“We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes,” wrote seven US bishops on Friday, who chair committees within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “What’s more astounding,” they wrote, “is that this is happening within mere weeks of several other such occurrences.”
Grief and rage? Yes. Shock at the businesslike brutality of it? Certainly. Soul-crushing sorrow at the prodigal disregard for life? Doubtless. Terror at the thought that police officers are so confident in their right to behave as they did? Dear God, it goes without saying, or should. All those sentiments are present at roll-call. Only surprise is missing from the reaction to George Floyd’s untimely demise, which came about after police confronted him on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
“I can’t breathe,” the late Mr. Floyd is heard saying on video, as veteran Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin presses his knee into Floyd’s neck. “He’s stopping his breathing,” a bystander says of Mr. Chauvin to another officer on the scene. “He’s talking,” responds the officer. Mr. Floyd was talking – pleading for relief, in fact – until he wasn’t. When Mr. Floyd had stopped talking, or even moving, Mr. Chauvin’s knee stayed on his neck.
I can’t breathe. – George Floyd
News on Friday that Hennepin County prosecutors had arrested Mr. Chauvin and charged him with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter mitigated very little of the grief, rage, shock, and sorrow. It did nothing for the terror.
The criminal complaint filed Friday in Hennepin County cites the medical examiner’s preliminary report, which found that Mr. Floyd suffered from heart disease and hypertension. “The autopsy,” the complaint reads, “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” The complaint says Mr. Chauvin kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, during the final two minutes and fifty-three seconds of which Mr. Floyd was unresponsive.
“The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death,” the complaint goes on to say.
Mr. Chauvin reportedly had eighteen internal affairs complaints filed against him, and two reprimands in his jacket. Another former officer involved in the incident, Tou Thao, reportedly had six complaints against him, one of which was still open, and had settled out of court an excessive force suit in 2017. Two other former officers on the scene, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, reportedly had no complaints against them.
I can’t breathe. – Eric Garner
The incident that led to Mr. Floyd’s death was an appalling echo of a similar atrocity police officers perpetrated on the streets of New York, also in broad daylight and also caught on video, against another black citizen: Eric Garner – a husband and the father of six children – who died without trial, when police suspected him of selling loose cigarettes.
New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Mr. Garner in a choke hold in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. The whole thing was caught on video. Pantaleo did not stand trial, either. In fact, it took the NYPD nearly five years to fire him.
“Now is not the time to rush to judgment and immediately condemn our officers,” Minneapolis police Lt. Bob Kroll – president of the police union – said on Tuesday of last week, the day after Mr. Floyd met his fate. “We ask that the community remain calm and the investigation be completed in full.”
If the firing of the four officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death and the arrest and formal charging of Mr. Chauvin in such comparatively short order may be counted as progress, citizens in Minneapolis and other cities across the United States are nevertheless convinced there is neither enough of it, nor fast enough.
Protests have spread across the country, and many of them have become violent. More than two dozen cities in sixteen states have imposed curfews as of Sunday morning, and several governors have mobilized the National Guard, while news reports say authorities have made more than sixteen hundred arrests nationwide.
“While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests,” the US bishops wrote, “and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged.”
“Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard,” the bishops note, “their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.” The bishops are right.
Whether about the invasiveness of government, the arrogance of officers who embrace their role as law-enforcers with such relish that they forget their original and primary responsibility to protect the public peace, or complacency respecting the security of rights and liberties against intrusion; the fact is that black communities across the United States continue to live in fear – well-founded – and suffer disproportionately the baleful effects of general carelessness in these regards.
The time in which a “national conversation” may be useful is quickly passing.
When Bull Connor sicced the dogs and put the fire hoses on peaceful protestors in Birmingham, the cruelty and brutality he unleashed galvanized a movement that shook the conscience of the nation and put our commitment to the truths that inform American nationhood and constitute the American people on trial.
That movement began within living memory of a time when lynch mobs were the order of the day in great swathes of the nation, and local policemen often winked at the crimes when they were not taking part in them.
If we would fathom our progress in light of George Floyd’s case, the metric ought not to be his alleged murderer’s arrest. It should be the evident aplomb and adroitness with which we see Mr. Chauvin about his deadly work. We have gone from murder done in secret and left unpunished, to flagrant crime committed in broad daylight and under color of right.
It is useless to urge that white people are also victims of police prevarication. Atrocities will happen with some frequency in a nation of three hundred million, but even when they go unpunished against white citizens, they do not inspire the ever-present fear in which black people live their daily lives. This is a fact: one we must not minimize or seek to explain away, but face and outface together; or else, admit that the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a lie.
In any case, “Police murder white people too,” will be no sort of comfort to sane, decent people jealous of liberty.
“[T]here will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” said Martin Luther King, in a portion of his most famous address not quoted often enough. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation,” King went on to say, “until the bright day of justice emerges.”
“[T]hose who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content,” King observed prophetically in that same passage from that same speech, “will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” We returned to business as usual, and put down the work of securing the substance of liberty and justice for all. For Christ’s sake, let this – at last – be our rude awakening.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome bureau chief and international editor of the Catholic Herald.
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