It’s been 24 hours since I first watched the video of the events that lead to the death of George Floyd in southeast Minneapolis. It’s one of the most distressing videos that I’ve ever seen. About five minutes in, shortly after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, I remember thinking that the video had to be over soon—that the aggressor-officer had to be ready to let up. As I moved my cursor downward, I was shocked to discover that the video was barely half-over, with another full five minutes to go. Throughout most of those minutes, the aforementioned officer continued to kneel on George Floyd’s neck. We all know the end result.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first video I’ve seen documenting the slaying of a black man at the hands of my local police. Twin Cities folks no doubt remember the dashboard cam footage of four years back when Philando Castile was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, as well as the harrowing footage of the aftermath filmed by his girlfriend from inside of the car. I wrote about this tragedy at the time, highlighting the injustice that seemed to be implied from the various angles that we had of the killing. But as incriminating as that footage was, I think that the video from this most recent tragedy ascends to a different level of incrimination of the law enforcement officials involved in a few distinct ways.
One difference is the factor of the unknown, or in the case of George Floyd, what might have went down before the filming began. While I will still contend that the killing of Philando Castile was grossly unjustified and criminally reprehensible, I will admit that I cannot know for sure what took place inside of that car prior to the officer discharging his weapon. I know what I think happened (nothing!), but I have no definitive proof that Castile did not appear to be reaching for his weapon, or that the aggressor-officer did not have good reason to fear for his life.
George Floyd is different. In the video I watched early yesterday morning, the events that transpired before the witness began recording on their cellphone have little-to-no bearing on what took place afterwards. Invent any scenario that you like—”George Floyd was resisting arrest!” “He was aggressive!” “He was dangerously violent!” No matter what took place prior, at the time the now infamous video began, George Floyd was clearly no longer a threat, and he only became less threatening as the video carried on. He was handcuffed, lying on his stomach, and sufficiently disenabled. In the case of Philando Castile, we can at least imagine a scenario (albeit unlikely) in which lethal force could be justified. In the case of George Floyd, that scenario does not exist, no matter how creative your imagination.
Another distinction worth noting is the behavior of the aggressor-officers. The officer who killed Philando Castile knew he fucked up. You could hear it in his voice. He was well aware that pulling that trigger may have been the gravest mistake of his life. I’m not sure if that necessarily transforms him into a sympathetic figure, but at the very least, it lends him a little humanity.
I cannot say the same about the behavior of the aggressor-officer in the case of George Floyd. His demeanor is calm and cold. As the onlookers grow increasingly urgent in their desperate pleas for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, the officer almost seems to grow more defiant, as if he continues to apply the possibly lethal pressure just to prove a point.
I’ll still refrain from passing judgment on these cops as people. I’m a firm believer that good people can do terrible things in moments of anger or weakness. That includes the bystander cop who, despite his concerned and conflicted expressions, fails to make a potentially life-saving intervention. These cops may not be monsters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they participated in a monstrous thing. Assuming they are criminally charged, the prosecution should reflect that.
I attended the early stages of yesterday’s protest. It was the first protest I’ve ever been to of this kind. Several things stood out.
First and foremost is my admiration for the protest’s organizers and leaders. In the past, I’ve been critical of some members of groups like Black Lives Matter for what I believe to be their overzealous inflation of injustices that need no hyperbole, and the adverse effect that those exaggerations can have on the group’s goals and credibility.
I heard none of that last night. The leaders of the protest were impressively nuanced. They called for resistance, but explicitly denounced violence and destruction of property. They called for the prosecution of the offending officers, but refrained from demonizing the entire police force. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some protestors blaring “Fuck Tha Police” waiting for any excuse to launch whatever projectiles might be in range, but based on my unofficial observations, the vast, vast majority of protestors who were gathered at that intersection came ready to resist responsibly, and that is in large part due to the protest’s leadership.
Another personal takeaway was my dramatic realization of the courage that it takes to attend protests like these. Over the time I spent on 38th and Chicago, I witnessed the removal of a man who was later reported to be an armed, Neo-Nazi counter-protester. I saw the beginnings of what could have exploded into a mass-panic when revving engines suddenly approached the protest’s epicenter, evoking a short-lived but intense terror that we were about to experience a repeat of Charlottesville (the engines turned out to be those of a black motorcycle gang arriving in support of the protest, but god was it scary).
Both these anecdotes are representative of the kind of knowledge that only comes from experience. From my studies and teaching of events from Selma to Ferguson, I’ve learned a great deal about the inherent dangers of protest, but there is no knowledge that can be acquired from a book that can ever supersede the experiential knowledge gained in those few fleeting moments when I thought that the consequences of that danger might be experienced by me.
I was moved by the solidarity exhibited between different groups of color. Despite a very different history, there were first, second, and probably third generation African immigrants, many Somali, out in full force at this protest. Native peoples were well-represented, including a quasi-drum circle on the southeast corner explicitly expressing its solidarity with the black community as a group with a comparable history of systemic mistreatment.
That diversity also included a lot of white people, and the protest’s leaders made us feel validated. That validation, however, did not come without a challenge. I was deeply impacted by the words of one of the speakers who, after proclaiming his appreciation of our presence, insisted that we remain with them on the front lines, because, as he so eloquently put it, “we [black people] can’t go home.”
I left the protest about 90 minutes after those words were uttered, and as I watched the chaos and destruction unfold from the safety of my suburban neighborhood, the speaker’s words could not have rang more true. It is hard to find a more powerful representation of white privilege than the ability to attend the easy part of a protest and leave before the shit gets real. I should have been a better white ally, but I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.
Not that I would have participated in the violence and destruction of property with the select few who perpetrated it. I believe those actions to be profoundly misguided and undermining of everything the protest is meant to achieve. However, I also subscribe to the Kingsian view that “riot is the language of the unheard.” That doesn’t mean I agree with the riots, but it does mean that I think I understand where they come from and why they happen.
One last point I’d like to address: the courage of the confronters. I’ve got a semi-personal connection with one of the people who confronted the team of police officers called upon to restrain George Floyd, and I couldn’t be prouder to be vaguely associated with him. He’s a fellow aspiring martial artist who happens to train at the same institution as me. The mix of persistence and composure displayed by him and other confronters at the scene—including the firefighter chick and the woman behind the cellphone cam—is unbelievably admiral. “He’s human, bro…He’s not responsive right now…Check his pulse!!!…You gonna let him kill that man in front of you, bro?…Thao, you know that’s bogus…”. The level of courage that it takes for a black man to challenge police officers ENGAGED IN ASSAULT is a level of courage that I very much aspire to.
This is 24 hours in. I’m a big believer in allowing the facts of a case to manifest before arriving at final conclusions, and that no previous injustices by white cops against black men should weigh in on our decisions on how to evaluate the specific details of this case. That said, I also find it hard to imagine the emergence of any evidence that could substantially sway my general sentiment about this particular tragedy.
A gross injustice was committed yesterday. An injustice that was both unnecessary and preventable. An injustice that certainly would not have taken place with a little more empathy and a lot less hate. I’m sad for my city, my state, and my country, and while I’m encouraged by the level of turnout at the protest and the swift action taken by the city of Minneapolis and its police department to try to right an irrevocable wrong, I’m also convinced more than ever that, in spite of centuries of progress, we still have a lot of work to do.