In the modern era, the satirical news website The Onion can feel more accurate than The New York Times. There’s an article they repost after every mass shooting in the United States where the headline reads: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
The headline refers to the ubiquity of mass shootings in the United States, but it could just as well refers to acts of police violence against minorities and, in particular, black Americans. How many names do you remember?
George Floyd, forced to the ground by Office Derek Chauvin and pinned there, Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and begged for help from his recently-deceased mother. Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Breanna Taylor, woken in her sleep by police officers breaking into her Louisville home in the dead of night. She was shot eight times. In her own home. March 13, 2020.
Ahmaud Arbery, murdered while jogging by two white vigilantes. They hunted him down in their pickup truck, blew him away at close range with a shotgun blast, then whined that it was an act of self-defense. February 23, 2020.
Philando Castile, pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop. Yanez shot Castile five times at point-blank range. Castile was only reaching for his driver’s license. July 6, 2016.
Tamir Rice, shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann while playing in a park. Rice had a toy gun; Loehmann saw a deadly weapon, and fired before issuing any warning. Rice was a child. He was just twelve years old. November 22, 2014.
Eric Garner, a father of six, murdered by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in a confrontation that was caught on video. Garner’s last words as he was locked in Pantaleo’s chokehold reverberated across a wounded nation: I Can’t Breathe. July 17, 2014.
Michael Brown, 18 years old, shot in the streets of Ferguson, MO by Officer Darren Wilson. After being fired upon, Brown put up his hands, the universal sign of surrender. Wilson fired again, and again, and again. Brown’s body was left in the street for hours. August 9, 2014.
Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, despite the fact that an individual–presumably Martin–was crying for help on 911 recordings of the incident, before his cries were silenced by the blast of a gunshot. February 26, 2012.
How many names do you remember? How many more have you forgotten? How many instances of racial violence, of police brutality, have gone unnoticed, unwatched, unanswered?
How many more before this ends?
This moment feels different. Previous protests, like those that occurred after the shooting of Michael Brown, took place in areas with large populations of black Americans. Even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was concentrated in the South, where segregation and Jim Crow were twin tyrants of injustice. Now, protests are forming organically all across the United States, as this interactive from Al-Jazeera demonstrates. Protests have occurred in Boise (2.12% black American) and Salt Lake City (1.94% black American). Near me, in the town of La Crescenta-Montrose, there was a small Black Lives Matter gathering on Wednesday. Just 0.19% of the town identifies as black American.
I am not insinuating that white voices matter more than black voices, or that white voices are more important on this issue. What I am arguing is that black Americans crying out for injustice are finally being heard. When black Americans first began saying “Black Lives Matter,” many whites responded with the pollyanna admonition that “all lives matter.” The shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement had enough ambiguity that centrist whites could meekly ride the fence of bothsideism.
Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd has no ambiguity. Cellphone videos have cut through the doubt to expose the hate. Chauvin’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The knee of oppression has been on the neck of black Americans for far longer than that. Black Americans have been saying that they can’t breathe. White Americans are starting to understand why.
It is in many respects a perfect storm. The murder of George Floyd follows closely on the heels of high-profile cases of racialized violence including the murders of Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. President Donald Trump’s hateful and divisive rhetoric has stoked preexisting racial animosities extant in America. His actions are the lighter fluid on a pyre constructed over 400 years of slavery and white supremacy. 2020 has been an oppressive year for all Americans as the spread of coronavirus has forced many into unemployment and informal house arrest. With the murder of George Floyd, the tinderbox blazed into an inferno.
But while the moment feels different, the movement has been slow. We finally recognize the fire. We finally realize that the world is alight because we constructed our house out of rotten wood. But we have done little more than come to the conclusion that the fire is a problem.
Take the plethora of statements issued by businesses, sports teams, and celebrities alike. A select few have been thoughtful and incisive. The statement released by ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s recognized that the unrest “was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy.” Most, however, took a course of action like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. He tweeted his favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quote and accompanied it with a milquetoast platitude that justice is good and racism is bad.
