June 6, 2020 Liz Borkowski, MPH 8Comment

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.

8 thoughts on “Treating Racism and Police Violence with the Necessary Urgency

  1. Some great data, and much to contemplate.

    My first thoughts of why the people are entering the streets now is because there is an important presidential election coming up. Much of the media is doing everything in its power to destroy this president. Covid-19 was of course a gift in heaven to the left since it severely disrupted the economy which was to be a hallmark for DJT’s accomplishments.

    The unfortunate incident that happened to George Floyd is also a perfect opportunity for the media. You see, presidential hopeful Joe Biden is not doing so well with the Black African/American voters. Which gives DJT an important edge. So why not exploit the racist angle of this poor man’s tragic death so as create a nexus of systemic racism that connects to President Trump? The media has a history of manipulating public opinion, as they did with Rodney King years ago by not airing the full video. What happened to Floyd is bad, we can all agree, but was it really racist? Was this career criminal as the man already compromised from drug abuse/health issues that contributed to his death during police procedure, excessive as it was? Knee jerk reactions are not science, but they can swing elections.

    The streets are violent because of America’s pervasive drug culture by the way, and all these unfortunate incidents involve recreational drugs btw, but nobody wants to talk about that. (more later- great topic)

  2. Quick follow-up. Where’s the darn edit button, as I noticed my typos after posting! 🙂

    Anyway, there’s something important about recreational drug abuse I wanted to point out. Drugs, legal or not, are of course causing immeasurable societal problems. And it should not be a surprise there is a drug connection to virtually all of the BLM incidents mentioned. Just look at the details.

    But the specific point I wanted to make is that our culture is undergoing a love affair with a so-called harmless drug, marijuana. Yet it is already established scientifically in concrete there is a unidirectional link between the use of marijuana and psychosis. And thus societally, there is an associated and distinct increase in violence (after filtering away the vast gamut of mild mental health issues which have no bearing to genuine psychosis).

    Analyzing each of the arrests that BLM draws attention to, I think we can find a link to drugs, and often resistance to arrest. I suspect that past or current drug use, which can often specifically be linked to marijuana, might be at the core of the psychotic reactions so often associated during arrest.

  3. At a tennis court years ago, my partner happened to be a federal judge. When briefly discussing the subject of crime, he said what he found most astonishing was the degree of drug use associated with crime. Interesting to say the least.

    So just out of curiosity, I searched all the names listed above who unfortunately had deadly police encounters to see what connections there were to drugs. All of them actually! And with this sampling, I bet a similar list goes on and on. There must be associated adverse mental health and societal complications that we are ignoring that could offer us a more complete understanding. To wit:

    George Floyd: ” A full autopsy report on George Floyd, the man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police last month, reveals that he was positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The 20-page report also indicates that Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, although the drugs are not listed as the cause.

    Jamar Clark: “Blood tests shows that Clark had been drinking and using marijuana.”Toxicologist Dr. Kristin

    Philando Castile: “Engebretsen testified that post-mortem tests showed high levels of THC, the chemical compound found in marijuana, in Castile’s blood.

    Breonna Taylor: “Her address was listed in the search warrant based on police’s belief that one of the narcotics investigation suspects, Jamarcus Glover, used her home to receive mail, keep drugs or stash money earned from the sale of drugs, records show.”

    Tony McDade “After serving a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery, McDade was behind bars again on a probation violation she got after Tallahassee police found her with guns and drugs. She wrote then-Leon Circuit Judge Mark Walker in early October 2009 pleading for mental health treatment and begging for a second chance. She said the underlying robbery was actually “a drug deal gone bad” and that someone set her up with the gun to get her in trouble. “I promise I’ll do right,” McDade wrote. “Please Judge Walker don’t send me back for something I didn’t do. I’ll lose it. Besides while in prison I smoked weed, popped Ecstasy and drank liquor. The officers brought it in and staff members so what good will that do. Prison seems to get you nowhere but still high.”

  4. Don’t blame the victims, blame the cops who are using excessive and inappropriate force — and doing it disproportionately against Black people. Regardless of whether someone uses drugs, there’s no excuse for police officers to kneel on their necks while they plead “I can’t breathe,” shoot them when they have their hands up, or burst into their apartment without knocking and shoot them.

  5. I was referring to criminals not victims. But your point is well taken.

    Maybe cops should back off from enforcing law in the disadvantaged communities and show equal presence elsewhere. Less policing in those areas would reduce the potential for unfortunate outcomes that might appear racist, right?

  6. Naturally, others can express this pov much more eloquently than I, darn it, so if I may, present a link I just discovered about about two minutes ago:

    “Heather Mac Donald quotes from a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that demolishes the Beto- Buttigieg critique of policing. Mac Donald writes:

    It turns out that white officers are no more likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot black civilians.

    It is a racial group’s rate of violent crime that determines police shootings, not the race of the officer. The more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that members of that racial group will be shot by a police officer.

    Oddly enough, given the rhetoric, if there is a bias, the study found that it is against white civilians. This is reflected in the pressure on police departments to hire based on race. In order to do this, departments have sometimes changed hiring standards to meet this goal. Mac Donald concludes:

    The “policing is racist” discourse is poisonous. It exacerbates anti-cop tensions in minority communities and makes cops less willing to engage in the proactive policing that can save lives. Last month, viral videos of pedestrians in Harlem, The Bronx and Brooklyn pouring water on passive NYPD officers showed that anti-police hostility in the inner city remains at dangerous levels.

    The anti-cop narrative deflects attention away from the real criminal-justice problem, which is high rates of black-on-black victimization. Blacks die of homicide at eight times the rate of non-Hispanic whites, overwhelmingly killed not by cops, not by whites, but by other blacks. Democratic candidates should get their facts straight and address that issue. Until they do, their talk of racial justice will ring hollow.”

    Thus as per her insight, this is not a “systemic racism” problem, though there may be an element of such in any particular case- of course.

    She might have also pointed out that Blacks are ten times more likely to ambush/murder cops than Hispanics/Whites combined- which must heighten fear, emotion and apprehensiveness for anyone taking that line of work and responsibility. Plus the “Kill-a-cop” rhetoric and action over the years hasn’t helped matters either. What kind of judgements and restraint must it take to enforce laws in dangerous situations, yet not step over the line so as you or other innocents will not be harmed or killed? It’s a fine line that takes a real pro, with guts and fortitude.

    Plus what’s so conspicuously absent (here and everywhere else) is any mention of illicit drugs, our pervasive drug culture- the associated crime, mental illness, and addiction- and probably the primary reason the disadvantaged communities are so violent to begin with- imho.

  7. I am not trolling! I appreciated your forum because your articles are informative and address similar interests of mine. Your website seemed to present a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere for further thoughts, ideas and questions!

    Apparently not as I now see, sorry. Thus regrettably I shall take your “Get lost” words to heart.

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