It’s hot outside, and it's been eight days since the world watched George Floyd—a 46-year-old Black man known to friends as a gregarious giant and keeper-of-the-peace—suffocating under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd was accused of trying to pass a fake $20 to buy cigarettes. More video showed Floyd’s body already handcuffed and pinned underneath the weight of two additional officers. As Chauvin’s knee digs into the back of Floyd’s neck, Floyd can be heard saying “I can’t breathe officer” and pleading with officers to let up. Bystanders implored officers to check his pulse as his body went limp. Some observers say that with his final breaths, Floyd calls to his dead mother by whispering, “Momma, I’m through.” He was carelessly lifted off, lifeless on a stretcher, and taken away in an ambulance.
Floyd was later pronounced dead, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder. Jay Willis, a Harvard Law grad and staff writer for GQ, called the charge a low rung on the ladder of culpability which “means that a person neither planned nor intended to kill, but instead did something ‘eminently dangerous to others,’ acting with a ‘depraved mind’ and ‘without regard for human life.’” The action was not enough to keep Minneapolis from protesting and then setting fire to buildings, including the police department’s third precinct. To some, the destruction was senseless.
With his passing, Floyd joined a senseless number of other Black people—including Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Delrawn Small and Alton Sterling—who’ve died at the hands of law enforcement. Across the country, in dozens of cities like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Ferguson (and yes, Tampa and St. Petersburg) fed up protestors are joining arms, coronavirus be damned, and taking to streets to demand justice, systematic change plus a shakeup of how police operate and get held accountable. Local law enforcement officials across the country say they’ll implement those changes—we’ll see about that.
Online, the reactions, armchair analyses and fearless reporting from journalists across the country are dizzying enough to cause nausea. We’re already ass-deep in a global pandemic, and now we’re also arguing over the difference between peaceful protestors and self-serving looters. We’re learning about alt-right instigators all while watching a bumbling president do his best to impersonate his authoritarian idols. The worst of the participants are firing off pleonastic explanations or pasting platitudes like “Lead with love” onto the end of Instagram posts that all dance around a truth that, for some, seems too hard to just say: America was built largely on the backs of Black slaves violently brought to these shores to be exploited by masters whose descendants have all benefited from the practice. And America, today, is still incredibly unkind and inhumane to Black people. Seeds of violence have been cultivated for centuries; all of what we’re watching onscreen and hearing outside our windows feels a lot like the harvest.
In a new blog post, our 44th president Barack Obama said violence and the destruction of property “whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism” is inexcusable. He also extolled the virtue of voting at every level of government and added that “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”
Obama’s bottom line was this: “If we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both.” He’s not wrong about any of that, and neither is the collective taking a stand.
What we’re not talking enough about is the bravery of protestors of all ages—but especially the young—who’ve not just peacefully marched across the U.S. but also refused to stand down to continued intimidation and threats of violence or arrest. Young people of all races are taking pepper spray to their faces and batons to their bellies. They’re getting knocked to the ground by riot shields and run over by NYPD squad cars. In Philadelphia they’re being threatened by police sympathizers wielding baseball bats. Still, the protestors are barely flinching at the sight of weapons loaded with nonlethal rounds (and paying the price as evidenced by the number of injuries being reported). They’re getting arrested all because they’ve all had enough of the systematic oppression of Black Americans. These are young activists who’ve forcefully decided to take their outrage offline.
Locally, they’re the ones standing in the middle of Fowler Avenue talking to former Tampa Police Chief and current Mayor Jane Castor (who in 2018 apologized for a ticketing campaign that disproportionately cited black bicyclists). They’re horizontal on the asphalt shutting down St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive, and they’re organizing sit-ins at the police headquarters two miles away. They’re the ones trying to prevent looting. And they’re showing up in the morning to help clean up all before launching a GoFundMe to help a local business rebuild.
Some in this new crop of young leaders may be unpolished or raw—and images of them clashing with police might unnerve your sweet little "all lives matter" heart—but these aren’t people who’ll get back to brunch as usual when this “all blows over.” They’ll relentlessly apply to join their Citizens Review Board (or committee) and hopefully cultivate a better trust between a city and its law enforcement. They’ll run for office. At the very least, they’ll vote with a handful of friends (and ex-felons with rights restored) in tow.
Make no mistake, these activists aren’t done. They’ll be on the news all through this very sweaty, and scary, summer. And it’s going to take some time, but if we’re lucky, they’ll make change. I hope they do, because we’re all fed up. More importantly, the safety and true wellbeing of Black brothers and sisters can’t wait any longer.
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