By Maria Lebron, June 2020
In response to the death of George Floyd, there have been protests in the U.S. not seen since the 1960s. There is some speculation as to why the death of George Floyd has sparked such a movement, not only in the U.S. but internationally. There are thoughts that this is due to the convergence of the continuing deaths of Black men and women by the police, the emergence from a pandemic lockdown, a disastrous economy, high unemployment, and polarized politics. I agree these may have all played a factor, but I believe the main reason was the death of George Floyd made us witnesses to a cold-blooded murder in a way we were unable to ignore.
Watching the video of George Floyd’s death is gruesome and it made us witnesses to Mr. Floyd’s death as if we were standing in the street next to the other witnesses. The different videos taken that day prove that Mr. Floyd was not resisting, was unarmed, and was incapacitated. We were able to look directly at the face of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. We heard Mr. Floyd plead and beg for his life. We heard Mr. Floyd call out to his dead mother as he realized he was dying.
We witnessed a blatant disregard for human life and dignity. We witnessed Derek Chauvin keep his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost three minutes after his body became unresponsive. We witnessed Derek Chauvin and the other officers ignore pleas from the witnesses that they would kill Mr. Floyd. We witnessed the officers ignore pleas to check Mr. Floyd’s pulse. The hatred and defiance on Derek Chauvin’s face is hard to justify or understand. It’s impossible to witness the defiant and unflinching stare of Derek Chauvin and feel he was in fear for his life or felt threatened. What is clear is that Derek Chauvin didn’t feel he would be held accountable for his actions. As we watched, we realized those officers would have ignored our pleas to stop and help Mr. Floyd as well. It’s hard to watch all of the videos and feel that the events are ambiguous.
There were three officers besides Derek Chauvin at the scene, two of whom it appears also knelt on George Floyd’s back and legs while the other officer kept the witnesses at bay. In what may be a hint of a defense, it appears two of the officers were new to the force and under the direction of senior officer Chauvin. We have heard the defense of “just following orders” in many different situations and it is not an excuse for one’s behavior or decisions. The fact that four men didn’t feel there was something wrong or something they could do differently is even more reason to demand police reform.
The protests which began after George Floyd’s death were huge, diverse, and powerful. Many people felt compelled to take some action after being a witness to such gruesome and callous behavior by the police. In a very short time, public sentiment shifted to support the Black Lives Matter movement and protest against the racism and bias which has been a part of the history of the police force since slavery. Many White people were open and empathic to understanding how systemic racism, white privilege, and racial bias has negatively affected Black people for hundreds of years.
Many of us again became witnesses to this racism and bias when we saw the reactions and behavior of some of the police at what were mainly peaceful protests. When a peaceful protest becomes militarized, it is a frightening experience and things can quickly escalate. Many watched live as protestors and reporters were attacked with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, etc. We witnessed peaceful protestors violently attacked, shoved to the ground, pepper sprayed directly in the face, forcibly removed from cars, and tasered. We witnessed a Black reporter get arrested in the middle of a broadcast, and when the reporter respectfully asked why, the response from the officer was he was just following orders.
Black people have been cautioned how to act around the police, how to comply, how not to do anything that could endanger their lives. People are angry because it doesn’t matter. George Floyd called Derek Chauvin “sir” even as Chauvin was killing him. Many people have been killed by the police weren’t resisting, were running away, were sleeping, were handcuffed, etc. Black bodies are often seen as threatening no matter what the circumstances. Tamir Rice was a 12 year old boy who was killed by the police within minutes of them arriving on the scene. They claim to have thought his toy gun was real. Part of the defense was that the description that he was “probably a juvenile” didn’t get relayed to the officers.
In a podcast which spoke about the life of George Floyd, one of his friends said that Mr. Floyd wanted “to be big.” Mr. Floyd sparked a movement which not only demanded justice for Mr. Floyd, but continues to demand and inspire much needed change. In a very short time, actions have taken place, and the movement continues to ask us to examine and change the systemic racism which has been a part of our country for four hundred years.
It is clear that police reform is needed. While there has been unbelievable unity around the concepts of Black Lives Matter and ending systemic racism and police brutality, there has been some divisiveness regarding the issue of police reform. There have been misunderstandings and misinformation regarding the idea of “abolish the police” which is being used by the President and some media to incite and distract. I hope it doesn’t. No, not all officers are bad but that’s not the point, and this movement needs to keep demanding racial equality. Part of that racial equality means dismantling the systemic racism which has been a part of the history of the police, justice system, and prison system. This will be a lot of work, but it can happen if we keep staring into the eyes of Derek Chauvin.