Like you, I have read and heard many comments from people who viewed the video footage of the death of George Perry Floyd on May 25, 2020, at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago in Minneapolis. The painful video footage we saw last year and the footage from police body cameras presented thus far during the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin caused many of us to feel shock, sadness, anger/outrage, frustration and other terms of moral and ethical pain.
The store clerk who accepted an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill from George Floyd as payment for a pack of cigarettes expressed feeling guilty as he saw how Floyd was mishandled by four Minneapolis police officers and killed by Chauvin.
Everything we have seen shows that George Floyd, a physically large man, moved and behaved around people respectfully. He greeted a woman with gentle affection. He chatted with the store clerk politely.
Yet, George Floyd died brutally, without having threatened or assaulted anyone. His pleading words about being claustrophobic when placed inside a police vehicle were disregarded. His cries about being unable to breathe were ignored. The pleas of onlookers concerned about his treatment by the police and his physical distress were met with stony defiance. Their concerns were smugly dismissed as Chauvin rested his entire weight on George Floyd’s head and neck, pressing Floyd’s face into the street surface even after he stopped moving, stopped pleading for help and stopped breathing.
We cannot deny what we have seen. But do we have the moral capacity to know what it means?
Do we know that George Floyd’s death was no accident?
Do we know that Derek Chauvin was able to kill George Floyd because the political, legal and social views in this society about policing and Black people guaranteed that Chauvin would not be stopped, hindered or otherwise restrained from killing an unarmed, helpless, frightened and pleading Black man who begged to breathe until he could no longer beg or breathe?
Do we know, at last, beyond a reasonable doubt that the United States is not “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but a police state?
“They know that Derek Chauvin’s conduct toward George Floyd was not atypical police behavior.”
Indigenous, Black, brown and Asian Pacific Island people have known this truth about the United States for centuries. They know that police officers act with impunity because politicians, judges, courts, prosecutors and white voters — including many who claim to be followers of Jesus — vest them with immunity. They know that Derek Chauvin’s conduct toward George Floyd was not atypical police behavior. Chauvin was the senior police officer on the scene.
As horrible as Floyd’s death is to watch and recall, it is not enough for us to be horrified, shocked, saddened, outraged and frustrated about it. Black, indigenous and other people of color have lived with those feelings for centuries.
Instead, we should admit the obvious truth that the United States is a police state. We live in a society where police officers are licensed to use lethal force against an unarmed man who gasped for breath under an officer’s knee. We live in a society where law-abiding people are not free to stop a police officer from killing an unarmed man. We live in a society where any police officer can do what Derek Chauvin did — and do it anytime, anywhere and to anyone — knowing that he or she will not be stopped or restrained.
We live in a society where government agents are licensed to abuse and kill unarmed helpless people, with impunity, assured that no Good Samaritan will intervene to prevent the abuses and deaths and that if someone tried, the law would side with the abusive and homicidal agents.
“George Floyd’s death did not make Minneapolis a safer place to live, work, learn or raise a family.”
George Floyd’s death did not make Minneapolis a safer place to live, work, learn or raise a family. Derek Chauvin’s employment, training and experience as a police officer did not make Minneapolis safer. Our feelings of shock, sadness, outrage, frustration and guilt concerning George Floyd’s death do not make Minneapolis or anywhere else safer. We do not live in a police state to be safe. We are policed this way by choice rather than by necessity, because white people want the police to have and use the threat and use of lethal force to control non-white people, workers and political dissidents.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall understood this painful truth. He tried to persuade other justices about the dangers of bestowing god-like power and allegiance on law enforcement agents. Ultimately, Marshall’s warnings, like the dying pleas sobbed by George Floyd, were disregarded.
During my years as a state appellate court judge I tried, like Justice Marshall, to persuade fellow jurists that our court decisions accorded too much deference to law enforcement perspectives on public safety and too little respect for individual liberties. Nothing I did, said or wrote seemed to matter.
George Floyd died because white people want this society to be a police state no matter who dies, how they die, where they die, and whenever they die in police custody. George Floyd died because the United States was set up to be a police state where the lives of Black, indigenous and other people of color do not matter to judges, courts, legislators and law enforcement agencies.
That reality will not change no matter how many horrible videos we see. It did not change after the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King — another unarmed Black man — by four Los Angeles law enforcement officers. It did not change after Tamir Rice was shot to death, again recorded via video. It did not change after Alton Sterling, Rayshard Brooks, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Philando Castille were killed while in police custody as they were “protected and served.”
“A police state is a sick society.”
We will continue to live and function as a police state until white people — including the people who claim to be shocked, saddened, frustrated and outraged by George Floyd’s death — force mayors, legislators, governors, judges and law enforcement leaders to quit allowing law enforcement officers to behave like demi-gods.
Until then, do not call what happened to George Floyd and the many other victims of abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior “shocking,” “saddening,” “outrageous” and “frustrating.” Those words may be true. But they are not adequate.
Instead, we should call what happened to George Floyd and other victims of the abusive and homicidal police state set up and maintained to protect white supremacy and privilege sickening.
A police state is a sick society. Abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior is sickening. People who perpetrate it, such as Derek Chauvin, are morally, ethically and socially pathological. The same should be admitted about people who enable, condone and immunize what Chauvin did to George Floyd, and whenever abusive and homicidal police behavior happens to anyone else.
George Floyd and other victims of abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior call us to know that a society that perpetuates that behavior is deathly sickened, not safe. Until we know this truth, we will not change. We will merely become more accustomed to being shocked, saddened, outraged, frustrated and horrified by sickening behavior we license and refuse to punish.
Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
George Floyd and the silence of white evangelical America | Opinion by Andrew Manis