Commentary By Jesse Jackson
The sign says Black Live Matter. Yet the very people who are supposed to protect us too often, in too many places, don’t seem to agree.
Demonstrators march down I-94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, protest after the death in police custody of George Floyd on May 31. | Scott Olson/Getty Images The murder of George Floyd was a lynching in broad daylight.
Three police officers stood and watched as a fourth, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck. They watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with Floyd unresponsive for 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that, according to the criminal complaint against Chauvin. They did nothing to stop the murder.
Their silence was as much an act of violence as Chauvin’s knee. And if there were no video recording of the murder, they likely would have upheld the Code Blue loyalty, and lied about what happened.
Floyd’s murder sparked peaceful demonstrations in cities across the country, demonstrations that, in Minneapolis and a few other places, turned toward riots. Chauvin and his co-conspirators weren’t immediately arrested for the murder. Had Floyd, an African American, done this to a white person, he likely would have been jailed immediately, with a bond too high to reach.
For too long, for too often, African Americans have been brutalized without consequence. Floyd’s plea for mercy — “I can’t breathe” — was an echo of Eric Garner’s last words. Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, too often the killers walk free. The signs say Black Lives Matter. Yet the very people who are supposed to protect us too often, in too many places, don’t seem to agree.
Instead of accountability, police have been given impunity. There were 17 complaints filed against Chauvin in his 19 years on the force. Only one resulted in even a reprimand.
Too few of the police live in the communities they patrol. Too many see themselves as enforcers, not protectors. There are only a few bad apples, we are told. But the Code Blue wall of silence protects the abusers, and too often rots the entire barrel. Young officers learn that if they want to advance, if they want better assignments, better pay, more security, they have to fit in. And the rot keeps spreading.
The demonstrations are necessary. The rioting understandable but regrettable. Already, the damage done to property, the exchanges with the police becomes the subject, not the agenda that is necessary to focus on the outbreaks of rage that are inevitable.
“In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. King taught us, “What is it that America has failed to hear?”
In the last years of the Obama administration, peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations occurred in cities across the country. In a stunning display of discipline and self-control, demonstrators protested police brutality and murders peacefully, shutting down major thoroughfares.
The Obama administration began an effort to encourage police reform. The sentence disparities between crack and cocaine — the “black” drug and the “white drug” — were reduced. Transfers of military weaponry to police forces were restricted. The Obama Justice Department entered into a series of consent decrees with more than a dozen police departments to encourage them to change their practices — to become more a guardian than an occupier. The consent decrees couldn’t root out racism, or dismiss the sadistic or the disturbed, but they could encourage a change in tactics, and perhaps in attitudes.
When Trump was elected, he immediately torpedoed the reforms, and terminated the consent decrees. He reopened the spigot on military weaponry and encouraged the police directly to get tough with offenders.
Last October, Bob Kroll, the president of the Minneapolis Police Union, appeared at a Trump rally to celebrate the president for freeing the police from the mild reforms of the Obama years. “The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” he told the crowd. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around, letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”
Those trumpeting law and order offer African Americans neither.
Those peaceful protests were met with harsh reaction. The voices were not heard. And now, Minneapolis is in flames and the streets of America’s cities are filled with protesters.
What America has failed to hear — decade after decade — is the demand for equal justice under the law, the demand for equal opportunity, the call for basic rights — not only for African Americans but for all — the rights to a livable wage, decent housing, health care, a safe environment, a protective, not a dangerous police force. The suffering is real; the gap documented over and over, most recently as poverty, hunger and illness makes African Americans disproportionately the victims of the coronavirus.
This isn’t complicated. The solutions are known. From the Kerner Commission in 1968 on, the analyses have been done; the needed reforms detailed — and shelved. There is money enough for top-end tax cuts, for bailing out banks and CEOs, for waging endless wars across the world. There is never enough money to fund the gap.
And so the anger and frustration build, kindling ready to ignite. And time after time, an act of outrageous police brutality sets the kindling aflame.
The demonstrators are showing courage. We’ve also seen, in a few cities, police leaders show real leadership and wisdom. I pray that all also show caution. We demonstrate not only against the threat of Code Blue, but in the time of COVID-19. Masks, social distancing, care for one another are vital so the demonstrations for life don’t end up sacrificing lives to the virus.
In the midst of a pandemic, some march in the hope that America will listen. Some march without hope but because silence is no longer acceptable. Yes, Minneapolis needs to charge, try and convict the murderer and his accomplices. Yes, the Minneapolis police force needs to cleanse itself, inside and out. America too needs to listen and to change. We will come together, or we will surely come apart.
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