Why George Floyd’s Death Matters. And Why It Can’t Stop Mattering Next Week.

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By Levon Brunson

Whenever a police car passes by, I know that more likely than not there are good officers inside, that they mean well for me and my community, and that I’ll be safe. However, even if small, the chance that they’ll abuse their power is inordinately more dangerous. As a result, I have to contend with each encounter as if my life is in danger.

I have to justify everything I do and everywhere I go.

I have to hope that my tail light isn’t broken if I’m driving (Walter Scott).

I have to think about whether I look “suspicious” and take my hood off if I’m wearing one (Trayvon Martin).

I have to think about whether my cell phone looks like a gun (Stephon Clark).

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I have to think about whether I’ll die even after I’m arrested and in handcuffs and leg shackles (Freddie Gray).

I have to explain and justify my right to exist without appearing “uppity” or “confrontational.”

Every time a black person is executed by police, I’m reminded that I have no guarantee of safety from the people I expect to protect me. I’m reminded of all the times this happened in the past, and wonder if I’m going to be next, and if my death will go viral and spark another movement. Yes, Derek Chauvin and the complicit officers are being punished, and yes, over time, better education and dialogue will hopefully eliminate the evil ideologies that guide people such as Chauvin, but to sit complacently and hope another murder doesn’t happen is unacceptable.

Why It Should Matter To You

There was Eric Garner, who was choked to death in NYC in 2014. Derrick Rose and other NBA players wore “I can’t breathe” shirts after Garner’s death, and were met with responses from people such as “I’m gonna start wearing a shirt that says ‘I can breathe because I obey the law.’”

Your first response when watching the video of his murder shouldn’t be how you would have behaved in the victim’s stead, or how you think you would have complied better. It should be one of horror, questioning how an American citizen, who posed no danger to any of those officers, was pinned to the ground in an American city and choked to death in broad daylight and on camera. It isn’t the responsibility of the person being questioned to de-escalate the situation, it’s the duty of the police officer to use appropriate force. Certainly, in many cases officers have to defend themselves against armed assailants, but choking an unarmed man to death as he cries for help while three other officers pin him is not self-defense, it’s murder. Kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes isn’t self-defense, it’s murder.

There was Philando Castile, who was shot to death after being told to show his license and insurance, after appropriately declaring the licensed gun in his car.

There was Jemel Roberson, a security guard who saved numerous lives at a bar by non-lethally subduing a gunman who had begun firing. When the police arrived, Jemel was holding the gunman at gunpoint, waiting for them to arrive and assist him. They ignored his security uniform, they ignored the crowd of people telling them that Jemel was the good guy, and after a few seconds of yelling at him to get on the ground they shot him five times.

There was Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr., an army recruit with a concealed carry permit, who attempted to stop a mall shooting. In the surveillance video you can tell where the shooting happened (top-left) and you can clearly see Emantic run towards the gunfire, only to be shot from behind three times by two officers.

(Sensitive Image Warning)

Again, it doesn’t matter if you believe you would have responded better. It doesn’t matter what your theory is about what these people could have done to remain alive. What matters is the stark contrast between Philando’s death and videos like this one, where a white man enters his car and grabs a gun, then proceeds to threaten police for a few minutes, before being shot once, in a non-fatal area — Philando was shot seven times in the chest. What matters is the contrast between two heroes like Jemel Roberson and this man who held off a murderer at gunpoint as well — Jemel was shot five times while that man was (rightly) praised as a hero.

Obviously, many of these situations are tense and require immediate action, but the difference in approach suggests a missing standard amongst police officers, and more importantly it demonstrates who is chosen in those snap decisions to be killed, and who is chosen to be incapacitated. George Floyd was in handcuffs and on the ground, posing no danger to anyone. His death wasn’t the result of an officer fearing for his life. It was a deliberate murder, preceded by eight minutes of torture.

No, this isn’t saying that criminals should not be dealt with appropriately. It’s not saying that officers should allow themselves to be killed by dangerous people. If a person is suspected of committing a crime, they should be apprehended. They should be indicted. They should have a trial. They should go to jail. What it’s saying is that when the person is black, the police can’t decide to skip straight to an execution.

So in response to police executions and brutality, Colin Kaepernick knelt in protest and was met with ridicule, called “anti-American” and “anti-military.” Soon thereafter, the discussion shifted to Kaepernick’s hair and whether he had converted to Islam. The morbid irony is that we’re here today discussing a man who was literally knelt on to death.

