Note: It takes a while to get there, but this is a post about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations across the U.S. A week after his death, I can’t for the life of me find a story that notes why he was in police custody at the time of his death, but it’s clear that Floyd didn’t need to die and, given the context of being a white police officer with a black man in custody, the officer charged in Floyd’s death (I’m making it a point to not give the officer notoriety by naming him), the officer and his compatriots should have made a conscious effort to keep him alive.
This post includes a lot of facts. It includes context. It includes nuance. I believe you can be angry at Floyd’s unnecessary death and also support and appreciate the hard work and dedication of our 800,000 law enforcement officers. I believe you can feel frustrated and disenfranchised and also express those feelings nonviolently. I believe our current state of things comes down to two things: selfishness and a lack of leadership. You can’t keep a nation going if you only take care of certain segments of its populace. There’s a lot of good leadership out there, but there are pockets of bad leadership in protest organizers, police forces, cities, states and in segments of the federal government.
When you’re willing to use military and law enforcement violence against a citizenry, you have to expect the citizenry to fight back. Those are exactly the circumstances that led to the founding of our great country.
On June 4, 1982, my baby sister was born.
She’s the youngest of the three of us, but was the first to marry, the first to have a child.
I remember for the couple of days our parents were in the hospital surrounding her birth, my brother and I stayed with some family friends — Donna and Bill, and their kids Maura, DeDe and Chris. They had two Siamese cats.
As we were growing up, we had a cat named Bluffy. She was a runt; probably a week old or so when DeDe found her abandoned and they brought her by. I wanted to call her “Blue” for her eyes; my siblings wanted to call her “Fluffy.” We compromised.
Bluffy used to sit on my sister’s chair at the dinner table, next to her, and eat off her plate. She — the cat — would take a two-week vacation from us every summer.
On my sister’s seventh birthday, two extraordinary things happened.
Poland held a legislative election, the first free elections in Eastern Europe since the aftermath of World War II.
And, earlier in the day, China set its military on its citizens in Tiananmen Square, an event highlighted by the Tank Man photo, maybe the most iconic protest photo since the Burning Monk 36 years earlier.
I was 12 years old, studying for my bar mitzvah, which took place in the days after the Berlin Wall came down.
It’s hard to not catch any news these days. Even if you don’t read, watch or listen to any news source, and you’re managing to stay off social media, you’d also have to not talk to another adult to know we have two things going on in the U.S. right now:
(1) We’re over 10 weeks into some form of stay-at-home order across almost all of the nation due to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19. People are out of work. Businesses and schools are closed. We’re going to address this first, because it explains why tensions were already high, and it didn’t take much for .
(2) George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minn. This is the latest case of a black man being killed by a white police officer. The officer who killed Floyd was charged in his murder, while that same officer and three who were with him at the time of Floyd’s death have been fired. There have been violent protests across the country. We’ll get to that in a moment.
I spoke a couple of months ago with Peter Serafine about the loss of liberties tied to the quarantine. What we didn’t talk about then — because it wasn’t evident yet — is that we’re having in a lot of places, if you’ll excuse the crude phrase, a dick measuring contest.
There are some people — and don’t you go about putting names in my mouth because I think you’ll make some incorrect assumptions — who are saying and doing some things just to push some power around.
Here’s a more elegant way to state an overarching problem with politics in this country right now: we’re insistent on playing a zero-sum game inside an infinite game.
An example of a zero-sum game is a football game: someone has to win and someone has to lose. There’s a plus-one (win) and a minus-one (loss), and added together, they total zero. Republicans win, Democrats lose, or vice-versa.
An infinite game is one in which we keep tweaking the rules with the goal of simply keeping the game going. In this case, the idea is to keep America existing in perpetuity.
We probably can’t have both, at least not in our current form.
Businesses are clamoring, in some states, for their “right to open.” But anyone who needs a license to operate can have a license pulled at any time. People are talking about their rights to work, but even in “right-to-work” states, you don’t have a right to a job.
