“This is not an issue of one man with his knee on a neck.”
On Thursday night, protests broke out across the country for the third straight evening, as angry Americans demanded justice in the police killing of 46-year-old Minneapolis resident George Floyd. Floyd died Monday after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck and pinned him to the ground. Floyd begged for mercy, repeatedly uttering “I can’t breathe.”
Video of Floyd’s death quickly spread across the Internet, drawing outrage and reigniting a long-simmering anger toward police throughout the nation.
“They treated him worse than they treat animals,” Philonise Floyd, Mr. Floyd’s brother, told CNN.
Outrage swelled over Hennepin County prosecutors’ reluctance to arrest the officers involved and charge them with murder. That ignited a furor the nation over. From Los Angeles, California to Denver, Colorado to the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, protesters have made their voices heard, demanding justice.
“This is not an issue of one man with his knee on a neck,” Jordan Giddens, who protested in Birmingham, Alabama, told The Birmingham News. “This is a societal and a cultural and a systematic issue that will not change until every single person in America takes a look at themselves in the mirror and says, ‘Who the f— am I?’
On Friday afternoon, after three nights of protests, Chauvin was finally taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Although this week’s protests began in Minneapolis with Floyd’s death, unrest has been simmering long before Monday.
It began long before Ahmaud Arbery was chased and gunned down while on a run in southern Georgia. Long before Stephon Clark was murdered while sitting in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California. Long before Alton Sterling was executed at close range in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Long before Walter Scott was shot to death in broad daylight in Charleston, South Carolina. Long before Sandra Bland was found hanged in a Waller County, Texas jail cell after being arrested. Long before Eric Garner was choked to death in New York City for the “crime” of selling cigarettes. Long before Mike Brown was killed on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Long before Trayvon Martin was gunned down while carrying skittles in Sanford, Florida. Long before Atatiana Jefferson, Botham John, and Breonna Taylor were killed in their own homes.
Long before Philando Castile was killed on the very same streets of Minneapolis.
Jacob Frey, the city’s mayor, said the violent protests were a reflection of the reality the Black community has faced for centuries. “What we’ve seen over the last two days … is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness,” he told reporters on Thursday. “Anger and sadness that has been ingrained in our Black community, not just because of five minutes of horror, but 400 years.”
He added: “If you’re feeling that sadness and that anger, it’s not only understandable, it’s right.”
As Frey and others have pointed out, Black Americans have been disproportionately targeted by police for decades. From the violent attacks on civilians that prompted the nationwide riots of the 1960s and the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles to the 2014 unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, Maryland, police officers have repeatedly provoked violence in Black communities.
In recent decades, law enforcement agencies around the nation have embraced the “broken windows” model of policing, especially in heavily Black communities. The model prioritizes policing and making arrests for low-level offenses in order to prevent more serious crimes, but researchers have found no evidence the model works. The approach has instead bred distrust between Black communities and the police officers, who more often than not don’t even live in the cities they serve in.
The approach has also been criticized for being racist, and the data bears that out. Black residents nationwide are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents. When police initiate an interaction, they’re twice as likely to threaten use or force against Black residents than white residents, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This disparity holds true when applied to fatal shootings involving police as well. A 2014 ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings found that young Black men were 21 times more likely to be shot than their white counterparts between 2010 and 2012.
These disparities have accelerated the hostility and distrust between police officers and those they are supposed to “protect and serve.”
“Many of us cannot fundamentally trust the people who are charged with keeping us and our communities safe,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nikole Hannah Jones wrote way back in 2015.
In recent years, and again this week, Democratic lawmakers have begun to call out these generations-long inequities in how laws are enforced.
“Structural racism has influenced how laws in America are enforced. This is not new. It’s been going on for generations,” Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted on Thursday.
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But it’s not just decades of police violence that Black residents, protesters, activists, and writers are tired of. While police brutality is often the spark that prompts protests and riots, the underlying causes run much deeper, according to Jones.