Lebron James and Kevin Durant shared their thoughts on the President in a podcast, and were asked by Laura Ingraham if they must “run their mouths like that” and told to “shut up and dribble.” They have as much a right as any to share their opinions, and while Laura Ingraham does too, her comments sought to reduce them to unidimensional caricatures of the historical negro who should only exist to serve and entertain.

When the Black Lives Matter movement began gaining traction, it was countered by All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. These counter-movements missed the point entirely, and when people like former Mayor Giuliani of NYC say “Black Lives Matter never protests when every 14 hours someone is killed in Chicago, probably 70–80% of the time by a Black person. Where are they then? Where are they when a young Black child is killed?” they are missing the point.

Yes, it’s easy to deflect attention from police brutality by pointing out violence against black people perpetrated by other black people, but these are two separate issues. Police are a group all Americans deserve to feel safe from and protected by, but the black community doesn’t, and that is at the heart of the protests.

For every law enforcement officer and every citizen, “black lives matter” is a reminder that black lives matter too, not that all lives and blue lives don’t matter, or matter less. It’s about the treatment of black people by law enforcement and the government — institutions which historically have and still continue to value black lives less. Until black lives matter, how can all lives matter?

The protests demanding justice for George Floyd that began just a few days ago are already beginning to be overshadowed by the debate surrounding the rioters and looters. Instead of asking ourselves what legislation we can enact to ensure this murder doesn’t happen in the future, we’re settling for Derek Chauvin’s punishment and focusing on whether the rioting and looting is justified as the conversation about long-term vision and reform begins to fade.

The point is, periodically someone is killed and people take to the streets to demand change. Athletes, actors, community leaders and role models make hashtags, start trends, and use their influence to push for reform and awareness. And every time we organize, we are rebuked and told why we’re wrong to ask for better treatment. Then, something more “newsworthy” occurs, and the narrative focuses on the discourse and discord rather than the underlying problem until someone is murdered again.

It’s frustrating. It’s scary. It’s heartbreaking. You might not agree with those who are protesting, or rioting, and if I can’t convince you otherwise, I ask that you at least understand why it has become so difficult to express oneself by any other means. It feels like the institutions of government and the people in power are unwilling to acknowledge the problem and to implement lasting solutions, no matter what we do. And no, while punishing an officer after a death is justice, it isn’t a lasting solution. We need to codify in law firm deterrents that will prevent these killings from happening in the first place.

The fact that we’re still here, six years after the death of Eric Garner, should make it starkly apparent that change isn’t happening. There are only so many times a person can repeat this cycle before realizing that the status quo isn’t working — that accepting various institutions’ vague promises of “reform” aren’t enough. Something major needs to happen, and happen quickly, before the media switches to the next topic and everyone forgets these events.

As a country we can’t trust the police to appropriately de-escalate a situation and bring someone suspected of a crime to a court of law. Not all police are racist, but throughout our country’s history too many of them have treated and continue to treat all black people as a potential danger, leaving most black people with little choice than to view all police as a potential danger. A group of white citizens armed with semi-automatic weapons filling the state capitol was not perceived as a threat by police officers in Michigan. Now imagine what would happen if a group of all black protesters tried to carry weapons into a government building in Michigan, or anywhere else. When a white man pointing an actual gun at police is dealt with non-lethally, while Stephon Clark is shot twenty times because his cell phone looked like a gun, while Alton Sterling, who was pinned to the ground but allegedly reached for a gun, was shot 6 times at point blank range, while Tamir Rice, a 12 year old with a pellet gun was shot twice at close range even after the 911 caller told the police dispatcher that the gun was probably fake, it’s difficult to believe everyone is afforded equal protection of the law.

Even if you’re not directly affected, or if you believe these murders aren’t race-related, or if you think this is all a conspiracy to stop President Trump from being re-elected, you must concede that we all have a right to due process and a fair trial. George Floyd was not afforded his, and he should not have been murdered over a 20 dollar bill that he may or may not have even known was counterfeit.

As members of the black community, we feel disproportionately targeted by abuse of power, and are outraged because we continue to pay the price for it. Even if you think these police officers aren’t racist, or that police brutality doesn’t affect you, George Floyd’s death should matter to you because the continued dismissal of our Constitution will have frighteningly dystopian consequences for all of us in the future.

(This commentary originally appeared in Medium.com. Levon Brunson is a student at Brown University.)

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