For a brief and shining moment after the spate of high profile needless deaths of black men, although Tamir Rice could hardly be called a “man” yet, it appeared as if we were finally ready to address the “black men are more violent” belief that has animated policing. People of all races and political stripes were seeing cops being too forceful, too violent, too pre-emptively deadly that there was an organic groundswell for “enough.”
Then focus was lost. This is where my old pal, Elie Mystal, would tell me that white people don’t get to tell black people what they are allowed to care about, and he’s right. But it misses the point, that real change grows from a consensus that a racist problem is so bad, so unacceptable, that people are prepared to put aside their interests for the sake of someone else’s. Shouting “racist” at people doesn’t do the trick, no matter how hard you want to believe it should.
But here we are again, following two new deaths, two new videos. Ahmaud Arbery and, more directly on point, George Floyd.
The cops who arrested, and killed, Floyd aren’t dressed in their black battlewear. They look more pudgy than tough. But the knee on Floyd’s neck ought to look familiar, as it’s not an unusual means of holding a guy down. Watch a few takedown videos and it’s a regular sight. This time, the guy said he couldn’t breathe, like Eric Garner. This time, the cops ignored him, like Eric Garner. This time, he died, like Eric Garner.
But unlike the dead men before, the reaction wasn’t to defend the practice and explain why it’s necessary or justified. It wasn’t even to tar Floyd with whatever was available, a prior, a random accusation, anything, no matter how irrelevant, to remind us not to care too much about his killing because he just wasn’t worthy of living. The reaction this time was very different.
Police chiefs across the United States, many of whom have been pushing their officers to de-escalate tense situations and decrease their use of force, responded with disgust Wednesday to the death of George Floyd after an encounter with Minneapolis officers and moved to reassure their communities that they would not tolerate such brutality.
In years past, police officials probably would have called for full, time-consuming investigations and patience from angry citizens until all the facts were in. Not this time.
The knee-jerk response from activists would miss the significance here.
Of course they didn’t because there was video of Floyd being murdered by cops. How could they deny it?
Yet they had in the past, over and over. All that was needed was the tiniest of cracks to exploit. Is it a “choke hold”? Did Tamir Rice look old for his age? Sow the tinest seed of doubt that those looking for a way to excuse the police would latch onto it, repeat it, and at worst calm down the “rush to judgment,” reminding people about Michael Brown in Ferguson, where the investigation suggested the killing wasn’t what everyone believed it to be.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo fired four officers within 24 hours, and the heads of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association promptly issued statements of support for that move and denounced the prolonged suffocation of Floyd captured on cellphone video and soon streamed around the world.
Notably, Chief Arradondo didn’t suspend them pending an investigation, but fired them. Don’t be surprised if they don’t stay fired, as union arbitration will be used to challenge the discharges. Or they will find a new home in a neighboring force. There is a possibility that the cop whose knee killed Floyd may be the subject of criminal charges. Or not.
“The death of Mr. Floyd is deeply disturbing and should be of concern to all Americans,” said the Major Cities Chiefs, headed by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “The officers’ actions are inconsistent with the training and protocols of our profession and MCCA commends Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for his swift and decisive action to terminate the employment of the officers involved.”
No defense of the immobilization technique, even if imperfectly applied. No talk about how police officers face life and death risk on the job and have to make split second decisions. No talk about Floyd being a forgery suspect or whatever else he might have done wrong in his life, real or imagined.
In the scheme of bad cop killings, the Floyd killing was far from the worst. Think of the cop who shot Walter Scott in the back after being stopped for an equipment violation. Here there were talking point, and they didn’t even make a try. It’s almost as if they threw out the cop excuse book.
Floyd apparently was arrested after he was suspected of attempting to pass a counterfeit bill in a Minneapolis business Monday evening, police said. He was then held down on the street, handcuffed and unarmed, with one officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd complained that he couldn’t breathe, as a bystander streamed the video live on Facebook. Floyd appears to become unconscious during the video. The Minneapolis Police Department identified the four officers involved as Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng.
Chief Arradondo gave up four names of four street cops whom the brass condemns. This alone will outrage the rank and file, the street cops who believe that no one who doesn’t walk the mean streets understands them, their job. They scoff at the brass, who concern themselves with politics while the street cops concern themselves with the First Rule of Policing.
“There’ll be a tendency for people to look at that horrible video and say, ‘Nothing has changed,’ ” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which trains police departments nationwide in de-escalation techniques. “And that is so wrong. So much has changed in policing.”
Has it? Has so much changed? Not for George Floyd. But maybe “that horrible video” will galvanize people again, refocus our concerns, particularly the “black guys are more violent” and their lives are less worthy, long enough to make the change real. Forget the trauma of white women wearing hoop earrings and stick with the black guys being killed by cops long enough to put a stop to it.