Video of George Floyd pinned by Minneapolis cops is shocking but not surprising
The FBI is investigating the death of George Floyd after he was restrained by police in Minneapolis. Storyful
The images are shocking, even for those of us who have been steeped for years in coverage of police brutality.
George Floyd, 46, was handcuffed and pinned down by Minneapolis cops. One officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes as three others stood by. Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Then he died.
Shocking, but for black people in America, sadly, not surprising.
Weeks before, the name of a different young black man became a household one for similar reasons. Video was released of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, jogging through what appeared to be a picturesque Georgia community. He was confronted by two white men – Travis McMichael and his father, ex-cop Gregory McMichael – and gunned down.
Add Floyd’s and Arbery’s names to the growing list of blacks in America whose deaths have prompted nationwide activism and hashtags: Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Eric Garner.
As a black journalist in America, I often feel like my coverage of these incidents amounts to screaming into the void. The history of police brutality is deeply entrenched in an acceptance that makes it almost too daunting to end.
And as a black journalist in America, I’m tired of being shocked by images of brutality. Each one bruises my psyche and hurls me into a mini-depression. It makes me wonder whether my work is making a difference.
It makes me fear for my brother who lives in Colorado and can, at times, be a bit of a hothead. It also makes me fear for my brother in California, whose temper is a bit more laid back. It takes a lot to really get him angry. I fear for him because I know that it doesn’t take a black man being angry to get killed by a cop. It just takes a black man being black.
I grew up hearing about police raids during the 1950s on black communities that ended in the brutalization and arrests of random black men after reports (which might or might not have been true) that a white woman was raped by a vaguely described “black man.” And I heard about cases where police didn’t commit crimes themselves but simply looked the other way when African Americans were brutalized.
Today, the invisible has become visible. Cops are caught on cellphone and body cameras. Social media and mainstream news coverage make footage go viral, prompting protests. But the cases of brutalization persist.
How can that be? For one thing, it’s rare for an officer to be convicted, even with camera footage. About 900 to 1,000 people in America are fatally shot by police each year. Yet from 2005 to March 2019, according to NBC News, only 35 officers were found guilty in an on-duty shooting that resulted in death, an average of about three per year.
In the Arbery case, it took more than two months for video footage to be released. And only after protests during a pandemic did authorities arrest and charge the McMichaels.
In that case, former cop Gregory McMichael had, according to reports, exhibited behaviors associated with officers who go rogue. He’d blown off use-of-force training multiple times. He'd been reprimanded at least once in his career.
If catching rogue cops on camera isn’t enough, what is?
More coverage: Policing in the USA
Ultimately, it comes down to this: Police departments must be willing to do the hard work of addressing and resolving the biases that cause officers to devalue black life. Racism dates to our nation’s founding, and biases exist within all of us. In cops, those biases can be deadly.
Curbing the power of police unions is also hard work. Unions far too often protect bad cops, including African American ones, and solidify the blue wall that pushes good cops to stay silent about misconduct.
I hope someday to be surprised by a change that would cause unions to rethink how they address brutality and deal with cops when they are being disciplined or fired; surprised by a federal government that would create nationwide use-of-force standards and punishments that would protect my brothers; surprised by courses that teach officers to lead with compassion instead of military-style force.
At least there was swift action in the Floyd case. He was killed on Monday. The officers were fired on Tuesday.
That gives me faith that progress is possible.
In the interim, I will keep screaming.
Eileen Rivers is digital content editor for USA TODAY Opinion and curator of its Policing the USA site.