American Plague

Racism, our untreated pre-existing condition, is killing both black people and the nation itself

Police in riot gear react to demonstrators as they gather to protest the death of George Floyd near the White House on Sunday, May 31st, 2020.Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Image

By Jamil Smith

It was just a week ago now that Derek Chauvin, then still employed as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed his left knee into the neck of George Floyd for what, on video, seemed like an interminable amount of time. It was a total of eight minutes and 46 seconds, nearly three minutes of which were after Floyd became unresponsive, long after pleadings like “Please, I can’t breathe” and “Mama” went silent.

Hennepin County’s district attorney, Michael Freeman, listed that precise timing in the criminal complaint he filed Friday. He charged Chauvin, the only one of the four officers involved who authorities have arrested thus far, with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. This move didn’t slow down the protests a bit, perhaps because they are about more than Floyd’s murder. Political strategist Patrisse Cullors, the founder of Reform LA Jails and one of the co-originators of the Black Lives Matter movement, told Rolling Stone after Chauvin’s arrest, “In order to have true accountability we must defund the police and redirect those dollars to a national health care system. We have prioritized an economy of violence and terror over an economy of care.”

Cullors’ remark only underscored what a public-health crisis police violence remains. That was increasingly evident in the preliminary details from the county medical examiner’s autopsy, appearing at the end of Freeman’s complaint: “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease. The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.” (The Floyd family requested an independent autopsy, and early findings released Monday contradicted the medical examiner. His homicide was the result of “asphyxia due to neck and blood flow to the brain,” with the weight placed on his back and his body positioning also being contributing factors.)

The one arrest was never going to stop the swelling rebellion against systemically racist and homicidal law enforcement in this country. But before arresting or charging any of the other three former officers for their culpability, the prosecutor counted the victim’s own health as an accomplice.

If we are to examine what and who killed George Floyd, we have to talk about racism, America’s pre-existing condition. It is a cultural pandemic that has been steadily killing this country and, indeed, rotting away the very idea of America since chattel slavery began more than 400 years ago. Much like the people who were exploited for free labor in order to build this country, the cause of its death may have been more natural had racism not introduced certain comorbidities.

A police officer reacts as protesters try to break through a police blockade during protests over the Minnesota arrest of George Floyd, who later died in police custody, in Los Angeles, California, USA, 29 May 2020. A bystander’s video posted online on 25 May, appeared to show George Floyd, 46, pleading with arresting officers that he couldn’t breathe as an officer knelt on his neck. The unarmed black man later died in police custody. On 29 May, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced third degree murder charges against the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd.Police abuse protest in wake of George Floyd death, in Los Angeles, USA – 29 May 2020

A police officer reacts as protesters try to break through a police blockade in Los Angeles over the death of George Floyd.

Right now, the coronavirus and the police are posing lethal threats to protesters. COVID-19 is still killing black people disproportionately, at about three times the rate of white people nationwide. The rates vary for police violence; black people in Minnesota are 20 percent of those killed by law enforcement, despite being only five percent of the population. Both the virus and the violence have also been weaponized against black folks in very public ways of late. How many people took risks with the virus on Memorial Day weekend, carelessly disregarding the provably inordinate risk to black communities? How many then joined the protests this past week and actually claimed that they’re fighting for black survival? How many cops keep shooting tear gas at people during a pandemic that strikes at the lungs, giving a newly tragic resonance to “I can’t breathe”?

The inordinate jeopardy black people are facing during the pandemic was not enough to keep restaurants and stores closed and people masked and isolating, but now municipalities are issuing curfews and businesses are boarding up because of what, still, have been largely peaceful protests against state power. And city governments are paying police overtime out of strained city budgets to protect property, not people. This is all happening as white demonstrators loaded assault weapons to force legislators to open bowling alleys and barbershops, and barely anyone in power batted an eye. Certainly, the police didn’t.

Alternatively throughout its history, America has suffered both from collective inabilities and refusals to fix or even recognize the problem of racism, particularly within law enforcement. Nowhere is this more evident, perhaps, than the addiction of cities to a system of policing that needs to be entirely reconsidered. Money that cities and states could use to rebuild communities is instead spent on more law enforcement.

While Republicans in particular promote police violence, politicians of every stripe alike drench it with funding, to the tune of more than $100 billion per year. In Minneapolis, a police force that killed black people at a rate more than 13 times higher than their white counterparts from 2013 to 2019 got a boost from the budget of Mayor Jacob Frey — who President Trump would now have you believe is some liberal afraid to get tough with protesters. The Democratic mayor’s budget at the end of last year increased the Minneapolis Police Department’s funding by $2.4 million for the purposes of hiring 14 additional officers. “We know that every dollar we give to MPD is a dollar we’re not investing in actual violence prevention,” a member of the Reclaim the Block Coalition told WCCO-TV before the passage of Frey’s $1.62 billion budget.

The corrosive nature of racism has been evident of late not just in policy, but in individual behavior, as well. Amy Cooper’s deception in that Central Park video, strangling her dog as she threatens to sic the cops on birdwatcher Christian Cooper, is as frightening as the blissful apathy of the white folks following President Trump’s urging to “re-open” America during an ongoing pandemic. Unemployment is skyrocketing, a housing crisis is around the corner, and the impact of all this calamity is worse for communities of color. Meanwhile, the entire nation sways to the wayward whims of the president’s Twitter account.

The white nationalism of this era, along with the grotesque nature of Floyd’s murder, have surely nationalized the street protests in a way perhaps unseen since the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising six years ago. The president, hearkening back to the days of his Central Park Five ad, repeatedly invited more violence and condemned protesters with the coded language of “thugs.” He even threatened to violate the Posse Comitatus Act and send the U.S. military into cities to quell citizen unrest with live ammunition. Having directly encouraged police violence during a 2017 speech to officers, Donald Trump saw unrest made violent largely by the very cops he’d told to treat suspects roughly. Trump later evoked the disgrace of former LAPD chief Daryl Gates abandoning his post during the 1992 L.A. uprising — hiding inside his White House bunker briefly this weekend. Was he in any real danger? Please. This was reality-show grandstanding in the place of a president being present for his country. Rather than lead, Trump hid and pretended to be the victim, even with the memory of Floyd’s murder fresh in our minds.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: