What Right Looks Like in 2020
4 June 2020 (updated 27 June)
We have all seen videos of police abusing black men – even those like George Floyd already in handcuffs – and it’s time to end the culture of rationalizing police brutality. It’s time for a federal review of all use-of-force policies and then formulate and impose consistent expectations of police services across the country.
All sectors of the public deserve to feel protected by the police, and right now, that trust is lost because, well, policing is complicated. But there is a better way to deal with complicated, and society is demanding a solution.
A tipping point was reached when a nine-minute video of a black man dying at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25th was posted for all to see. The last week has seen thousands of people of all ethnicities take to the streets in a groundswell movement for real justice for all people. Thousands of people of all ethnicities continue to take to the streets, shouting the name “George Floyd” as the horror of police brutality sent yet another black man to the morgue.
Although frustration and anger were boiling over, protests have mostly been a peaceful, though insistent, demand for justice. Criminals used the momentum of the crowds to create chaos and provide cover for the looting and destruction that were initially attributed to the protests for justice, but with most of the looters arrested, attention quickly got back to the demands for equal justice for all and the elimination of systemic racism that pockmark so many corners of authority.
On June 1st, in response to multiple peaceful protests by day and violent destruction by night, the U.S. President threatened to call in military action against American citizens, to end protests and to restore peace. Calling himself the “law and order” president, he briefly stated that "justice will be served” and that Floyd “will not have died in vain,” but those words had a distinctly hollow ring. The self-absorbed President then vowed to protect Americans from the “angry mob.”
Following this televised speech, I watched in disbelief as police officers (under orders) suddenly and without warning, aggressively shoved protesters back. I heard reports of rubber bullets being fired, and saw tear gas and flashbang grenades being lobbed into throngs of peaceful protesters. The irony was apparently lost on Trump, who was more intent on stoking the fires of fear and retaliation than focusing on how to address the cause that has united millions of people around the world in solidarity against the systemic culture of acceptance of institutionalized physical and social abuse of the non-white community.
In a reckless bid to appeal to hate-hardened voters whom he thinks will re-elect him in November, the President then walked to a nearby church for a meaningless 'photo op' while silently holding up a bible and demanding that others, such as the hapless Secretary of Defense, stand with him. I say hapless because Mark Esper now says he was “unaware” of the intent. Before the photo op fiasco, Esper had described protests on American soil as a battle space to be dominated; he quickly walked that back the following day, after a torrent of criticism. He held a press conference to say "the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire situations." One has to wonder what such mixed messages signal about his integrity.
In a commendable display of ethics, a Pentagon official has resigned over Esper’s role in the photo op. “You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it,” James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense policy, wrote in his resignation letter to Esper.
The Bishop of that church, The Right Reverend Mariann Budde, quickly expressed outrage that the church was used used as the backdrop "for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.” Other religious leaders aligned themselves with demands for justice. Bishop Michael Curry echoed her comments: “For the sake of George Floyd for all who have wrongly suffered and for the sake of us all we need leaders to help us to be 'one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.’ ”
General James Mattis, who had resigned as Trump's first Secretary of Defense in 2018, has broken his long silence to denounce Trump's actions in the most forthright language, saying America has suffered “three years without mature leadership."
Sadly, Trump's actions continue to resonate exactly where he wants to. Supporters have heaped praise on Trump, buying into the narrative (unsupported by ongoing news video) that protesters are "rioters and thugs” to be repressed.
As has happened many times during his term in office, decent people of all walks of life, all races and ethnicities, all religions, and all orientations responded in disbelief over Trump’s actions and words, but this most recent abomination has strengthened even further public resolve to make change happen.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of those rendered momentarily speechless when considering what message a non-response would convey. In response to the protests, both he and former U.S. President George W Bush have said "we must listen" to the people and effect change. Now is the time.
These protests are true democracy in action, and they must be answered with change, not repression.
Among other things, we must stop accepting the excuses used by bad cops when they resort to all levels of violence including what amounts to institutionalized lynching. Even in this case, with video posted for all the world to witness, the officers claim Mr Floyd was resisting arrest. We see for ourselves, a man laying prone on the street, begging to breathe, as three officers kneel on top of him and one continues to press his knee into Floyd's neck for almost three minutes after being told the victim has no pulse (almost nine minutes in total). A fourth officer stands guard between the murder in progress and bystanders who are begging police to stop. Blatant abuse of power. Blatant lynching. And yet those officers clearly believed they would not be held accountable, that they would certainly use the system to justify their actions.
We must all stand together and demand change from our leaders, all of our leaders, at every level of society. This culture must be wiped out, now, and no country is immune to disgusting episodes of hate-fueled behaviour (unfortunately there are no shortage of examples in Canada, particularly towards indigenous people, and video of police in Edmonton kneeling on the neck of a black man being arrested in 2018 has recently come to light).
Clearly the current systems have sheltered hatred and allowed inequality to become systemic, and political leaders must begin establishing a new order. People across the globe are beginning to realize that “white silence is white violence” and that we must find ways to change that, now – not after studies and investigations, but all of us, in our everyday lives as well as within our communities and institutions.
Let us be perfectly clear, non-whites are hurt every day. If not murdered or physically abused, they are psychologically victimized by insults or the more insidious social exclusions or sly comments that insinuate inferiority and try to justify inequality. Living with micro-aggressions is what non-whites endure every day. Shame on us, shame on all of us for not ensuring this behaviour becomes so uniformly unacceptable, so consistently condemned and acted upon, that our children will never know what it was like to experience inequality.
Some of us, wrongly, assumed that the horror of the vicious beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1992, almost three decades ago, would change the culture among the police community – however, it seems as strong as ever in some areas.
That this behaviour has not been wiped out by the good cops and others in leadership positions, speaks volumes. Are we all so intimidated by hatred that we accept what we know to be wrong? There is no shortage of sickening examples of horrific murder and other shocking behaviour against the black community in particular (although that scope is sometimes widened) by those supposedly charged with keeping all citizens safe. And sadly, the U.S. does not have a monopoly on elitist authority, nor on hatred.
This culture of quiet acceptance must be wiped out, quickly, immediately. Good people MUST stand up and loudly voice this demand, and continue to do so. WE MUST STOP shrugging our shoulders and STOP accepting lame excuses that have led to murder-by-police. That officers feel empowered to repeatedly commit murder, even in front of cameras, indicates they believe it’s possible to create enough excuses to legally get away with it. Why would they think that? Experience. It has happened regularly – time and time again – and probably hundreds, no thousands, of times when cameras weren’t rolling.
I personally admit to being oblivious for most of my life. I grew up learning that slavery had been abolished. Teachers highlighted the evils of prejudice. I remember, as a child, being thankful that I lived in a more enlightened time. How naive. What we didn’t learn, was that legal slavery had merely morphed into racism and social injustice for all non-whites. As students, we were left to experience that on our own, and some of us were more insulated than others.
In fact, I did not witness prejudice towards groups of people until I was 16. This all-inclusive distrust of others was eye-opening, but I brushed it off as a byproduct of a poor neighbourhood and lack of education. Little did I know that such ignorance would persist, would fester and grow – below the awareness of many otherwise thoughtful and rational white citizens like myself.
Oblivion is just one more example of white privilege, and I recognize it now. A lack of personal impact is no excuse for inaction. Disbelief and disgust can no longer be a brief emotion, experienced and then swept away by everyday life. I did not really understand the deep meaning and painful layers wrapped up in “black lives matter” until recently. Likewise, learning the word "micro-aggression" was illuminating, gave me pause, and became disheartening as I realized what has been going on around me.
The following letter was written by Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). In a few words, he highlights just how clearly the fear manifests.
I’m a Navy Officer. I’m a nonprofit CEO. I’m a black man in America.
When in uniform, I am thanked for my service. When in a suit, I’m treated respectfully as I walk into a store or restaurant, a customer worthy of gracious attention. But catch me on a weekend, two days behind on a shave, wearing a hoodie – and I am now a threat.
