The world exhaled in relief and gratitude as Derek Chauvin, a murderous cop, was convicted on all three counts for kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for over nine minutes, surrounded by cops who did nothing as another unarmed Black man died while pleading for his life. However, real justice won’t be achieved by securing a rare conviction of one cop. In addition to reforming the police, we must change how we talk about law enforcement, which has often terrorized the very communities it is allegedly trained to protect and serve.
“This verdict was important. But we can’t fool ourselves,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told me. “We need transformative change—the kind that comes when pressure is brought to bear on multiple fronts to upend a deeply entrenched system that is powerfully shaped by and reliant on racism, fear, and division.”
A tragic reminder of this oppressive system occurred just 20 minutes before the Chauvin verdict was announced. Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black teenager, was shot and killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer on her driveway. A video showed her holding and swinging a knife at another young woman during an altercation. The double standards of this country’s policing and the resulting commentary were on full display.
If Bryant was white, like white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, maybe she’d be captured alive and the police would eventually bring her food from Burger King. If she were 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was illegally armed with an AR-15 and killed two unarmed protesters, maybe she’d still be alive and praised as a hero and defended by conservative media and Republican politicians. Maybe a police officer like Lt. William Kelly of Virginia would have made a $25 donation to her defense fund, writing, “God bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
But, she’s Black, so she was immediately shot and killed. She’s dead, just like 20-year old Daunte Wright of Minneapolis. He was recently pulled over for having air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror and killed when the officer says she mistook her gun for her taser and unleashed “an accidental discharge.” Violence and unnecessary aggression seem to be accidentally discharged often against people of color.
“We use law enforcement to do the things we don’t want to see, to the people we don’t want to know exist,” Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, Co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, told me. “If we continue to use law enforcement to engage in low-level enforcement where they show up with badges and guns, what do you think will happen? You have introduced a gun to a traffic stop when you could have introduced a ticket in the mail. Someone bought a pack of cigarettes and sold them individually, you can send them a ticket in the mail. You don’t have to choke them until they die.” That’s what happened in 2014 to Eric Garner, whose dying words were, “I can’t breathe.”
Since 2015, there have been more than 5,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in the United States. Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate, with Black Americans being shot at twice the rate of white Americans. In a sane country that valued its Black and brown residents, this violence would be seen and aggressively confronted as an epidemic in need of an immediate cure. Instead, in America, we use neutered euphemisms like “bad apples” to focus on individual cops instead of overhauling a system that has repeatedly produced and condoned violence.
A bad apple didn’t tell cops that sex after killing a person “is the best sex” and one of the “perks that come with the job.” That’s David Grossman, America’s #1 police trainer, who tells officers they are “at war” on the streets. He focuses on the concept of “killology” to “emotionally, spiritually, psychologically” prepare officers to kill people on the job with less hesitation. A fruit basket didn’t pull a weapon on an unarmed Black and Latino Army lieutenant in uniform for a routine traffic stop, threaten to murder him, and then pepper spray him. Those were two Virginia police officers. An apple orchard didn’t participate in the violent insurrection that overtook the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and resulted in five deaths, which included Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Those were dozens of police officers who were part of the mob or suspected of helping the mob that unsuccessfully tried to cancel a free and fair election. A senior leader of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia whose members participated in the insurrection, bragged to 60 Minutes their group receives training from active-duty law enforcement officials. Nearly 15 years ago, the FBI warned of white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement.
“You have introduced a gun to a traffic stop when you could have introduced a ticket in the mail.”
Why is anyone remotely surprised at the rotten state of our law enforcement? Rage Against the Machine even warned us in 1994 when they sang, “Some of those who work forces are the same who burn crosses.” We choose to focus on individual incidents and officers, even as the biggest police union in America, which represents more than 355,000 police officers, recently endorsed Trump in 2020 saying he represents “law and order.” This is the same Trump who abused state power to unleash violence on BLM protesters last summer so he could take a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. This is the same Trump who said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to deter the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters who came out to protest George Floyd’s murder but were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons, unleashed by police officer who came dressed for war. It seems David Grossman taught them well.
The fact so many of us were afraid Chauvin would be found not guilty despite video evidence literally showing him murdering a man in broad daylight, as he confidently stared at Darnella Frazier’s cellphone, is a testament to a biased and unfair criminal justice system that often abuses and flaunts its power. This cruelty is encouraged by performative conservative fear merchants in politics and media, like Tucker Carlson, who have replaced dog whistles with literal white surpremacist talking points and conspiracy theories. For Carlson, support for Floyd is now an “attack on civilization,” and according to his warped conspiratorial mind Chauvin’s conviction was allegedly due to jury intimidation by liberal politicians and media figures. Meanwhile, Carlson defended the violent insurrectionists, using his platform to gaslight America. However, Chauvin’s conviction is a bridge too far. He warned if this continues to happen, “decent, productive people will leave. The country as we know it will be over.”
