How can we make sense of the last words spoken by George Floyd? With a law enforcement office kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and other officers looking on, Floyd pleaded, “please, please, please I can’t breathe, please man, please somebody…I can’t move, mama, mama, I can’t, my knee, my nuts, I’m through, I’m through, I’m claustrophobic, my stomach hurt, my neck hurts, everything hurts, some water or something, please, please, I can’t breathe officer, don’t kill me…” (Selections from Avaaz transcript.)
I cannot agree that Floyd’s final words were caused by of “a few bad apples,” as claimed by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. I can only understand them as part of a history of immoral, systemic oppression of people of color masquerading as law enforcement. After all, slavery was “legal,” as was enslavement of Black workers in chain gangs due to a “loophole” in the 13th Amendment. In the late 1800’s police forces grew in size in order to control Black workers. Police encouraged, and participated in, lynch mobs, as Ida B. Wells-Barnett famously documented.
Politicians, demanding “law and order,” encouraged use of attack dogs and batons against civil rights demonstrators in the fifties and sixties, prompting, Martin Luther King, Jr. to condemn “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In 1967 John Smith, a Black cab driver in Newark, NJ, was beaten by police, as was Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, sparking widespread rioting in both cases.
One of the most horrible examples of excessive police force was the 1985 MOVE bombing of a home in Philadelphia killing 11 Black citizens, including five children, aged 7 to 13. The officer who dropped the bomb from a helicopter, Frank Powell, recalls getting the order and thinking, “You want me to do that?” But orders are orders. Tragically, as witnessed these past few months, police forces continue to kill people, even in the middle of a pandemic.
On March 13th, as the pandemic began to paralyze our nation, 26-year-old African American medical worker, Breonna Taylor, was shot eight times by Louisville police who smashed through her front door with a battering ram. Nothing indicates that she did anything wrong. At a time when we desperately need more healing, police too often cause harm and trauma. Law and order must give way to reforms and justice, and George Floyd should have been allowed to breathe.
Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?
Action #1: Resist the president’s dog whistle calls for “law and order” and support you local social justice groups working to build broad-based coalitions to address systemic racism in our police forces.
Action #2: Explore and support Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign proposed by activists associated with Black Lives Matter, in 2015. Strategies include: community oversite, limits on use of force, independet investigations of police misconduct, better training, body cams, and demilitarization.
Action #3: Teach your children and young students to focus not as much on the protests and the violent expressions of the few, but on the underlying causes of the frustration now bubbling over after 400 years.