Still from body cam footage of the arrest of George Floyd.
The difficulty of speaking about this “historical moment” is that the “moment” has been going on for 400 years, featuring a lot of speaking and almost no structural change. There is everything to say. There is nothing to say. It’s all been said. It all must be said again. Words cannot express the rage we feel. Yet, words are all we have to express our rage. Words and the street. Who will hear us? What will it matter? The words have spoken. The flames have been lit. The street has burned before. It will burn again. What has changed? What will change? How can it be made to happen?
The body count stubbornly remains the same, year after year. A thousand a year people killed by cops in the US. With body cameras and without. With community policing and without. With stop-and-frisk or without. Before broken windows policing and after. Before Black Lives Matter and after. We’ve seen it play out again and again. Heard the cries for breath. Seen the hands help up. Watched the fear in the faces. Listened to the sermons of contrition and vows for reform. Since Michael Brown was murdered by Ferguson police on August 9, 2014, police have killed nearly 6000 people in the US. Despite six years of protests and vows of reform from liberal politicians, the blood flows, year after year at the same rate, almost to the ounce.
I am struck by the horrible trivialness of these recent murderous episodes. A man shot for jogging away from a house under construction. Shot by a former detective, acting as a hired gun for a white neighborhood in Georgia. A medical technician shot in her bed in Louisville when cops broke into her house on a no-knock drug raid, guns blazing. They had targeted her boyfriend. But they didn’t care who they shot. A man buys a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis. The clerk says there’s something funny about the paper. He apologizes and hands back the pack of smokes. The clerk calls the cops. They find him sitting in his car, pull him out, hold him down, knee pressed to his throat. He pleads for his life, screams he can’t breathe, passes out. The knee remains thrust on his throat for another two minutes and fifty seconds. Eight minutes in total. The time it talks to walk a half mile. The time it takes to boil pasta. The length of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Why? Why do police feel empowered to kill people on mere suspicion of petty crimes? Why does the government encourage it? Why do we tolerate it?
We are told we need leaders. But our leaders have failed. Some have failed more brutally than others. But all have been complicit. We are told that Trump has summoned forth demonic forces to the surface that have lain latent in the subconscious of the Republic for decades. And yet Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, died on Obama’s watch, in what had been dramatized as a post-racial America. America will never be post-racial. The entire idea of the nation, its founding principles, its operating system, is coded with racism. It’s inscribed in the country’s DNA. The divisions and animus now seem as stark as they were in the 18th century. The country has gotten much richer, but the gaps between have gotten even more immense. I get the sense that the entire edifice of the nation could be burned down to the foundations and it would grow back pretty much the same. We exist on haunted ground. But we exist here none-the-less and must find some way to navigate its mortal hazards.
We are urged to await moral instruction on race relations from the man who lied about doing Civil Rights-era sit-ins, lied about visiting Mandela, palled around with segregationists, gagged Anita Hill, wrote the ’94 crime bill, falsely claimed he’d been endorsed by the NAACP and says, “You ain’t black” if you don’t vote for him?
Yet, the paramilitarized policing system we are watching violently crush protests across the country in the same ways, using the same tactics and equipment was designed, funded, armed & catalyzed by the judiciary committees of Congress, where Joe Biden sat a powerbroker for over 30 years.
Even now, the chances of a police officer being prosecuted and convicted of any crime committed in the “line of duty” are infinitesimal, about what they were during the days of the slave patrols. Over the last 15 years, there have been more than 16,000 police killings but only 35 convictions., about .0002 percent. Look no further than presidential aspirant Amy (Klobocop) Klobochar. As a prosecutor, the police were the only people Klobocop didn’t want to police. Kamala Harris’ tenure in California was much the same. It’s how the carceral system perpetuates itself.
Yet, the arrest, prosecution and conviction of a very few police officers for abusive, torturous or murderous actions only serves to help legitimize the systemic repressive actions of the rest of the force. These periodic prosecutions don’t even serve as a momentary inhibition, as demonstrated by the Seattle cops who a few days after the murder of George Floyd knelt on the throat of a protestor in brutal imitation of Chauvin, even as they knew cameras were recording their every savage move. The system itself remains immune.
But immunities break down. Or rather, they are broken down by resistance. So we must find the words to express our collective rage. Pick the streets for our fights, on our terms, in our time, unshackled by the failures of the past, as the American political apparatus begins to decay and fall apart before us.