End Police Brutality Against Black People. Now.

Every American should be outraged by what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd on a Minneapolis street on May 25th, pressing his knee into the 46-year-old Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while ignoring his pleas and killing him in broad daylight. The homicide, a travesty in itself, is also emblematic of the racist rot at the core of American police practice, which devalues black lives even as it subjects them to heightened surveillance and criminal enforcement that white communities would never tolerate.

Americans are right to be in the streets, and Rolling Stone stands with the protesters. If the actions of officer Chauvin (now charged with second-degree murder) and his Minneapolis Police Department colleagues were truly an aberration, or an affront to police values, cops would be leading marches across our cities and demanding swift justice for Floyd’s children and loved ones. But that’s not how it goes in America. The moment a window breaks, a dumpster burns, or desperate people — in this case, abandoned by their government during an economy-shattering pandemic — loot a store, calls for “order” overwhelm the drive for justice. And when that shift occurs, regular as the tides, cops show their true colors. Those entrusted to protect our constitutional freedoms instead abridge them, and with brutal force. And in 2020, this suppression of core liberties of speech, assembly, and the press have the backing of the president, who has all but declared war on dissent.

In the police mythos, cops are supposed to hold the “thin blue line” between civilized society and disorder. But over and over in the days since Floyd’s murder, police officers themselves have become agents of chaos. In the uprising of 2020, it’s the cops who have been clobbering peaceful protesters with batons in the streets. We’ve seen them seize black men from peaceful crowds, just for taunting them from afar. We’ve even seen cops seize black men from peaceful crowds, for shouting words of love and forgiveness. We’ve seen cops handcuff black store owners who flagged them down to report looting. Perhaps most disturbing, we’ve seen cops plow into protesters with police SUVs in a deadly form of crowd control. Documenting these abuses is plainly a threat to police impunity. We’ve seen cops smash television cameras with riot shields, maim journalists with rubber bullets, and casually mace reporters in the face.

Police in America operate under a dangerous code, in which brutality against black people cannot be admitted, even in the face of video evidence. Because recognizing one crime requires recognizing them all. If George Floyd was murdered, then so was Breonna Taylor. So was Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, and on and on.

It is a shattering truth to acknowledge that at random intervals, but with absolute certainty, black bodies can and will be destroyed by police without cause. These modern lynchings serve as a warning to all black people — to begin early survival training for children, to comport themselves with fear in public spaces, and to humble themselves before the power of the state, lest they be next. It is a valid fear: Police violence is a leading cause of death for young black men in America. According to a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, over a lifetime “about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.”

This officially sanctioned violence empowers a system of white supremacy. And it is that system — and not the health and welfare of the public — that American police ultimately protect and serve. It is this racist order, too, that our reactionary president seeks to buttress and elevate in his campaign to “Make America Great Again.”

President Trump crows that he stands for “law and order,” but when white demonstrators armed with semi-automatic rifles shut down state government in Michigan in early May, decrying that state’s stay-at-home order, Trump tweeted a defense of the militants: “These are very good people, but they are angry,” Trump wrote, exhorting Michigan’s governor to “see them, talk to them, make a deal.”

But when black protesters took to the streets, demanding justice from a system that treats their lives as expendable, Trump channeled his inner Bull Connor, the infamous Alabama commissioner who directed violence against Civil Rights protesters, threatening to sick “the most vicious dogs” on anyone who breached the White House grounds, denouncing protesters as “THUGS” and vowing that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The president has vacillated between displays of cowardice — hiding in a bunker and turning out the lights at the White House — and aggression. In a startling burst of authoritarianism on June 1st, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military under the Insurrection Act to crush dissent across America, condemning the unrest accompanying the protests as “acts of domestic terror.” Then, in his own act of terror, Trump had Lafayette Park, outside the White House, swept of peaceful protesters by military police with riot shields and tear gas.

The uprising in the streets has arrived amid a pandemic that has also brought the systemic racism of America into sharp relief. Racial disparities in health care, in living conditions, and in which kinds of jobs are considered “essential,” have left black Americans in peril. They are dying at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts from COVID-19. The president’s rush to “re-open” the country, damn the death count, is further endangering black lives.

The Civil Rights generation did not dismantle America’s system of white supremacy, and ours may not either. But the giants of the 1960s opened the pathway to change — showing how daunting, and sometimes deadly, the work of demanding justice is — and we are seeing their children and grandchildren rise to their clarion call. We should be encouraged by a nation taking to the streets to demand racial equality and police accountability. Our democracy will not long survive without both.

 

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