Other corporate statements have been so poorly constructed as to be farcical. The Washington Redskins tweeted a black square in support of Blackout Tuesday, but as many internet commenters remarked, the more effective statement would have been blacking out their racist logo. The National Football League was one of the first organizations to tweet out a statement, but the statement did not include a single mention of police brutality or–more shockingly–racism. Colin Kaepernick, eat your heart out.
Remember: corporations are not moral. The people who run them may well be, and aspects of businesses may come to adopt the moralities of their founders, but corporations exist solely to make money. All their actions, all their statements, are to facilitate a successful, profitable business, or at the very least do no harm to that business. It is striking, then, that where few corporations spoke out after the murder of Michael Brown, every corporation feels obligated to issue some sort of statement today. They fear that their businesses will be negatively tarred as enablers and tacit supporters of racial violence if they don’t come out–even in the weakest terms–against racism. They feel like they have to say something that says nothing, rather than say nothing at all.
The protests are saying more. They are marching for racial justice and against police brutality. They are taking a firm stance that the behavior of officers like Derek Chauvin cannot be tolerated anymore; that the prejudices inherent in the American policing system must be eradicated. Their actions have forced us all to listen, and prompted many of us to join them and act.
But to a degree, their actions too have been short of substance. They demand racial justice. They demand an end to racialized police brutality. How, exactly, are those demands going to be met? How are those changes going to be actualized?
That is the central weakness of such a diffuse movement. Black Lives Matter and the wider initiatives for racial justice are true grassroots movements, emerging from the combined efforts of concerned citizens. But their lack of leadership and centralized oragnization limits their ability to enact change at the policy level. A similar problem hampered the Occupy Wall Street movement in the early 2010s. While they had a broad issue they were protesting against–in their case, economic inequality–they struggled to enunciate specific reforms they were protesting for.
Some proposed reforms are starting to enter the public conversation. Three lawyers representing the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd have called for congressional hearings on police brutality and a national task force to investigate cases of police misconduct. Civil rights activists in Dallas County sent a list of demands to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. The ten demands include explicit suggestions to reallocate resources to communal support programs rather than law enforcement efforts and advocates adoption of more stringent regulations meant to improve police accountability.
Calls for defunding police forces across the United States are also gaining traction. In 2017, more than $100 billion was spent on police forces across the United States. During the War on Terror in the 2000s, police forces spent millions on purchasing new equipment to improve their domestic counterterrorism responses. These high-powered weapons have far too frequently been deployed during standard policing patrols, the proverbial M-16s at the knife fights. Activists want a reallocation of government funds towards social programs meant to increase communal prosperity and engagement. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed a $250 million fund redistribution across the city’s budget to emphasize “jobs, and health and education and healing.” Between $100 and $150 million of the changes will come from the police budget, though both the cuts and the proposed new programs are in the early stages of development.
For real change to emerge from this moment, protesters must become activists. It is not enough to be against something; the mayonnaise corporate statements demonstrate that we can all link arms to condemn racism. We must take our righteous anger and direct it towards productive ends. We must be for something.
We must research and find productive solutions to solve police brutality and the unequal treatment of black Americans in the criminal justice system. We must develop concrete proposals to create the changes we want to enact. We must work with local, state, and federal officials to convince them that our ideas will end the oppressive injustices that stalk black Americans throughout their daily lives. And we must–yes, we must–work with law enforcement officials to pass reforms that lionize their role as servants of the community, rather than protectors.
No reform, not even a series of reforms, will eradicate the scourge of racism from our societies. That requires changes in our everyday lives. That requires dismantling the racist structures present in our societies, from unequal pay for black workers to segregated housing districts in urban areas. That requires hard conversations with our neighbors on everday social interactions and comments. That requires harder conversations with ourselves to analyze the assumptions that we cling to and the privileges we have inherited merely because of the color of our skin.
All of those reforms, though, require substance. It is not enough to be against police brutality; it is not enough to wish that no other black American has to endure what George Floyd endured. We have to be for something.
We have realized the problems we have to solve. Now, we have to figure out how to solve them. As former President Barack Obama wrote in his remarks on the protests: “Let’s get to work.”