This is not me being sensitive. It is evident in the guarded reactions of fellow pedestrians rounding the corner and seeing me in their path. It is evident in the less accommodating reaction of the restaurant host when I walk in alone, hoping to catch a seat for a meal and a drink. It is evident in the expression of the department store clerk who sees me not as a possible sale but someone to be followed.
The fact is, I could have been George Floyd. I could have been Ahmaud Arbery. I could have been Christian Cooper. I could have been any of them because I am them – a black man in America who is too often seen as a threat before I am seen as a person.
The shadows cloaking systemic abuse perpetrated at every level of authority and daily life MUST be cleared out and immediate efforts towards clear and true change must begin. Across the globe, particularly the U.S. and Canada, we must institutionalize real and full equality.
And these protests are indeed having effect. Atlanta's Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Police Chief, Erika Shields, walked with protesters in that city, Plano Police Chief Ed Drain has been joining protesters in Dallas-Fort Worth. The tide is turning. Mayor Bottoms has pledged to review the city’s use-of-force policy for police.
Will it be sustained and consistent? Will these feelings of solidarity and enlightenment bring real change, equality and justice, or will they give way, again, to the threat posed by closet racists?
We can start by placing every instance of abuse, every micro-aggression, under a microscope – to decisively eradicate it through consistent, serious and immediate consequences. Training must be revamped and trainers must be tasked with identifying those who have learned to say the “right things” yet act another. If that is “thought-police” then so be it, we have to make sure we fire enforcement officers who are racist and do everything to ensure we don’t hire them in future, no matter how small the recruiting pool may get.
We all have to make sure there is no place for racists in our society. Not anywhere, but especially in our military and enforcement services.
On 26 June, a Toronto police officer (off-duty at the time) was found guilty of assault (though not aggravated assault), but his brother was acquitted for the brutal two-on-one beating that left Dafonte Miller, a young black man, blind in one eye after chasing him down. No one who is not threatening the life of another should fear for their life at the hands of a police officer, and no excuses can be accepted. Calling the self-defence rationale “razor thin,” Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca said cases like this “raise significant issues involving race and policing that should be further examined.” Let's see what the sentence will be.
Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell also provided a clear example of 'what right looks like' when he marched alongside community leaders. He told a CNN interviewer that he wants “to make sure that all chiefs and sheriffs throughout this country join me in this clarion call to all officers: when they watch this video, if they think, in any way, shape or form, that that’s acceptable or reasonable uses of force, I told my officers, if they think that’s reasonable, I want you to turn your badge in to me, and do it immediately.”
Acknowledging that now is the time to create change, Governor of Minnesota Tim Walz said, "I don’t think we get another chance to fix this.”
So what do protesters want? Basically, REAL JUSTICE, and REAL CONSEQUENCES that lead to REAL CHANGE.
Justice for the man who lay on the ground begging to breathe as three police officers kneeled on him, one on his neck, two on his back, while another defiantly stood guard against bystanders witnessing a gang murder slowly completed in front of their eyes. The officers were fired by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo after public outrage started to spill out. Only Officer Derek Chauvin, the neck kneeler, was charged at the time (with the little-known “third degree" murder and second-degree manslaughter), and those charges were clearly disproportionate to the criminal use of force captured on multiple videos of the entire ordeal.
Minnesota's Attorney General Keith Ellison finally stepped in to do what’s right and ensure that proper consequences followed the heinous actions taken by those police officers – although it should not have taken until June 3rd before Chauvin's charges were increased to second degree murder, and the other officers were finally charged (with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and also with second-degree manslaughter).
These protests have sparked a lot of heated conversations. Let's make sure those discussions lead somewhere better.
Quick, clear and serious consequences are the kind of change that a truly just society deserves and demands. What will Canadian governments do to initiate real and consistent change across all of our systems? What will you do, to make a significant change within your own network?
© FrontLine Defence
4 June 2020