TWO seemingly ordinary people—one black, the other white--collided on the streets of Minneapolis in May 2020. It was in the middle of a major pandemic that had rocked the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world; the coronavirus caused the deaths of more than 500,000 in the United States alone. That devastation undoubtedly will become the subject of conversations, news reports and health studies for decades. None of us could have predicted that in 2020, during the early stages of the outbreak, although our lives certainly were being shaken.
Nor would we have anticipated the scene outside Cup of Foods at 38th and Chicago Ave, would turn the country upside down, fueling coalitions between Blacks and others including Latinos and Whites. Together they would demand changes in policing and an end to institutional racism.
How many times had we heard that call for ending racism? How many times have we argued for transforming American society? Too many times to count, and often without dramatic results.
We had seen it before--an unarmed Black man crushed by the weight of racism as delivered by armed police officers. Hadn’t we seen Eric Garner, selling cigarettes on the corner, police choking him to death even while he declared he couldn’t breathe? Hadn’t we seen it at Breonna Taylor’s apartment when police broke in with a “no knock” warrant; they had the wrong address, and she was left dead.
The visions have come so many times, some of us probably have wished for temporary blindness or deafness. The sound of murder is haunting.
There it was, again, outside Cup of Foods at 38th and Chicago. How many times has any one of us gotten a bogus dollar in our commercial transactions, foreign or fake coins? Floyd may not have known he passed along a counterfeit $20 bill. He didn’t seem the kind of person who would be a member of such an operation.
Anyway, before it was all over, he had been murder, on the street, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who dug his knee deep into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. I cried when I saw the video. Other did, too.
We learned during the trial that Chauvin wouldn’t even take his knee off the neck after Floyd stopped breathing, after the paramedics arrived.
THIS week a Minneapolis jury found Chauvin guilty of unintentional murder, 3rd degree murder, and second degree manslaughter. “This is the beginning of something. This is not the end,” said Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and former member of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I hope this is a springboard because we have a short attention span,” said Charles Ramsey, a former Philadelphia police commissioner and former DC police chief. While he praised the profession of policing in which he worked for 50 years, he added, “I also can’t be blind to the fact there are people who shouldn’t be in it.”
I am as optimistic as they seem. Twelve jurors can take partial credit for the hope I feel. If I measure the possibility of progress by the change in my own thinking about violence, crime and punishment, then maybe my conclusion is not overly generous. I know there are other people in the country, in the world who also have seen a shift in the way they perceive these issues.
Still, I must admit that I continue to wrestle with the question of why do black lives matter most when the deaths or injuries of individuals are caused by whites—white supremacists, white domestic terrorists, white police officers. Why are we not equally disturbed by the murder of Blacks by other Blacks or people of color by other people of color? Can we work to end those murders as well?
Confession: Before Minneapolis, I made note of the other killings of African Americans by police. However, as Ramsey said, my attention span was short. After a few days or weeks, I was onto something else.
In many instances, I provided excuses for what had happened: Should he have been selling cigarettes on the street when police officers had given him warnings before? Should the parents have allowed their son to play in a public park with a toy gun that looked so real, a resident was alarmed enough to call the police.
My attitude about such things was formulated decades ago. Before I turned 13 years-old, my mother, my siblings and I lived with my maternal grandparents—great grandmother, grandmother, and grandfather—in New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park.
The community was the realized dream of many middle-class Blacks who at that time alternated between calling themselves Negroes or colored people. As Creoles in New Orleans, the latter was more favored by our family. In Pontchartrain Park, it was especially preferred. Even before we heard the soundtrack for “All in the Family” and George and Louise Jefferson celebrated their good fortune of “moving on up,” we colored people in Pontchartrain Park knew we had arrived—it wasn’t without hard work, including standing unflinchingly to face southern discrimination, however.
The community included a golf course and a baseball stadium. Public buses stopped operating there at 10 am, an indication that either folks had cars or that standards regarding outdoor activity were highly regulated. As children, we, of course, thought nothing of it. Life was no less grand.
My elementary school was a short walk away; my friends and I gathered in the afternoon, riding our bikes or playing in the park that stood just on the other side of my family’s backyard. On holidays like July 4th or Labor Day, my grandmother held community picnics. When the streetlights came on, my siblings and I heard out grandfather’s whistle and knew it was time to come home for dinner.
In between all of that, my grandmother attempted to share her wisdom. Like many Blacks, then and now, our family held conservative views about crime and punishment. She often warned of a slippery slope: “If you lie, you’ll steal. I you steal, you’ll certainly kill,” my grandmother often told us.
My mother, brother and I eventually moved to public housing. My experiences there were in stark contrast to Pontchartrain Park. The poverty, discrimination was a thick blanket smothering my own dreams, casting every white person as villain. Additionally, I saw up close the crime about which my grandmother had warned.
I tightly embraced my grandmother’s philosophy. It became part of my personal ethics. Even today, someone lying to me just sets me off, and raises all kinds of questions about that person in my mind. In other words, trust is almost immediately eroded.
She was adamant that when someone stole something from another, used illegal drugs or engaged in other acts that were considered violations of the law, that individual needed to be punished, including going to jail. The way to avoid that result, she argued was to follow the law. I agreed, adopting her anti-crime perspective.
I suspect my grandmother would have wondered about Eric Garner. She would have wondered why Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend fired a gun without trying to find out who was entering the apartment. She would have probed Floyd’s drug usage, giving no slack to addiction, although in our family we had relatives who were alcoholics or near alcoholics.
She would have wanted to give the police the benefit of the doubt. She certainly would not have seen the logic in painting entire police departments corrupt. For years, I have echoed her sentiments—except not this time.
The Floyd murder made it impossible for find excuses that could be deployed in service to pretense. I couldn’t run a blind eye, hoping to prevent looking squarely at a painful reality. As President Joe Biden said as he spoke following the verdict, “It’s a trauma.”
It is a recurring trauma, actually. Even as the Chauvin trial was happening, a Black man was killed, and Latino boy was killed—by police. How long can people of color be used as target practice?
My grandmother was right: violators of the law should be held accountable. That includes police officers.
I have been inching toward this space that I am now occupying. For years, I have quietly asked myself, why are police officers so quick to shoot, and shoot to kill? I have wondered why, with all of their training, are they routinely unable to de-escalate a situation; instead, they seem to enjoy throwing more fuel on the fire? Why, I have pondered, are some Black officers no better than their white counterparts? How do so many people in an industry or an institution become infected over time with the worst behaviors of their profession?
Equally important, I have come to understand that I shouldn’t dismiss or ignore the issue surrounding reckless and dangerous police officers, simply because I am frustrated that not enough attention is given to non-police involved murders—those where Blacks are killing each other. Pain, racism and injustice, separately or collectively, may also be at the root of the community violence that deeply troubles me.
I have George Floyd to thank for helping me come to that reality, for enhancing my humanity. In fact, the entire country owes him a debt.
Now, how will we repay it.