There are protests in a lot of places demanding politicians either listen to or ignore health experts. But no one’s lighting themselves on fire for it. No one’s standing in front of a tank after hundreds of citizens were killed by the military. Nobody’s overtaking forces to knock down a wall. Because we don’t have to.
We consider ourselves the land of the free, and, while we certainly have a lot more freedoms than most other nations, freedom doesn’t come without responsibility.
A big part of the American Dream, as it were, is the ability to fail without disastrous consequences. So maybe what we need is a better support net.
And so to the late George Floyd, and more specifically the protests across the country. The list of black men and women killed by white police officers (or while in the custody of white police officers) in the past few years keeps growing. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Keith Lamont Scott. Breonna Taylor. And more. I’m not even including Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old with an air rifle shot by police at a public park in Cleveland.
In Tiananmen, there was tank man. In Ferguson, we saw something similar: a militarized police force with armored vehicles rolling into town to stop protesters while someone stood face-to-face with the front vehicle. That night it was not just protest. There was violence and looting. It was a testament to the frustration a community was feeling, and that frustration is both growing and spreading. Like things were after Rodney King. And Watts. And Miami, Cincinnati, Newark, Detroit and lots of others.
And it hasn’t been helped by the quarantine, which, as I mentioned, is costing jobs, closing businesses, and generally has people’s nerves up.
So the protests started in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. And then they spread to Louisville, where Breonna Taylor, a black first responder on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, was killed by white narcotics officers who knocked down the door of the wrong home while the suspect they were actually looking for was already in custody.
And then they went national. The trend was, in many cities, a peaceful protest in the afternoon, and, when the sun went down, things got violent. Curfews were put in place. This happened in dozens, if not hundreds of cities, from Syracuse to Portland, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Denver, Cleveland, Newark and a host of other places.
Here’s what I know about being a police officer: not much. I do know that it’s high-stress. Every time an officer stops someone, whether in a car or on the street, it’s potentially (a) a life-threatening moment and (b) a public-relations disaster.
I did a ride-along with a an officer in Holyoke, Mass., in the early 2000s, before cell phones had cameras and before most of us had high-speed internet access. The officer told me it would probably be a quiet Monday of parking and walking around to check in on business owners, maybe hanging by the train tracks to watch for people with expired vehicle registrations (the road was in rough enough shape that cars had to slow down enough for the officer to see).
Instead, we weren’t out five minutes before we were called back to get a sketch of a suspect, and then we weren’t out another five minutes before we pulled over and the officer chased that suspect down on foot, and I got to watch a booking before 8 a.m.
The officer then asked a couple of kids in a double-parked SUV to move along, and a half-hour later we were in a high-speed chase with that same SUV — the kids were shooting air guns, blowing out tires. When we pulled them over, one of the kids told the officer the gun was real. Looking back, that could have been a big problem for that kid — of course, they probably wouldn’t have put a reporter in a car with an officer for whom that was likely to be an issue.
As the day wrapped up, the officer was called to an accident in which a sedan ran a stop sign and went under an SUV, rolling the bigger vehicle, and killing a teenager who in the course of the rollover slid under the shoulder restraint and out the window, with the SUV landing on him.
That sounds like a rough day at work, particularly for someone who thought it was going to be a quiet day. And he did it all while dealing with a reporter in his mid-20s sitting in his car.
There are some 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The vast majority of them are awesome. It is a really hard job. What made that Holyoke police officer put a black teenager who claimed an air gun was real in the back of a patrol car but a Cleveland police officer fatally shoot a 12-year-old black boy on a playground with an air gun? It’s a split-second decision, and, in some cases, it’s a whole lot of split-second decisions.
Consider the George Floyd case. The now-former officer had to decide to detain him, restrain him, put a knee on his neck and leave it there, and he had to make that decision over and over for a while, with three other officers nearby, keeping their safety and his own under consideration.
