How Many

abstract pastel sketch

It wasn’t just the four officers it took to arrest a non-resisting African American man and three of them to lie him down on the concrete and all kneel on him and handcuff him, it wasn’t just the 8 minutes and 46 seconds Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck on the pavement in the heat with crowds around openly taking videos of the scene and pointing out to him that the man needed help and was dying, it wasn’t just that he told other officers who showed concern that this was how Floyd should be handled, it wasn’t just his lack of reaction to Floyd’s audible pleas for help, it was the expression on Chauvin’s face through it all that tells the underlying story.

Chauvin looks relaxed and unafraid of either the man beneath his knee or all the bystanders who are watching and openly videotaping. George Floyd was at that point unable to resist even if he’d wanted to, and Chauvin knew that no matter what happened, even with all those witnesses, he wasn’t going to get into any trouble, and he frankly looks annoyed. In any case, he’s not worried about going home that night and there would be no repercussions against him for what he was doing. That makes it pretty clear that this had happened before and that the system supported the white police officer, and not the African American citizen, based on prior experience.

Don’t forget that expression on Chauvin’s face. As we watch the ensuing protests and even riots following this public murder, remember that’s the expression African Americans have been facing from white people since they were brought here in chains 400 years ago. Centuries of time and a bloody civil war 150 years ago have made no difference. In my life of nearly 60 years, the African Americans of my generation and the generations following have been able to make no progress in living as equal citizens of this country.

Even I see that expression on white faces when I try to point out all the ways African Americans are openly excluded from everyday life in this country whether their heritage derives from emancipated slaves after the Civil War or their ancestors or they themselves emigrated from other countries around the world with predominantly black populations. We’ve never cleaned the contamination of racism from our country, and in fact a population of citizens have worked hard to keep it in place by way of redlining neighborhoods, gerrymandering voting populations and placement of polling places and outlining school districts, and employers who can always find a reason not to hire an African American person. Lately they’ve even been demonstrating publicly for the right to do these things.

That’s what makes the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis more than just his murder, and why riots have broken out all over the country. That’s what shows it’s a symptom of something much bigger, the bump on the skin that connects to the cancer filling the body, the cancer of police killing African American men and otherwise arresting African American citizens in general, at a much higher rate than whites as they are represented in the population, and continued social segregation though that very segregation is illegal. [1] [2] [3]

In February a white man and his son packed their shotguns into their pickup and ran to chase the escaped slave who left his own plantation to go running through white society in Brunswick, GA, and they caught up with him and shot and killed him. That’s just what the death of Ahmaud Arbery sounded like to me from the first I’d heard of it, even before the video, even before I saw the photos of Gregory and Travis McMichael. The incident itself was painful enough to watch, and consider how easy it would be to turn the story against Arbery who couldn’t defend himself, especially hearing the reason for chasing him—he’d been seen going into a house under construction and poking around, and the McMichaels claimed there had been thefts in the neighborhood. Easy as pie, that one, proved correct when the news was released that the Brunswick District Attorney had looked at the case and said there was nothing to see there and no one should be arrested, and even as he recused himself from the case a month later for personal connections he again advised that there should be no arrests. Seventy-four days after Arbery’s death the McMichaels were finally arrested and the case investigation has escalated to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That was three weeks ago. People are still understandably angry about how it was handled. [4]

In Louisville, KY undercover agents stormed into the apartment of Breonna Taylor because their suspect in a narcotics investigation occasionally received mail at her apartment. Her boyfriend awoke and shot at the strangers who’d broken in, and the officers returned fire with eight bullets into Breonna, killing her. There is back and forth now about whether or not they announced themselves before they broke the door down, but in reality the suspect had already been arrested. [5]

And at least birdwatcher Christian Cooper didn’t die when a white woman called police on him when he asked her to put her dog on a leash, as rules in the section of Central Park, known for birding, require. Amy Cooper (no relation) actually threatened him with the phone call saying she would call the police and tell them an African American man was threatening her life. He videotaped her as she did so. Both were gone by the time police arrived but Christian Cooper’s posting of the video went viral and Amy Cooper was ultimately fired from her job and gave the dog in question back to the rescue. But how often in the past has a woman saying an African American man was acting inappropriately toward her caused his death? [6]

Those examples are just three other cases that made the news in the past three months, ones that are being remembered in demonstrations in those cities, and other cases that actually made the news locally or nationally around the country over the past few years. And just the act of existing while black, with police called by white people who find African Americans suspicious as they do just about any everyday thing, while jokes can always be made, is a constant flow of threats during everyday life.

And unless it’s investigated, the case is forgotten, and the incident, the person killed and their memory are buried together, but not by those left behind who know there was no justice and have little hope there will be in the future. That constant trauma of violent loss and the fear that you could be next would fill anyone with rage and reaction when they see it happen again, and again, and again. The protesters out there have repeatedly said they don’t condone vandalism and destruction, and neither do I, but bearing the pain and trauma of all the deaths, all the injustice, all the restraints society puts on African Americans, why not burn it all down and start over? Why preserve what’s there, metaphorically at least, when in African American neighborhoods—and why are there still African American neighborhoods?—it’s still separate and unequal, and after centuries and lots of hard work by African Americans and white people alike there is no hope that will ever change?

I don’t judge my safety on the race of the person before me. If I saw Ahmaud Arbery running down the street we’d probably nod and smile at each other as we passed. If I saw the McMichaels in their pickup with their guns, I’d get my mace in my hand and look for the nearest safe place to run if I needed to.

And I have a lot of freedom, freedom that we all deserve, because of my race. When I’m out trapping feral cats and poking around in an alley and looking into back yards at night with a flashlight, when the police are called they always accept my explanation that I’m trapping cats, and there are no threats, no arrest just to check on me, no harassment. And when I decide to walk down the middle of a street looking up at the sky to watch the hawk, or walk along the trail through the woods singing at the top of my voice, or act otherwise erratic—or, as they say it when you’re white, eccentric—no one calls the police on me. I have this freedom that everyone should have, to be whoever we are and be given the benefit of the doubt when we explain what we’re doing.

I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me

they gon’ kill me man

come on man

I cannot breathe

I cannot breathe

they gon’ kill me

they gon kill me

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

please sir



please I can’t breathe

George Floyd’s last words transcribed from the video [7]

I’ve tried to look back in history and find the point where it went wrong, to go back there and start again. But there is no point where African Americans ever had equality in this country, no matter what laws had been passed, and no time when death at the hands of authorities wasn’t common. Let’s just try to burn down the social structure that keeps people oppressed, let’s really just incinerate it and toss the ashes out into space so there’s nothing left.

And it’s not enough for each of us to “not be racist” or “not discriminate”. We have to call out those who do, and have a strong argument on hand to prove it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently mentioned the importance of speaking out for justice, and the injustice of staying silent, and the importance of nonviolence.

The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.~The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson, 2001, Chapter 18 [8]

I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.~Sermon: “Where Do We Go From Here?” [9]

I have felt a fundamental change coming for some time, years, months, days. For better or worse, I think it’s here.











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