Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. A White police officer killing a Black person is an appalling frequent occurrence in the United States, but this particular murder set off a wave of demonstrations across the country. Black Lives Matter has been organizing for years, so why are people filling the streets now?
The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham considers why George Floyd’s death was so galvanizing. She notes that Minnesota is where police officers shot Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016, and that Black people there are four times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as white people. She also writes:
Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights organization Color of Change, speculated that it was the stark cruelty of the video of George Floyd’s death that captivated the country. The pain was palpable, the nonchalance in Derek Chauvin’s face, chilling. “The police officer is looking into the camera as he’s pushing the life out of him,” Mr. Robinson said.
… The pandemic added its own accelerant to the mix. For roughly three months before Mr. Floyd’s death, Americans were living in a state of hypervigilance and anxiety, coping with feelings of uncertainty, fear and vulnerability — things many black Americans experience on a regular basis. Information about how to avoid the virus was distressingly sparse and confusing as local and federal officials sparred about the severity of the pandemic and how best to contain it.
Meanwhile, a clearer — and bleaker — picture of the country began to emerge. The spoils of privilege among some was in stark contrast to the lack of it among others. While some Americans fled cities to second homes, millions of others filed for unemployment and formed lines at food banks. Empathy for the plight of essential workers, a category in which black people are overrepresented, swelled tremendously. Data revealed that black and Latinx communities were being disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic.
At the same time, social distancing meant much of daily life — school, work, meetings, parties, weddings, birthday celebrations — was migrating to screens. It seems we’d just created newfound trust and intimacy with our phones and computers when the gruesome parade of deaths began a procession across them. Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed in Glynn County, Ga., on Feb. 23. Breonna Taylor was in bed when the police entered her apartment and sprayed her with bullets in Louisville, Ky., on March 13. Nina Pop was found stabbed to death in Sikeston, Mo., on May 3. Tony McDade was gunned down by the police in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27.
By the time outrage and despair over Mr. Floyd’s death filled our feeds, the tinderbox was ready to explode.
The fact that all of this is occurring in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t just mean hypervigilance, anxiety, and a stark display of the impacts of inequity; it also means that large public gatherings increase the risk of virus transmission. That protestors are willing to take these risks underscores the severity of the situation. The message is clear: COVID-19 is a serious threat to public health, and so are racism and police violence.
These threats are intertwined. Racism starves Black communities of resources, and it drives police violence. Structural racism is responsible for limited economic opportunities and disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases in Black populations. In the COVID-19 context, this means Black (as well as Latinx) workers are disproportionately doing jobs that put them in contact with many potentially symptomatic members of the public—but they’re also disproportionately likely to be working without the paid leave and health benefits that could help them get regular care and stay home when they’re sick. Many majority-Black neighborhoods have fewer healthcare resources than majority-White areas, and discrimination is a problem in healthcare as in other aspects of life. If Black people do catch the virus, they’re disproportionately likely to die from it.
It’s also hard to think of any compelling explanation other than racism for White people to call the cops on Black people who are doing nothing wrong, and law enforcement officials disproportionately stopping and using force against Black people compared to White people. Black people are disproportionately at risk of being targeted by law enforcement, and disproportionately likely to die from it. In a recent analysis of data on police-involved deaths, Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito calculate that 1 out of every 1,000 Black men and boys will be killed by police (2.5 times the risk for White men). Black women’s risk is lower than that of their male counterparts, but they are still 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than White women — and many people have noted that while prosectors have pressed charges in George Floyd’s death, the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death have not been charged. Knowledge of these disparities takes a toll, and Jamil Smith eloquently describes it in Rolling Stone:
Much like the faulty coronavirus-death-toll counts, the true casualties of police violence are incalculable. Weeks like this past one eat away at the spirits of black people, and at their very flesh and bones. Parents of black children have shed tears in justifiable fear, the stress of it all putting their own health in peril. It would be easy to merely blame the death gap between black and white Americans, which varies by gender, on unhealthier diets and lower incomes — though those are also influenced by systemic racism and play a role. But the grief and fear that black Americans carry, knowing that they cannot peacefully demonstrate for police reform (or abolition) without the very same powers that drove them to the streets escalating even further, is valid, tangible, and omnipresent. We see it in the rampant and often unprovoked abuse being dealt out to protesters, bystanders, and journalists alike.
But Americans need look no further, if they can stomach it, than the videos of Floyd’s homicide for evidence of how corrosive racism can be. Despite the Floyd family wanting escalated charges against Chauvin that reflect intention, it is more disturbing to consider that the former officer may not have intended to kill, but simply didn’t care whether or not Floyd died. Chauvin nonchalantly kept his hands in his pockets while his knee pressed the life out of Floyd. It only underscores the irrelevance of intention when committing a racist act. You don’t have to hate people. Racism means that you likely don’t consider them to be people in the first place.
These unjust outcomes happen because we choose to let them happen. As individuals, we can and should address our own biases and behaviors, but we also must demand system-wide changes to make up for injustices that stretch back centuries.
Policy proposals abound. The Movement for Black Lives has policy platforms on a range of topics, including “End the War on Black People”; “Invest-Divest”; and COVID-19. The American Public Health Association has adopted policy statements on law enforcement violence and health equity. The problem is not that we don’t know how to fix policy violence and inequity, but that we haven’t collectively done enough to make this a priority. Thousands of people are in the streets now telling us we have to make this a priority. It’s time to do so, and we can’t lose the urgency once the protests aren’t demanding our daily attention.