A critical mass of Americans comes to terms with the truth

Is there finally consciousness that law enforcement officers too often serve white privilege, not justice?

June 01, 2020
Photo:  Liu Jie/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Photo: Liu Jie/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In spring of 2018, Sacramento, California police saw 23-year-old Stephon Clark standing in his grandmother’s back garden with what they believed was a gun. They opened fire. After they killed him, they discovered he was actually holding a mobile phone. Earlier this year, a former cop called Gregory McMichael grabbed his shotgun and jumped in his pick-up truck with his son Travis to chase down Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man out jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Arbery, shot three times, bled to death.

In each instance there were local demonstrations, demands for greater police accountability, and official pledges of improvement. Most Americans tutted, shrugged, then went about their business. Black lives matter, sure, but those guys must have been doing something wrong: otherwise, why would they get themselves killed?

In C­lark’s case, the Sacramento district attorney declined to bring charges. In Arbery’s, three men have been arrested and charged with murder. The difference? In Arbery’s case there was a video.

Now something has changed. Pretty much every living soul has watched the video of a Minneapolis cop with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, grinding his face into the pavement as Floyd pleads, cries, and dies. He’s not the first black man to die on camera: we’ve all seen it many times before. There was Floyd’s fellow Minnesotan Philando Castile, shot by police in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old child and Eric Garner, put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer who ignored Garner gasping, “I can’t breathe.” But this time it feels different, as if a wire worn thin over too many years finally broke: as if a critical mass of Americans finally realised that too many of our police equate dark skin with criminality and violence. Many of us are just now coming to the truth that law enforcement officers too often serve white privilege and white property, not justice.

Perhaps three and a half years of Donald Trump’s race-baiting presidency is raising the national consciousness. The white men now charged with the murder of Arbery claimed he looked like somebody who might have robbed a local construction site. That’s code: he was a black guy in a mostly white space. An intruder. The white woman who tried to weaponise the police against a black bird-watcher who told her to leash her out-of-control dog in Central Park. She shouted into her phone: “an African-American man is threatening my life!” Behind her lay 400 years of American history in which a white woman would always be seen as the victim and a black man the aggressor.

Christian Cooper, the black birder, filmed the whole thing. He’s alive; she got fired from her Wall Street job—a rare instance of justice. Nonetheless, in America you can be killed for driving while black, jogging while black, shopping while black, even sleeping while black. In March, Breonna Taylor, a medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, was killed in her own bed by police using a battering ram to break into her home.

In normal times, back before we started hoarding hand-sanitiser and loo roll, if some atrocity—a school shooting, a terrorist bombing, a terrible storm—occurred, Americans could be certain their government would, at minimum, try to calm things down. George W Bush, rarely celebrated for his eloquence, won bi-partisan praise for his speech after al-Qaeda attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. When a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston church, President Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” and spoke of forgiveness and love. A few days ago, Trump managed to express sympathy for Floyd’s family, but then tweeted he’d be prepared to send in the army to quell American citizens, called protestors “thugs,” and promised “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Trump likes to boast that he single-handedly brought black unemployment numbers to the lowest rate ever, but most African-Americans seem unmoved. Trump built his political career signalling to white “America Firsters” that their culture was in danger from people of colour, whether Mexican “rapists” or black “thugs.” Trump’s property company was once sued by the federal government for refusing to rent to African Americans. When neo-Nazis rampaged in Virginia, he remarked that there were fine people on both sides, and when white nationalist militias invaded the capitol building in Michigan, armed with assault rifles to  demand the state be opened back up, pandemic be damned, he tweeted at Michigan’s (female, Democratic) governor that she should “make a deal” with these “very good people.”

Trump has not called any of those protesting police racism “fine” or “very good” people. He knows his voters are terrified at the sight of young, angry marchers, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, male, and female shouting at cops in every corner of the land, and they want them silenced. Trump merely threatens, telling protestors massed outside the White House on Saturday, they’d better back off or be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.”

Barring a few extremists, nobody welcomes violence. But some might argue peaceful protest hasn’t brought meaningful change. In 1967, Martin Luther King called riots “the language of the unheard.” If only Trump would shut up and listen.