The killing of George Floyd: just another day at the office?

“I can’t breathe” alternated with “hands up…don’t shoot” as thousands of chanting protesters marched peacefully down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol….” Observer-Tribune, Jan. 8, 2015.

The op-ed piece from five years ago was titled “Thousands in D.C. oppose police shootings.“ Has anything changed?

Two weeks after what prosecutors have charged as the murder in police custody of unarmed black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd by former police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world have gathered— despite the risk of contracting the coronavirus— to show their solidarity with protesters in America who are calling for justice and police reform.

As disturbing as it is, the video of the handcuffed George Floyd begging for his life as his body is pressed against the street for eight minutes and 46 seconds, is different only in degree but not in kind.

We have video of Birmingham high school student Walter Gadsden being savaged by a police dog in 1963; video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers in 1992; video of Eric Garner (also pleading “I can’t breathe”) being choked to death by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014; video of Walter Scott being shot five times in the back in 2015 by North Charleston, N.C., Police Officer Michael Slager; video of Ahmaud Arbery being chased down and shot to death in Georgia this year by Travis McMichael.

Police and white civilian misconduct is not news. The question among black people has always been how much evidence is needed to move the needle of public perception.

The discounting of black testimony has deep historical roots. Prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, there existed a patchwork of statutory restrictions in both slave and so-called free states on the ability of black people to testify against white people.

Outside of court the same distrust existed. Nineteenth century slave narratives were received by many in the public—the white public—as abolitionist propaganda. (See “The Slave’s Narrative,” Davis and Gates, 1985.)

A standard feature of these narratives became the attestation by a white person of repute that the account was factual. No such assurances were required for, say, “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”

Similarly, the testimony of generations of black Americans about the racial dimension of interactions with the police, decades and decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, has frequently not been taken at face value or subordinated to other “issues” like the blue lives matter phenomenon.

This may be changing.

What may have nudged the needle with the Floyd video and resulted in daily acts of protest and resistance may have been less the actual capture on film of a murder but the display of the nonchalance with which this murder was executed.

Despite the fact that a handcuffed George Floyd posed absolutely no threat to the arresting officers, despite the presence of a large crowd witnessing and videotaping the event, despite Floyd’s actual entreaties not to be killed and the moment-by-moment commentary on his progressive unresponsiveness, Chauvin—left hand casually in his pocket—carried on as if it were just another day at the office.

A new question has arisen for many who were previously skeptical about claims of police misconduct. If this is the way police feel empowered to behave when the cameras are rolling and in broad daylight, how might they behave in one-on-one encounters with African Americans when there are no civilian witnesses?

To be sure, the perception has been reinforced by examples from coast to coast of law enforcement personnel behaving badly and not just against black civilians: Mark Gugino, a 75 year-old white man in Buffalo hospitalized after being knocked to the ground by police officers and denied immediate treatment; NYPD officers driving through a police barricade into a crowd of protesters; non-violent protesters cleared from St. John’s Church near the White House by anonymous federal agents firing tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades on the orders of Attorney General William Barr.

A letter from the National Lawyer’s Guild to New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea highlights the jeopardy to the public of anonymous law enforcement. In New York it charged that hiding the identity of police officers “serves to prevent aggrieved individuals from being able to identify the perpetrators of police misconduct or relevant witnesses to same, and the failure of the NYPD to stop this practice provides a sense of impunity to members of the service that they can violate demonstrators’ rights without consequence.”

It stands to reason that anonymity functions the same way at the federal level.

What does it mean to be an American supposedly protected by the Bill of Rights if this behavior is sanctioned by the Attorney General of the United States?

In Washington Township, Police Chief Jeffery Almer responded immediately, clearly and in detail to a query about the training his officers undergo and reaffirmed his commitment to public safety.

Republican Washington Township Mayor Matt Murello—while including himself among other “rational thinking Americans profoundly upset” by the Floyd murder and making himself available by phone to discuss the issue—emphatically expressed his concern that the questioner not draw negative inferences about police officers in Washington Township and “use this horrible tragedy to label, or even infer (sic), that all police officers have the potential to commit such an act as what occurred in MN (Minnesota).”

The immediate response is that, of course, everyone has the potential to commit any act, which is why we have laws and police forces and training and rules to regulate their conduct.

A more interesting question is where one draws the line between “the sides” and why? Should it not be drawn between those who believe in professional policing and those who do not?

As for drawing stereotypes and politicizing law enforcement tragedies— too late. The line in Washington Township is literally drawn in the street. And it’s blue.

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