I did not intend to write this
Although I am horrified by the recent killing of George Floyd, I had no intention of writing a blog post about it. After all, who cares what a disabled white woman in suburbia thinks about this? I think my hesitation to write about racism stems from the fear of somehow screwing it up. It’s such an important issue that I didn’t want to mess up – didn’t want to offend someone, say the wrong thing, use the wrong language, or be unintentionally disrespectful in some way.
I realized I need to set aside my own fears and needs when the reality is that systemic racism is claiming people’s lives. I want to do everything I can to ensure that all people are treated equally, even if all I can do is teach my children that racism is never OK, and that there is a moral obligation to speak up when witness to racism and other types of discrimination. I suspect fear gets in the way for many people who want to do or say the right thing, but don’t know what that is exactly.
I think the vast majority of people have, by this point, seen or at least heard about video that shows George Floyd, a black man, lying in the street with his head crushed down against the pavement. A Minneapolis store employee called the police on Floyd over the use of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. A white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, presses his knee into Floyd’s neck. On the video you can hear Floyd say, “I can’t breathe.” He says repeatedly, “Please. Please. Please. I can’t breathe. Please, man.”
These days it seems everybody has a phone with a camera. There was no shortage of bystanders documenting the scene. The witnesses plead with the officer to stop. He doesn’t. Three other officers stand by and do nothing to intervene. The police officer kneels on Floyd for 8 minutes and 48 seconds. Nearly 9 full minutes. He doesn’t ‘just’ kill Floyd; he tortures him to death. Is the officer a racist? A sociopath? A racist sociopath? Regardless of how he ends up being defined, Floyd can only be defined as dead.
Getting sucked into a bottomless hole of research is not something that just started with the age of Google. Around 1989 when I was a student at Hofstra University, I was researching a lot about the civil war for a major thesis. One thing led to another and I ended up immersed in learning about the history and practice of lynching. Horrific does not even begin to describe the horrors that black people have been subjected to in that regard. More than 4,500 men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs; victims were shot, skinned, burned alive, bludgeoned, drowned, eviscerated, hanged from trees, hanged from light posts and on and on. The creativity of evil is unmatched. Historically, victims have been predominantly black, although a small percentage have been white people, usually targeted because they aided or defended black victims.
Lynching often happened within sight of the institutions of justice, on the lawns of courthouses, for example. Some historians say the violence against thousands of black people who were lynched after the Civil War is the precursor to vigilante attacks and abusive police tactics used against black people today, usually with little or no consequences.
Historians say the attitudes some white people held that black people were “inferior” spawned the racism that still exists today. That history includes slave codes passed by states that gave owners complete dominance over the lives of black people. Some states prohibited black people from gathering in groups, possessing their own food or learning to read. Jim Crow and Black Codes laws were enacted to control the movement of black people at night. Some all-white towns enacted “sun-down laws,” which required black people to leave town by sunset. Many black people were lynched simply for “violating” these laws. Victims were often lynched based only on an accusation of perceived behavior.
Till, Taylor, Arbery & Floyd
Google the name Emmett Till. His was the first lynching case I read about in detail, and the horror of it has never left me. He was a 14-year-old boy visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. He was kidnapped, tortured and shot, Why? He was accused of whistling at a white woman. His body, weighted down with a cotton gin fan, was found 3 days later in the Tallahatchie River. There are gruesome photos from his open casket that his grieving mother had shared with the public, desperate to shine a light on the reality of lynching.
Almost 60 years later, in 2018, Emmett’s accuser, admitted that she had lied. Two brothers were charged with the killing. An all-white jury acquitted them after one hour of deliberations. The brothers later admitted in an interview with reporters that they had, indeed, killed Emmett Till.
Floyd’s death came six weeks after police in Kentucky, fatally shot Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, during a midnight “no-knock” raid on her home. Floyd’s death came 10 weeks after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, who was chased down by a white father and son in a pickup truck as he jogged in his neighborhood in Georgia. There had been a few break-ins in the area recently and they decided that he could be guilty based on his appearance and the fact that he was running.
