8 minutes and 46 seconds.
At this point, every American with at least a foundational understanding of current events or access to social media knows the significance of that number. White police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to the neck of an unarmed black man named George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he choked out the words “I can’t breathe” and pleaded for his life. Floyd was later pronounced dead.
He had been apprehended by the police following an attempt to pay with a $20 bill suspected to be counterfeit. Security footage indicated no physical resistance to arrest. In Minnesota, where the killing took place, the highest acceptable penalty for knowingly using counterfeit money less than $1,000 is up to 1 year in prison and a fine not exceeding $3,000. But in the case of George Floyd — a black man who had been compliant with police orders and who could very well have been unaware the bill he was paying with was spurious — it was a death sentence.
Six years ago in New York City, another unarmed black man named Eric Garner made the same chilling plea when placed in a chokehold by a police officer: “I can’t breathe.” While black victims of police brutality are significantly more likely to be unarmed than white victims, they are still three times more likely to be shot by the police. Casting aside instances of police misconduct as isolated incidents that should be addressed only by prosecuting individual perpetrators relieves us of the legwork that accompanies dramatic reform. However, it fails to dismantle the institutionalized oppression and lack of police accountability that fan the flames of racially charged violence — especially as equally colossal wildfires of trauma and anguish torch our nation’s streets in the form of protests and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. And although the COVID-19 pandemic and racism have both grown to characterize the dystopian reality of 2020, one has been ravaging our world since only last December, while the other has simmered in America and woven its way into our institutions for centuries.
One might expect anti-racism efforts to be less controversial. Disappointingly, there are those who minimize the officer’s culpability by citing Floyd’s underlying conditions as the primary reason for his death. An autopsy report shows that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, they say, and suffered hypertensive heart disease. Nonetheless, it’s preposterous to label the 8 minute and 46 second-display of barbarity as anything other than a homicide, which the medical examiner’s report and a family-commissioned autopsy have both reasonably classified the crime as; any healthy individual would struggle to breathe under the same conditions. Others hide behind the All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter countermovements, which silence black voices and understate the extent to which black Americans have been historically, systematically discriminated against.
Some raise valid concerns about the role of violence in the riots of the last week. Media reports show communities burnt to the ground; police stations, buildings, and vehicles near protest centers bear smashed windows and store aisles have been cleared by looters. It’s important to note that discussing the moral defensibility of riots is often a ploy to dilute and distract from the injustice that led to them, and even when brought up in good faith, it is far from the most pressing conversation for us to be having when innocent black lives are in perpetual jeopardy. This is not to say that we cannot participate in multiple conversations in parallel.
Most protests have started off as non-violent demonstrations until the police force responded by unleashing tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Tear gas, for context, is a potent chemical weapon the use of which constitutes a war crime, despite its current deployment against peacefully protesting civilians in city streets. Looters and those blindly destroying private property — the ones who destruct cars on the highway in the name of racial equality — are also a largely distinct group exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement to loot and destroy private property, so lumping these groups together is pernicious and unfairly generalizes the actions of protestors.
Indisputably, though, rioters have relied on violence to make a statement more extensively than in the past. But there’s certainly irony in the fact that many of the same people who heavily condemned NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s choice to take a knee during the national anthem, a non-disruptive symbol of solidarity with victims of police brutality, are now turning a blind eye to or rationalizing an officer’s use of his knee to subdue and murder an innocent black man while preaching non-violence in their hypocritical criticisms of riots. Oppression is infuriating, and black people — whose experiences I as a non-black person will admittedly never fully comprehend but whose voices I will relentlessly strive to amplify — have long suffered. If we want the destruction and plundering to end, we need our nation’s highest political leaders to address these issues instead of sanctioning violence and drowning out exhausted cries for change.
Even so, riots are also taking place against the backdrop of COVID-19, and protest organizers should be taking the necessary precautions to ensure that masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes are easily accessible to those who participate. An uptick in virus cases and more stringent social distancing guidelines are to be expected when this tides over, and the same communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 appear in larger numbers to protest. Additionally, protecting small and minority-owned businesses already impaired by the pandemic should remain a top priority; it’s by all means deplorable to intentionally damage the livelihoods of innocent business owners, many of whom have labored away their whole lives for what they have, are uninsured, and will have much greater difficulty rebuilding than purported. The stories of black and immigrant owners whose lifelines are attached to their businesses must be heard, and overarching discussions about police brutality shouldn’t invalidate or trivialize their hardship. It is our duty to support them amidst this turmoil and donate to community reconstruction.
The war against police brutality starts with measures intended to prevent future abuse and deliver justice to past victims. These include establishing a credible, transparent civilian review board in each city; passing laws that limit the circumstances in which the application of physical force is permissible; designing a standardized curriculum for implicit bias training to be implemented across every police department in the country; fighting discriminatory employment practices that diminish racial inclusivity in the police force; educating the public; and substantially defunding the police altogether in favor of investments in impacted communities to address the root causes of crime, including underfunded public education and a lack of affordable housing. But our next steps entail attacking every proximate layer of society that contributes to systemic racism, including a justice system that criminalizes poverty and dehumanizes black Americans through mass incarceration.
Overturning a legacy of inequality demands more than simply imprisoning Derek Chauvin, the single officer that took George Floyd’s life, and the other officers that bore witness to his senseless murder without taking action, although this is a victory worth celebrating. It manifests at the micro-level in the act of calling out non-black peers who still use the n-word and at the macro-level in dedicated advocacy. It requires serious reform, uncomfortable dialogue, allyship based on acknowledgment of the privilege non-black members of society inherently hold, and recognition from each of us that weeding out deep-rooted anti-blackness is now a collective responsibility — but that with unity and perseverance, we can eradicate the evil forces of oppression and secure a more just future for us all.
Please see this article for ways you can aid in combatting police violence.