Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A nation burns after the winter of our delay

Below is my column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.
It seemed that circumstances in our country could not get more difficult, more tense and more painful.
Over the past several months, we have sought to survive under a pandemic that has claimed over 100,000 lives, infected nearly 2 million people and raised the unemployment rate to a Depression-era 14.7 percent. The advice of medical experts has been rejected in an unprecedented and partisan manner by many people, turning following the advice of doctors and epidemiologists into a political litmus test.
It seemed that circumstances could not get more difficult.\
Then a deli in Minneapolis called the police because they believed the $20 bill that a patron, George Floyd, was using to buy his dinner was counterfeit. Eventually, four officers in total responded to this incident. Police have said that Floyd resisted and that he “appeared to be under the influence.” A security camera from a nearby restaurant shows two officers removing him from the vehicle, handcuffing him and bringing him to the sidewalk where they sit him down. After a third officer arrives, they bring him to a vehicle but he fell to the ground. The officers have claimed he intentionally fell to the ground to avoid getting into the police vehicle, but the video does not clearly show this to be the case.
Then, while handcuffed and lying on the ground, Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his right knee against Floyd’s neck – an illegal police procedure – while casually keeping his left hand in his pocket. Former police officers and use-of-force experts have criticized the knee on Floyd’s neck and the casual postures as horrific and a blatant disregard of police procedure.
Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. During that time, Floyd repeatedly told the officer, “Please” and “I can’t breathe.” You can hear him moaning, groaning and sobbing. Bystanders urged the police to let him go, to get him into the back of a car, anything.
Floyd told Officer Chauvin, “I’m about to die.” In response, Officer Chauvin told him to relax. The police asked what he wanted and he said, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.” After a bit more time, Floyd cried out, “Mama!” He said, “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts.” He asked for water, and was given none. There is no indication of the police saying anything to Floyd’s cries for help, including when he begs them, “Don’t kill me.”
Floyd then went silent and became unresponsive. After he was unresponsive, Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s next for another two minutes and 53 seconds. He did not remove his knee until an emergency service (EMS) vehicle arrived, at which point EMS placed Floyd’s unresponsive body on a stretcher. Contrary to the preliminary results from the official autopsy, which said underlying conditions had been at fault, an independent one has now determined asphyxiation as the cause of death.
George Floyd now joins an uncomfortably long list of names. Sean Reed. Breonna Taylor. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Alton Sterling. Sandra Bland. Atatiana Jefferson. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Keith Childress. Stephon Clark. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Walter Scott. Antwon Rose Jr. Keith Scott. Jonathan Ferrell. Jordan Edwards. Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Terrence Crutcher. John Crawford. Oscar Grant. Corey Jones. All of these people had their lived ended by police officers. They had no due process. Many were innocent of any wrongdoing.
Furthermore, white people and their fear of black bodies has resulted in the deaths of so many others. Trayvon Martin. Ahmaud Arbery. The Charleston 9. Renisha McBride. Jordan Davis. And thousands of thousands throughout the history of our country, many whose names will never be known.
It’s not surprising that Black America – and those who share the outrage of our black siblings – has erupted. Many of the protests that have taken place across the country have been marked by their nonviolence. Indeed, in our own state, in cities like Muskegon and Flint, police officers have not greeted protestors with riot gear and tear gas. Instead, they have said they share the outrage of the protestors and have sought to form deeper bonds and demand true justice. In several areas where the protests turned violent (including Grand Rapids), video and witness evidence indicates that a few white outsiders did the vast amount of the violence – whether out of an anarchist disdain for police or a twisted desire to discredit the protests, we don’t know.
And, yes, some originally nonviolent protestors felt their rage boil over. The response of many in leadership has made it clear that far too many in our country value buildings and personal property over the continued slaughter of black bodies. Our country has looted any possible wealth and path to prosperity that people of color might have for years, for decades, for more than a century. We have looted the livelihood of people and color. Why are we surprised at the anger when those in authority take it a step further and kill their sons and daughters?
Two weeks after the California Watts riots of 1965 and the race riots in Harlem in 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to explain the cause of rioting to a white audience. He was clear, “Riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. ... But, in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
We must turn from our winters of delay. The cause of racial justice, the reform of police practices, and the willingness to take a hard look at our own internal conscious and unconscious biases must not be a partisan task. Every single one of us, no matter the side of the aisle we sit on, must engage in self-examination, repentance and the very hard questions of what must be done to begin making this right.
Our country is bleeding, but the black parts of our country have been bleeding for quite a while, and very few paid attention. Hopefully, you are paying attention now. Hopefully, it is not too late.