There are actually a tremendous number of these types of cases, but the point of this post is not to list all the victims names and cases, just to talk a little about this societal inferno. I mention Till because his story was the first I learned about extensively. The other 3 are most recently in the headlines that have again stoked fear and protests and pleas for change.
Reviewing news reports and online discussions, it amazes me how frequently strangers jump in to blame or criticize the victim. None of us have all the facts in any of the cases, but we definitely do not get to play judge and jury. Nor do we have the right to convict and execute somebody, whether by gun, or by a knee to the neck, or by any other means.
Murdered right on camera
Seeing the video of Floyd’s death is sickening. Outrageous. Horrifying. I can only imagine how black people feel about it. It is a reminder of the brutality that black people have faced historically. It is a modern-day lynching, caught on camera. Chauvin knew he was being filmed. There is no way he could not have known. Cell phone cameras and security cameras are everywhere. He just didn’t care. Floyd was less than human to him.
A Minneapolis medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death was a homicide. Floyd’s heart stopped as the officer compressed his neck. Chauvin was fired and charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers on the scene were also fired. As of this writing, it appears they are charged with aiding and abetting murder. Who knows how it will all play out in the end. The only sure thing is that Floyd is dead.
Abumayyaleh, owner of the store who’s employee called Minneapolis police about Floyd, said that by “simply following procedure” and calling the police over suspected counterfeit bills, the store is putting the community in danger, and they no longer will call the police. Floyd may not have even realized he had a counterfeit $20 bill. Even if he did, it’s not a capital offense. We don’t need to speculate about it. There are always people who want to blame the victim, no matter the crime and no matter the circumstances.
In 2018, a white woman called the police at a Starbucks and had two black men arrested for trespassing, when they were just doing what other patrons were doing at the same time. This incident led Starbucks to close its 8,000 stores to educate employees about racial bias. Floyd’s death came the same week as a black man (who also happens to be a Harvard-educated board member of the New York City Audubon Society), was observing birds in Central Park when he saw a white woman walking her dog off a leash. He asked the woman to leash her dog, as the law requires. She said “No.” When she realized he was filming their interaction, she threatened to call the police and report that “an African-American man” was threatening her.
The narrative of the scary black guy remains in the collective mind of society, just like when Emmett Till was murdered. Is it really any wonder that black people are frustrated, angry, outraged? Scared. The Constitution gives all people the right to assemble and to express themselves. What else could we expect people to do when faced with the injustices that have been happening?
I have a good deal of respect for most police officers. One of my closest friends for the last 35 or so years is a high-ranking member of the NYPD. He is a good guy and as far as you can imagine from being a racist. I know most police are professionals, doing a difficult job that is usually under-appreciated. They hate the bad cops, too. Bad cops put the lives of good cops in danger.
My 19-year-old daughter is horrified by all she is seeing on social media. She is angry for the suffering of the victims. And the cops she knows in her life are great people, so seeing videos of police in ugly confrontations with protestors is understandably agitating and unsettling to her. I am proud that she’s not oblivious to the injustices suffered by others. She gets annoyed at me when she shows me video clips and I remind her to try and find out the full story of what was going on around and behind a 10, 15 or 20-second clip. I want her to understand that you look for the truth and try not to fall into anybody’s pre-formulated narrative. You need facts to make a judgment on things.
But it really doesn’t take research, analysis, or a fact-finding mission to understand that racism is ridiculous. It sounds trite, but it’s true – we all bleed red. I am no expert on these matters, but it seems to me that if we are going to see change, we have to be willing to state clearly when something is wrong.
I think racists are comfortable in their beliefs because they believe white people agree with them and are just too afraid or “politically correct” to admit it. None of us are going to be able to independently stop systemic racism. But we can refuse to let it grow through us or by tacit acceptance of the status quo. “If you see something, say something” is an ongoing campaign from the Department of Homeland Security, designed to raise awareness about suspicious behaviors or activities that may indicate terrorist activities. There are widespread campaigns to STOMP out bullying. We need to have the same thought processes about racism.
We can’t be afraid to tell somebody their racist joke is not funny. We can’t pretend not to hear a nasty racist comment. We cannot just hope it will all work out and go away. It won’t. The tragedies prove it.