Allow me to be the first to say, “Au revoir and goodbye, racists! Welcome, sane people! Assalamu alaikum to a more decent and productive United States of America.”
Sadly, Carlson’s rogues’ gallery are here to stay and spew their hate. Many who continue to defend Chauvin are making every excuse for cops to continue kneeling on Black victims. This hateful ecosystem however affords no such generous excuses to Black athletes like Colin Kaepernick who peacefully kneel to protest police brutality. There’s still more outrage on the right towards “cancel culture” than towards cops who literally cancel the lives of Black and brown people. For example, Brett Favre, the same athlete who recently said politics should be kept out of sports, decided to publicly contribute his astute political analysis on the Chauvin verdict. Favre said although he wasn’t defending Chauvin, he nonetheless found it “hard to believe” that “he intentionally meant to kill George Floyd.”
Of course not. That would require Favre believing that that police could lie and be racist, but he’s probably never been pulled over, profiled, surveilled, or stopped and frisked due to his ethnicity or religion.
Communities of color often don’t have such a “hard” time believing cops could lie, be corrupt or intentionally violent because our skin color doesn’t grant us privilege, but instead often makes us a target. It bears reminding that the district attorney didn’t initially charge Chauvin with a crime. The Minneapolis Police Department claimed Floyd “physically resisted officers.” They said he allegedly “died after a medical incident,” which should win all the awards for the most creative euphemism since “Operation Enduring Freedom.” If it wasn’t for teenager Darnella Frazier’s citizen journalism, capturing the brutal murder on her cellphone, Floyd would be forgotten as another statistic and cruel casualty of a country that doesn’t respect Black lives.
“We send police to places where we don’t need to send them.”
Deference to cops and support of their violence has even made Sean Hannity lose his mind more than usual. He referred to Adam Toledo, a child killed by the Chicago police, as “13-year-old man.” For reference, Hannity referred to Kyle Rittenhouse as a “little boy out there trying to protect his community.” He also compared Black Lives Matter to the KKK, a terrorist organization. The attorney of the police officer who fatally shot and killed Toledo said, “[Toledo] had a gun in his right hand” and was beginning to swing the gun in his client’s direction. The officer “was left with no other option” than to shoot according to the attorney. Recent video of the shooting revealed that Toledo, unlike Rittenhouse, was unarmed. Conservatives care so much about children that accused sexual assaulter, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who doesn’t want us to condemn him for his high school yearbook, just ruled that children deserve life in prison without parole. I wonder if he’ll feel the same way if Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old, is convicted of murder.
“We need a new vision for public safety—and new laws, policies and public investments,” Ifill told me, that will “upend” this current system and “begin to support that vision in meaningful ways.” One such vision endorsed by President Biden is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the Democratic-led House. It would ban chokeholds and carotid holds, end “qualified immunity” that protects law enforcement from most civil lawsuits, and prohibit discriminatory profiling by law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, it has no chance of passing in the divided Senate until we abolish the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic historically used to block civil rights progress.
Some activists don’t want reform, but want to “abolish” the police, which is currently considered an extreme position. However, how can you blame some people for not wanting to overturn a system whose original purpose to them was always meant to terrorize and oppress their communities? Regardless, that position currently doesn’t have tangible traction with the majority.
However, most people can agree that impoverished communities around America need more investment, more institutions, shelters, and grocery stores, instead of what they currently have which is a whole lot of police, who show up with guns and tasers, introducing armed responses to non-violent crises.
“I hear from Black communities all over the country that they are happy to refund community services that prevent people from calling the cop in the first place,” Dr. Goff told me. “We send police to places where we don’t need to send them.” Dr. Goff said that 96 percent of police calls don’t involve violence and 80 percent involve situations that have nothing to do with crime, such as incidents with homelessness and substance abuse.
Although many Democrats are utterly terrified of “Defund the Police” and how the GOP will weaponize it in the 2022 midterms, it ultimately seems like the right and sane policy. For example, more than 20 major cities have reduced police budgets and are transferring that money to the community, prioritizing public health and public safety. We can argue about the semantics and wording of the slogan, but it’s ultimately up to those of us committed to ending injustice and racism to communicate and message the substance behind the policy. After all, marriage equality, Medicare For All and a $15 minimum wage were all considered radical ideas—until they weren’t.
Or, we can just continue the status quo and keep talking about “bad apples.” If we do, all I ask is we take the simplistic analogy to its logical conclusion. The problem with tolerating a “few bad apples” is that eventually they end up contaminating and spoiling the entire barrel.