I haven’t watched the video. I don’t think I can.
Since the footage emerged of George Floyd dying at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests have erupted in cities across America. Some have seen violence reminiscent of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Protestors outside the White House in Washington DC were met with teargas and batons. The tinderbox has been fully ignited. There hasn’t been a civil disturbance like this, in multiple cities, since the late 1960s. In London thousands turned out to protest in support of Black Lives Matter. People have gone onto the streets and made their voices heard as far away as New Zealand. Social media is heaving with sadness and outrage at what has happened. The calls for justice are relentless. It feels like we are living through history.
We have been here before. Black people dying after interacting with law enforcement. Sean Bell, 23. Sandra Bland, 28. Michael Brown, 18. Philando Castile, 32. Jamar Clark, 24. Amadou Diallo, 23. Eric Garner, 43. Freddie Gray, 25. Laquan McDonald, 17. Tamir Rice, 12. Walter Scott, 50. The UK has its record of shame too. Christopher Alder, 36. Joy Gardner, 40. Cynthia Jarrett, 49. Oluwashijibomi Lapite, 34. Sean Rigg, 40. Colin Roach, 21. Roger Sylvester, 30. So many more. The list you wish would end feels like it never will.
I remember once attending an event where a prominent African-American journalist was giving a talk about her career. I struck up a conversation with her and she told me about ‘The Talk’ that African-American parents have with their children — that being black means you are a target and you should be careful when you talk to the police. No doubt many will be sitting their children down again this week.
My jaws still clench whenever I see a police car. I’ve been arrested on two occasions for bearing a resemblance to someone who was being looked for. During one, when I was 14, I was slammed onto a car bonnet by a police officer and had scars on my wrist from handcuffs that took years to fade. I was convinced a helicopter once followed me for half an hour when I walked home from visiting my mum’s grave. Knowing I had nothing to hide was not enough for me to feel safe.
But I didn’t need to go through that to be horrified about how George Floyd’s life ended. Nobody does. I’ve never understood or agreed with the notion that we have become desensitised to violence. This week has shown we are anything but. People haven’t marched in such numbers because they feel indifferent to seeing the life being sucked out of a 46 year-old man while he cries out for his dead mother. They’ve marched because they’re outraged. This has touched everyone.
The challenge now, as always at a time like this, is what comes next?
I wish I knew. Despite how momentous this all feels, there is a creeping worry that it seems too common, too normal, and that once the last of the protesters have gone home the status quo will return and black parents will carry on giving ‘The Talk’ the way they always have. No prison sentence for the police officer who has been charged or millions of dollars in compensation will be enough to match the grief George Floyd’s family is going through. But if we are to truly get to the heart of why George Floyd and so many others died, and if we are to have any hope of stopping this, America needs to have a definitive reckoning about the moral debt it owes to black people.
Lots has happened in recent years and now and again society nudges forward. America has shown it is capable of lifting what W.E.B. Du Bois called ‘the veil’ and trying to fix long-embedded racial inequality. In Congress there has been a rare bipartisan effort to bring about sentencing reform. The War on Drugs, which did so much to create America’s ‘incarceration culture’ that tore into black communities, can now be seen as a monumental failure. Exoneration projects are helping free prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes. The case for reparations has entered the mainstream. One by one, confederate statues are coming down across the south. Barack Obama got a second term.
But still, George Floyd died in America. America, where two nations exist, separate and unequal. America, in cities where being black means you could be as likely to end up in prison as in college. America, where people marching in their cities distrust a police force that is largely made up of white officers who live outside the city boundaries. America, where so many feel powerless and feel they have nothing left to lose. In coming days and weeks polling firms will try and give an insight into what the public makes of the situation. Whatever they throw up, this week cannot be breezily dismissed as another skirmish that, one way or another, has simply been dealt with. This is far bigger.
Are you shocked to see people who have had their prospects destroyed resort to destroying the buildings around them? When society has you marked from day one, what stake can you claim in the world? Still, the violence is tragic and can’t go on. I have no idea if outside groups with agendas of their own have infiltrated the protests. Regardless, it is black communities that will suffer, whoever is torching them. The longer it’s the number one news item, the worse the blowback. The moment will be lost. Atlanta’s own Killer Mike stood before reporters and gave one of the most heartfelt speeches I’ve ever seen, hearing people but urging them not to wreak havoc on their own communities. People want to fix this the right way.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr used to talk about the “fierce urgency of now”, not waiting for tomorrow when we have today. But right now, in this moment, is America going to take that step? Where is it going to come from? Presidents of the United States are sometimes called the “consoler-in-chief” and have found the words for a nation in shock during difficult times. Look at Obama singing Amazing Grace during a eulogy for the nine African-American parishioners killed by a white supremacist in their South Carolina church. What was Obama looking to do as he stood in the pulpit? Simple: bring people together. It was one of the most powerful moments of his presidency. Alas, the current occupant of the White House, true to form, fails to rise to events and instead finds comfort in his baser, primeval instincts.
Donald Trump stands in the Rose Garden, beats his chest and declares “I am your law and order President.” He threatens, and even goads, protesters. On a call with state governors, he went full General Patton and talked about the need to “dominate the battlespace” — leaving us under no illusion about how he views the situation. Behind in the polls and unable to talk about the tanking economy, he thinks going hard on law and order (or maybe just order) will get him re-elected in November. Be tough, demonise protesters, exploit people’s fears, call opponents soft — do what Richard Nixon did in 1968. It worked then, so will it work this time? We will see.
But whatever he does, this last week has been about more than just America in the Age of Donald Trump; the might of the state was pressing against black people’s necks long before he lied and insulted his way to the White House. It is about what is there and has always been there — the reality of being black and American. Joseph R. Biden Jr, running against Trump, seemed to want a “return to normalcy”, but now looks to have begun his shift away from that with some powerful words in a speech in Philadelphia. The truth of the matter is, American can’t go back. A return to anything won’t come close to fixing the rot at its heart. Precisely what will fix it is a subject of its own, but the reckoning has to happen. This latest tragedy comes against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed over 100,000 people, so far, and an economy that has shed 40 million jobs in 10 weeks. And there is the prospect of a closely-fought election in a few months. If this isn’t a watershed moment for America, what is?
Dr King, whose assassination in 1968 sparked civil unrest in several cities, once said “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?”
Good question. Now let’s answer it.
Rest in Peace, George Floyd.