Activists of Black Lives Matter campaign stand against the backdrop of a graffiti of George Floyd.
Tony Norman, Tribune News Service
It has been a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer high on impunity and perceived civic immunity.
In the time between Floyd’s funeral and his killer’s murder trial, we’ve had a year to think about what kind of country we want to be.
Between a video we can’t unsee and the guilty verdict most of us didn’t expect, the biggest protest movement in American history erupted in the midst of a global pandemic.
In big and small cities and in every state in the union, Americans marched and asked questions that they had never asked before and demanded accountability from institutions once considered sacrosanct and beyond questioning.
For once, Americans refused to decouple the particular circumstances of Floyd’s grisly execution from the larger question of whether there truly is structural racism in policing.
The white majority that had once been either willfully ignorant or simply clueless about the brutality meted out to a minority of their fellow citizens wanted to know if unconscious bias in policing went beyond “a few bad apples” to justify the levels of existential dread experienced by non-white Americans every day.
They asked what was formerly unthinkable: Does America have a problem with systemic racism — not just in policing, but in every institution — and is this the sort of country we want to live in?
George Floyd became the most unlikeliest of catalysts for this discussion. Americans prefer that their martyrs be non-threatening saints, though our martyrs stubbornly refuse to be anything but troubled fellow citizens.
At the first sign that empathy was breaking through and being wasted on the “undeserving,” the usual gaggle of haters screeched: “Look, George Floyd was a drug addict and a thief; why are you honoring him?” as if his litany of personal failures somehow justified his torture and execution.
Sliming the victim is a time-honored tradition in this nation’s political discourse. It’s easier to complain about a victim’s lack of conventional virtue than to question the impulse to justify the unjustifiable. That’s why far too many find it is easier to look askance at the Floyd family’s warm welcome at the Biden White House this week than to question their own stoney-hearted reaction to Floyd’s murder last year. They miss the days when the honor of meeting the president was reserved for those who shot folks like George Floyd in the line of duty.
Their unreliable memory also doesn’t allow them to recall how much they hated “respectable martyrs” like Martin Luther King Jr., too. These revisionists were among the first to complain that he was a “rabble-rouser, a Communist and a womanizer” who “got what was coming to him” when he was assassinated in the spring of 1968.
When the question about whether to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday came up during the Reagan era, an army of critics revived the accusation that MLK “divided America” and that “the Negroes were doing fine” before he came along and agitated them.
People who hated MLK the most are always the first to quote “the content of their character” line from his March on Washington speech. They forget that MLK was the most unpopular man in America the day he was assassinated and that his last protest march, with the sanitation workers of Memphis, was marred by violence and looting on the margins of an otherwise peaceful march.
In other words, the “content” of a martyr’s character is irrelevant, especially if his or her death manages to expand the public’s capacity for empathy. These people, whether George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Martin Luther King Jr. always “have it coming.”
Fortunately, Americans are learning to see beyond such simplistic binaries. They’re finally seeing that an increasingly militarized police presence in civilian spaces threatens everyone — not just those deemed worthy of overpolicing in their communities. Americans who never took systemic racism seriously saw with their own eyes that violence once reserved for minorities easily spilled over into brutality against white protesters who marched to express sympathy and growing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Americans who never quite understood that they had been ill-served by an education system that censored whole swaths of this nation’s past to protect the self-esteem of white people learned about the parts of our shared history that undermine any nonsense about being “exceptional.”
In the year since George Floyd’s murder, Americans grew up and started taking responsibility for their ignorance about the intersection of race and police violence. Americans learned there was more to this nation’s history than George Washington, apple pie, Paul Bunyan and baseball.
They started learning about formerly unimaginable things like the Tulsa massacre of 1921 slipped into comic book dramas like HBO’s “Watchmen.” They also learned about “Copaganda” — overly positive portrayals of law enforcement in news and popular entertainment designed to minimize negative images and redirect attention to positive portrayals of cops at the expense of reality. The world began opening up in ways not considered the previous year.
Over the last year, books about anti-racism also became bestsellers. Corporate America and the Hollywood entertainment complex responded to the urgency of the times by attempting to reform discriminatory practices that have resulted in institutional dominance by white males at the expense of everyone else.
Of course this is threatening to those who have long benefited from the monoculture of white male privilege. You could devise a drinking game based solely on guessing which insecure thought leader or political hack would be next to use the cliche “woke mob” to signify their resistance to egalitarianism and other forms of “liberal bullying.”
But a backlash against a national drift toward empathy as an alternative to the current model of policing was inevitable. The status quo that is comfortable with unaccountable police violence is going to be upset if it sees an emerging majority who no longer consider changes to the mission of law enforcement a concession to anarchy.
There are people who are unsettled by the notion that cops probably won’t be patrolling neighborhoods of the so-called underclass 500 years from now. They’re OK with officers “cracking skulls” and shooting people based on their level of fear at any given moment.
Because their view of law enforcement is always punitive, the license to kill without consequence is a perk they would allow every officer to have if it means their own safety as citizens is guaranteed. Why try to fix what isn’t broken in one’s own limited experience?
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a cop, who never for a moment thought he wouldn’t get away with it, opened the door to a broader American conversation that took us all into a space scarcely imagined.
Perhaps the fact that we were in lockdown when the video of the killing was uploaded to social media provided the accelerant necessary for a movement of social change to take hold. There weren’t many other distractions. We had nothing better to do than to march to save our democracy. Whatever the reason, we were finally asking the one question that separates mature democracies from immature police states — is this the kind of country we want to be?
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