Alongside these tributes, there has been a concerted effort to channel “social media activism” into tangible action, such as contacting the Minneapolis District Attorneys or donating to Floyd’s family and to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. More than anything, the public outcry has called for a concerted, holistic response to George Floyd’s murder.
President Donald Trump, for his part, has seized the opportunity to seed yet more violence. In a Twitter thread from yesterday, President Trump targeted individuals who have looted local Minneapolis businesses during the three days of protest. One tweet said, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd. … Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” invoking the infamous words of Miami Police Chief Walter Headley who was known for targetting African Americans in the 1960s. Twitter has since flagged Trump’s tweet for “glorifying violence,” while critics have questioned the constitutionality of the President’s call for lethal force. Thus, in a moment of glaring incompetence, insensitivity and irony, Trump’s idea of “honoring Floyd’s memory” amounts to merely fueling the very police state which precipitated his death. The president’s remarks typify the mired, atrophied and tactless response to the murdering of Black Americans that has persisted for far too long.
Anyone who has been following the news remotely will know that Black Americans have been policed, and even killed, for all manner of innocuous acts. Now, during the pandemic, African Americans are at particular risk of over-policing; evidence shows that Black Americans are many times more likely to be arrested for social distancing violations. On the very same day as Floyd’s death, New York resident Amy Cooper made headlines for threatening to call the police on an African American man who was bird-watching in Central Park. As commentators noted, Amy Cooper’s false claim — “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life” — very well could have resulted in a deadly police altercation. We would be wise to remember that Floyd was killed after police were called to investigate his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill. Eric Garner, whose death popularized #ICantBreathe, was killed for selling untaxed cigarettes in another borough of New York City.
And even if the police officers in question are fired, as in Floyd’s case, there is often no mechanism for barring them from law enforcement; many officers guilty of misconduct are routinely rehired or otherwise absolved of wrongdoing. As the Floyd family’s lawyer and civil rights attorney Ben Crump asked in a recent statement: “How many ‘while black’ deaths will it take until the racial profiling and undervaluing of black lives by police finally ends?”All signs suggest that, with the pervasiveness of racial prejudice and systemic discrimination, the end may be a ways off still.
Thus, Floyd does not merely deserve our shock and dismay — he deserves our informed commitment to thorough-going racial justice, for him and for those like him. As we know, Floyd’s death, tragically, is far from anomalous. We ought to see his murder as one of countless instances of violence, suppression, and injustice, predating the founding of this country. In past years, each documented death marked a warning post that could have catalyzed structural change but was thwarted by failed reform and protracted apathy on the part of those in power. We owe it to Floyd not to let his death amount to one more unheeded warning, but instead to pioneer a project of racial dialogue, disarm the police and carceral state, forge a path towards economic equity, and secure the political representation of Black Americans.
Floyd also deserves to be remembered not just for how he died, but for how he lived. There is a certain perverseness to the excessive sharing of the footage of his death, often without content warnings or caveats. In fact, in a recent interview, Floyd’s family members describe how they cannot bring themselves to watch the graphic video of their son’s death. Moreover, in the rush to print stories on the incident, several news articles misspelled Floyd’s name as “Lloyd,” signaling yet more disregard for the man behind the footage. At the very least, we must treat Floyd’s life, in its entirety, with the utmost sensitivity and respect. As testimonials from family and friends reveal, George Floyd was a father, a star football player, an aspiring musician, and an irreplaceable member of his community.
We owe it to Floyd to memorialize his life even as we demand justice for his death. For the protestors, this means balancing the need for political agitation with non-violent methods to the best of their abilities. On Thursday, in a meeting of organizers and faith leaders at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Floyd’s family urged protestors to demonstrate peacefully. In her remarks, Floyd’s girlfriend of three years, Courteney Ross, said, “Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd,” explaining that while she shares the protestors’ frustrations, the demonstrations ought to avoid violence. Her sentiments were echoed by Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, and Crump, who told protestors “we cannot sink to the level of our oppressors, and we cannot endanger each other as we respond to the necessary urge to raise our voices in unison and outrage.”
With Chauvin’s arrest now underway, we find ourselves at a watershed moment. Now is the time to turn our attention toward monitoring a fair and just prosecution process that can serve as a model for holding abusive law enforcement officers accountable. Ultimately, we owe Floyd more than procedural justice; we owe him a sweeping program of racial empowerment and reform — the kind which could have prevented his death.
George Floyd deserved to live in a country where Black bodies are not policed and jailed en masse. He deserved to live in a city that does away with generations-old systems of housing segregation. Floyd ought to have been able to live his life free from the specter of police brutality, White supremacy, and racialized violence. He deserved to live a life replete with opportunity, security, and dignity. We owe it to George Floyd to do better by countless other Black Americans precisely where we failed him.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Lorie Shaull