It’s widely believed (and, deferring to the experts on this, I’ll have to agree) that somewhere along the way the decisions were the wrong ones. He and his three colleagues were fired. In this case, it was probably racism. The now-former police officer charged in his death was known to go a little overboard on “African American nights” at the club where both Floyd and the officer worked security. Would the officer have made the same split-second decisions if Floyd had been white? We have no way to know, and every situation needs to be addressed as it comes.
Split-second decisions also depend on things like how much sleep someone got, what they ate for breakfast, how their relationship is with their spouses and kids, whether they got cut off in traffic on the way to work, and a host of other seemingly insignificant factors that pile up during the day. We also get what’s called “decision fatigue” — we make thousands of tiny choices during the day (what to eat, which route to take to work, which coffee mug to use, which sock to put on first), and for that reason, we tend to make more thoughtfully considered decisions in the morning (or in the few hours after we first wake up, for those people who sleep during the day and work evenings).
There are no statistics on how many interactions police have. It’s probably in the hundreds of millions a year. One site says police killed 1,099 people in 2019. Medical errors account for way more than that. And doctors, like police, are expected to protect us. But they don’t have the public, armed presence police have.
We don’t have good numbers on how many of those police-involved killings were of unarmed suspects; the same site says that, in 2015, police killed at least 104 unarmed black people across the country.
Not awesome, but is it a mark of systemic, racist violence? We do know that black men, especially, are detained, jailed and killed disproportionately to their population, which may point to something at least somewhat systemic. Comedian John Mulaney may have been going for a laugh in one of his specials when he declared that middle class white kids weren’t going to jail for marijuana while implying that black kids might, but let’s face it, it’s true.
The city of Cleveland — with the Tamir Rice killing in its history — is considering declaring racism a public health crisis. The city of Flint, Michigan — where even getting clean water has been a problem for years — has made a similar declaration.
I know I’ve been tossing around a lot of research. Let me make a couple of things clear: I believe racism is bad. I believe George Floyd’s death was avoidable. I believe George Floyd’s death was at least partially driven by racism. I’ll follow the experts on this one and say I believe George Floyd’s death was a homicide. But …
But it’s no excuse for rioting and looting. That’s not what the First Amendment is designed for. We have the right to peaceably assemble. We can do so loudly and forcibly. We don’t need to burn down businesses in our community and steal from them.
A tale of two cities:
In Charleston, South Carolina, on Sunday, the mayor set an early curfew — 6 p.m. — and told people to behave. There were 35 people arrested.
In Savannah, Georgia, on Sunday, the mayor joined an afternoon protest, set an 8:30 p.m. curfew, and told people to be safe. There were no arrests.
If you want people to behave like adults, treat them that way. Lead by example. We can do this in our communities. All of them.
I get that violence is born of desperation. But we can be better.
Back to that support net I mentioned 1,700 words or so ago, when we were discussing our quarantine situation, with lots of people on edge at home, out of work and missing human contact.
All nations are backed up by threats of violence. In some instances it’s more clear than in others. In some places you “disappear” for disagreeing with the head of state. In Singapore, you might get caned for petit theft. In the U.S., a traffic ticket is backed up, eventually — if you fail to pay, miss enough court dates and continue to drive and get caught — with jail.
We call ourselves the land of the free, but obviously freedom has limits. When the government tightens those limits, and then the people we trust to protect us cross lines, killing citizens, and redress becomes impossible, tensions will rise, violence is possible, and right now it’s happening.
You can’t sell the notion of a peaceful nation-state to citizens who feel like they’re losing their rights and their livelihoods, and who fear they are in danger of losing their lives.
We need our leaders — our governments, our police, our community organizers, our NGOs, our pro- and anti-organizations — to work together. We can’t do it with our current attitudes. And I really think it’s our attitudes we need to change. We are not each other’s enemies. There are enough resources for all of us. Let’s be responsible stewards of our society. Onward.