The Fires This Time and Next

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen anything yet.

–Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in 1967.

We can react with bitterness and division and be trapped by the sins of our past, or we can transform the suffering into progress, we can find redemption.

Bill de Blasio on the police murder of Eric Garner in 2014

Please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over [their head]. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’

Donald Trump “joking” about police brutality in an address to law enforcement officials in Long Island police in 2017

George Floyd is dead, murdered by a policeman while three others stood by and did nothing to protect him.

Eric Garner is dead, murdered by a policeman while at least seven others milled about and did nothing to protect him.

Over the decades, countless and uncounted black men, women, and children have died, killed in the custody of police. Some of these deaths and the preludes to them have been captured by cellphone cameras and uploaded to social media. Many more have not.

Once again, a camera has witnessed to the murder of a black human being at the hands of police. It is not a Deep Fake, nor is it Fake News, though some would prefer that it were. The evidence is clearly documented, as tangible as the breath snatched from Floyd’s lungs and the pleading desperation of his dying gasps. Even if Floyd were the stereotypical unstoppable Black Boogeyman of so many police reports; even if he resisted arrest (a canard that was part of the original police narrative until it was refuted by security cameras); even if prior to being captured in the lens of a 17-year old girl’s cellphone, he had been a gigantic, raging beast high on whatever illicit substance police routinely exploit to justify their assault on black lives, in the video he is subdued, defenseless, pleading for his life to men who refuse to listen, who, to paraphrase FLOTUS, “really don’t care” and never have.

Yet, despite this evidence, the MPD insisted on an “investigation” before belatedly deciding to arrest Derek Chauvin, their aptly named homicidal brother in blue. If you, I, or anyone else, save perhaps Donald Trump, shot someone on Fifth Avenue, it is highly unlikely, videotaped or not, we were arrested on the spot. Everyday black people are arrested and killed for far less. Dylann Roof, the unrepentant killer of nine black people is calmly arrested and treated to a meal at Burger King; Floyd, who may or may not have passed a counterfeit $20 bill, gets an extrajudicial death sentence.

You don’t have to be Warner von Braun – or even Elon Musk – to know how this will end unless the public anger unleashed by Floyd’s murder results in real police reform and substantive changes in the way black lives are regarded in America. The unpleasant fact remains that from 2013-2019, only 1% of cases police killings resulted in criminal charges. In recent years, it has proven even harder to bring charges against police.

These facts alone explain the outrage ignited by the public execution of George Floyd. We have seen it all played out before, though this time passions have reached a national crescendo perhaps not seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King. The murder of Floyd is also, for many Americans, the murder of a dream.

We tend to view violent protest as an unacceptable option, holding up the peaceful civil disobedience of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King as exemplars. Yet, civil conversations and peaceful protests did not lead to the arrest of Derek Chauvin. It was only after property was destroyed that Chauvin — and initially Chauvin alone – was charged and arrested. It was only some nine days after mounting protests – both peaceful and violent – that the other officers involved in his death were finally charged, though the odds that any of them will be convicted are low.

An uncomfortable Truth: Violence provokes change and change is often violent. That violence is never unidirectional. When peaceful protests turn violent, the initial focus is on the protestors, but eventually it shifts to the police and their disproportionate use of force to gain control and “dominate.” We have already seen police from California to Washington D.C. fire flash bangs, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets into peaceful crowds. In New York, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Charlottesville, police plowed two SUVs into protestors, though no fatalities were reported. Police, patrolling the streets like juggernauts, roughing up anyone and everyone in their path with impunity.

Such egregious acts of police violence may be sadly necessary to change hearts and minds by viscerally demonstrating the extent of the problem facing us, as a half century ago, images of baton-wielding police siccing snarling dogs on civil right protesters (an image recently invoked by Trump) convinced many white Americans that change – or the appearance of it– was necessary. State violence sharpens to crystal clarity the reasons behind protests and potentially increases support for them, though at a human cost. Yet, while the use of violence is not unilateral, media inquiries about its use are: initially, the media interrogates protesters about the violence perpetrated in their name, holding them morally obligated to renounce it and presenting it as legitimate grounds for heighten police response; it seldom directs these inquires and expectations toward police. However, as protests mount, police violence escalates, and journalists themselves become its target, this, too, begins to change.

If history teaches us anything, it is that the calculus of power does not sit patiently to engage in conversation and imbibe teachable moments. Instead, like Trump, it lashes out, viciously and predictably, with a call to assert dominance, to grab the nation by the neck; anything else it takes as a sign of weakness.

Sadly, those in positions of power, including so-called progressives, pretend not to realize this. After declaring her “total disgust” with violent protestors, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot went on to reassure “the men and women of our police force [that] I know you are exhausted, but I know you’re risking injury and illness to do your job and I want you to be clear that your city stands with you. We will protect our city and we will protect each other.”

But what of the black communities of Chicago who are also exhausted trying to live while black and who everyday risk injury and illness by just living in a racist society where police violence is both routine and routinely ignored? “Protect each other”? Tell that to the family of Laquan McDonald. Tell it to the families of Paul O’Neal,  Quintonio LeGrier, and Bettie Jones, and hundreds more. According to a 2017 Justice Department investigation, the police department that Lightfoot is so eager to praise has a “pervasive cover-up culture, which the accountability entities accept as an immutable fact rather than something to root out” and “uses of excessive force” it identifies “were not aberrational” (emphasis mine). This does not sound like a culture of heroes sworn to protect the communities they serve. (As the protests escalated, Lightfoot has since proposed CPD reforms, including civilian oversight that its union opposes.) And while everyone and everyone from Antifa to police undercover agents to white supremacists has been blamed for the violence, research has shown that the police response to peaceful protests often turns them into violent ones.