“Police, because they interact in black communities every day, are often seen as the face of larger systems of inequality in the justice system, employment, education and housing,” she wrote.
This week’s protesters and organizations supporting them have said as much. “The uprising spreading across this country is fueled by systemic racial issues that have been ingrained in the fabric of this nation for decades,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.
While Floyd’s death lit the fuse that exploded into flames these last few days, activists and writers point out that systemic inequality is the gasoline that has been poured on that fuse for 400 years. Reconstruction and the state-sanctioned racism of Jim Crow shortened that fuse. So did decades of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan, the 1919 massacre of Black residents in Elaine, Arkansas, the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and countless other acts of racial violence.
This week’s protests are about more than just George Floyd’s death. They’re about the consequences of structural racism.
They’re about the legacy of redlining that segregated Black Americans into the least desirable communities that were disinvested in, allowed to fall into disrepair, and are now the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
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They’re about the criminal justice system and the “war on drugs,” which disproportionately harmed Black communities and led to four decades of mass incarceration that has put Black residents behind bars at more than five times the rate of their white peers. Black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but 33% of the nation’s prison population.
They’re about the nation’s inequitable healthcare system. Black Americans are more likely to lack health insurance than their white counterparts. In 2018, the uninsured rate among Blacks was 9.7%, while it was just 5.4% among whites. Black people also report higher rates of discrimination when seeking medical care, making them less likely to receive preventive health services and more likely to receive lower-quality care. Research has repeatedly shown that implicit bias has led many healthcare providers to dismiss Black patients’ concerns and often results in unequal treatment and unequal outcomes. The result is that Black Americans suffer from higher rates of chronic diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. Those same inequities and pre-existing conditions are also part of the reason Black residents are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus.
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They’re about the racial wealth gap. In 2016, the median wealth of white households was $171,000. That is 10 times the wealth of Black households ($17,100). While white families have been building generational wealth for centuries, Black Americans lived through slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow era economic repression and rarely pass down wealth from generation to generation. Consequently, Black Americans are still more than twice as likely as white Americans to live in poverty.
They’re about the racial wage gap. White Americans earned 26.5% more than Black Americans in 2019, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. That’s an increase of nearly five percentage points since 2000.
They’re about the homeownership gap. In 2017, nearly 72% of whites owned homes, while only 41.8% of Black Americans owned homes. As the Urban Institute noted, that is a wider gap than when race-based discrimination against homebuyers was legal. Homeownership has long been a way to build wealth, and without it, Black people are less likely to close the wealth gap.
They’re about the education gap. Nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit group EdBuild. Less funding means fewer teachers and fewer resources for students to take advantage of.
The protests are about all of these disparities and more. The killing of George Floyd was simply the match that lit the fuse. Many people have criticized the protesters for becoming violent, but others, like writer Elie Mystal, have noted that this violence is not common. In fact, it could be more widespread, given the scale of the injustices suffered by the Black community.
“It takes incredible strength to practice nonviolence in the face of murder and oppression,” he wrote in The Nation. “This country could be on fire almost every night in almost every city. It’s not, because most black people in this country choose to exercise tremendous restraint.”
Restraint, he noted, that wasn’t shown by the Minneapolis police.
Nikole Hannah Jones, meanwhile, said that while seeing destruction unfolding hurt, non-violence had not proven effective in the past.
“The Civil Rights Movement was *not* non-violent. It was sparked by violence — beginning with the brutal beatings of black servicemen coming home from war,” she wrote in a Friday tweet, later adding: “Peaceful protest did not bring about the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Black people being firebombed, water-hosed, lynched, bitten by dogs, beaten to a pulp by police trying to march across a bridge is what brought the changes.”
She noted that the U.S. was born in an act of violence in the Boston Harbor, that slavery was ended because of “the deadliest war in our history,” and that “Black Americans got full legal citizenship only after a decades-long *violently* repressed rights movement.”
“I am sure destruction won’t work here, but neither has anything else,” she concluded.