Video is a powerful thing. We saw it in 1991 when Rodney King was beaten severely by Los Angeles cops in 1991. Four were charged, three were acquitted, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the other. There were riots. Fast forward to 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. An 18 year-old unarmed man named Michael Brown was shot to death by a white officer. There was no indictment on the officer. We watched the riots that followed. In 2018, Stephon Clark was running from police in Sacramento when he was shot in the back. He had a cell phone in his hand, which officers thought was a gun. They fired 20 times. The officers were not charged.
So what's different now? On May 25, officers responded to a call in Minneapolis about a man who allegedly bought some items at a convenience store with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. According to a newspaper account citing court sources, 46 year-old George Floyd was sitting in a car across the street with two other people. An officer pointed a gun at Floyd and ordered him out of the car. Floyd reportedly resisted being handcuffed at first, but then was compliant. He then, according to the account, started acting erratic and claustrophobic. He said he couldn't breathe.. That was before what we saw on the video. Officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd's neck for a reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd unresponsive, and three other officers just watching. None were immediately charged, and you bet there were riots.
The four officers were immediately fired, but that's not justice. They finally did arrest Chauvin and charged him with third degree murder (from Wikipedia: "the unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated without any design to effect death). Protests spread across the country. At least in this case, the charges were upgraded to second degree murder (intentional murder that lacks premeditation, is intended to only cause bodily harm), and the other three officers have been charged as accessories. It still takes a jury to convict, but that's years away.
What is different now is that we essentially watched Floyd die, and maybe more importantly, we watched three officers stand there and watch Floyd die. King survived his beating, Clark had a cell phone in his hand, which gives police some sympathy that they may have thought it was a gun. We didn't see the Brown incident, only the riots that followed.
There seems to be a feeling that this case is different, and maybe it is, but maybe it's not. We certainly thought something was going to be done about gun laws in 1999 after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. In 2012, little kids died at Sandy Hook, and people screamed for change. If that couldn't convince the gun lobby to do something, nothing would. On Valentine's Day just two years ago, 17 people died after a mass-killing at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Students there became activists. It felt at the time, that now was the time. Nothing has really happened. The 'bump stocks' that the Las Vegas shooter used in 2017 have been banned, but that's really been about it.
The danger is, with Floyd being laid to rest this week, that protests will die down, too. That's not a bad thing, but it's also when the hard work starts. Protesters want to bring an end to what they call systemic racism. What's most unfortunate, is that's not going to happen. What can be done, however, is criminalizing police brutality, which then could at least change a mind set. If the 'carotid hold' that Chauvin used on Floyd is banned (that's already starting to happen in several police departments), then officers will at least think twice before using it. If a white officer is actually convicted and sentenced for a brutal beating or a shooting of a black man, maybe the next officer won't do it. It sounds simple, but look at our past. Maybe that's where the systemic racism comes in.
One can be encouraged by the white support of the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd's death, but you don't have to look too far to be discouraged. A New York police officer shoved a woman to the ground during a protest. In Buffalo, a 75 year-old white man was pushed backwards onto the sidewalk after appearing to try to talk to the officers. A squad marched right by him with no one coming to his aid. The President of the United States had the National Guard fire rubber bullets at protesters before curfew, just so he could walk across the street and take a picture in front of a church holding a bible. You talk about a powerful video. You could also be offended by the President's political opponent in November suddenly emerging from his coronabunker supporting the protests. General empathy or photo-op?
Look. George Floyd was not a saint, but none of us are. He served a five year prison sentence in his native Houston for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. He did, however, become involved with a local ministry after getting out. He was 6-foot-7, described by his family as a gentle giant, but may have looked menacing to officers. He had three children, including a six year old girl. Why he was at that convenience store and if he did indeed pass that phony twenty, we may never know, but it's also inconsequential. No one in that situation deserves to die for it.
Incomprehensible, deplorable, despicable. Any of those words fit nicely here. Think about how long 8 minutes and 46 seconds is. Don McLean's American Pie is shorter than that. Many of you can drive to the gas station and back in less time. What kind of hate was inside Chauvin for kneeling on Floyd's neck for that long? How could the other officers stand there for that long without at least one of them saying, “that's enough, man.” In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the union head for the police department reportedly congratulated them on 'good police work' and said the department was being made 'scapegoats' when protests followed.
That behavior is not going to change. Laws can be changed, and maybe that will force these people to go away. Change, though, is not immediate. Maybe this latest tragedy, though, and the powerful video that goes with it, can make it happen.