This is not to say there are no decent cops, but they remain cogs in a brutal, corrupt, and unjust system that refuses to reform itself in any meaningful way. Scenes of cops dropping to take a knee or removing their body armor in support of protestors are powerful, but how many would stand up to colleagues who abused their power. A sobering 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice found that “even though police do not believe in protecting wrong doers, they often do not turn them in.” As Trump might tweet, No one likes a RAT. Instead, they rally round them, like the cops in Buffalo, New York who resigned from their riot control squad (while remaining on the force itself) to support colleagues who were suspended (not fired, mind you! – for that to happen, we will apparently have to wait for the “investigation”) for violently shoving a 75-year-old white man to the ground and cracking his skull. The official police statement said the man “tripped & fell.”

Earlier, in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who in 2014 spoke of the power of transformation, threw his support behind “New York’s Finest,” even as they plowed their SUVs into protestors. De Blasio urged that the police not be dehumanized, yet their actions in the wake of nationwide protests have demonstrated the extent of the contempt with which they hold those whom they are ostensibly charged “to protect and serve.”

On the national level, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien has denied that “systemic racism” plagues the nation’s police departments, maintaining that “99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans. And many of them are African American, Hispanic, Asian – they’re working the toughest neighborhoods.” However, O’Brien fails to acknowledge that some of these “great Americans,” like three black of the six officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray and other melanated kapo, are equally complicit in the beating and killing of residents of those communities.

What is forgotten in the rush to appease is the fact that these false narratives, some defying credulity, recycle perdurable tropes of black pathology perpetuated by an emboldened, militarized police force that attempts to protect itself from censure and maintain the myth of benevolent guardianship. Floyd, the earlier narrative went, “resisted arrest.” His death, we are led to believe, was not the result of police brutality but his own pathological blackness: According to a prelimary autopsy performed by the state medical examiner, Floyd did not die from asphyxiation but from a combination of being restrained and preexisting health conditions. In the end, Floyd was complicit in his own death.

We’ve heard this lie before. The medical examiner in the Eric Garner case testified that Garner died of “asthma” and was “predisposed to morbidity and mortality,” concluding that his death was “brought on by a heated argument followed by a physical struggle” and that a healthy person could have survived the chokehold. This verbal legerdemain resembles the “medical incident” police initially reported Floyd suffered, conveniently omitting the causes leading up to it.

As in the Garner case, when Chauvin goes on trial, it will be argued that pre-mediation was not a factor in Floyd’s murder, as if these “highly trained” professionals were unaware that the hold could have lethal consequences. This despite that fact both Floyd and those on the scene warned the officers of as much. The fact police ignored their pleas is less a reflection of the quality of their training than the authoritarian mentality that now freely exercises itself in cities across the nation as police stage violent confrontations with peaceful protestors and, increasingly, journalists.

Like our autocratic president, not only do police departments across the nation think protestors are “thugs” who deserve abusive treatment (recall that they greeted Trump’s “joke” about police brutality with both laughter and applause), they view protests as battlespaces and the journalists covering them as enemies of the people. Again, this isn’t surprising: Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange have shown us what happens to journalists (and civilians) in warzones when they bear witness to American atrocities.

Having said that, it is not that the media is faultless, though their faults are not those of intimidation and violent excess but of hubris and naiveté. As I write, George Floyd’s body has yet to be interred, but already the mainstream media has shifted its focus from the belated recognition of his humanity to the celebration of its own. It is jarring when the media focuses attention on the tears of its journalists. Yes, they human beings too; there is nothing wrong with them displaying that humanity on air and allowing those tears to stand as eloquent testimony of national trauma. But those moments, as moving as they are, should not be reduced to clickbait headlines. Perhaps in an attempt to humanize itself in the eyes of Americans who have swallowed Trump’s labelling journalists the “enemy of the people,” the media have felt the need to demonstrate that they cry – and bleed. And while the public may not have totally fallen for Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, the police appear to have swallowed it whole. In city after city, reporters covering the demonstrations have been arrested and brutalized.

However, neither tears nor prayers offer effective solutions to the problems of race and policing and the collective trauma inflicted on black and brown lives in America. And it is this collective, intergenerational trauma that concerns me most. I worry about the psychic trauma constant, repeated images of black death, including recycled images of Floyd’s brutal murder, have on black children and those who witness in real time the callous disregard with which black life is held. When tragedies like Sandy Hook and Parkland strike, personalized stories of how these events impact white children follow. But where are the probing interviews with black children that explore their pain, lay bare the depths of their collective grief and trauma, and give voice to their hopes and dreams? Dreams that are not deferred but interred with every black and brown body struck down by police violence and white paranoia, indifference, and silence.

Imagine living in a country that proudly touts itself the “greatest on earth” where you are viewed as a threat, a thug, another kill notch on a police belt. It will take more than riots and peaceful protests to set things right, for despite the illusion of progress, the pendulum always seems to swing back to the past, a past that has actually never passed, promising more fires the next time, and the next…