Last week, George Floyd was buried in his hometown of Houston. There were additional memorial services, continuing protests and more violence throughout the United States and abroad in response to his tragic death.
It was just three weeks ago that a widely shared video of the incident allowed millions of viewers to witness his horrifying death. Floyd, a black man, handcuffed and lying face down on the street with a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, struggled to stay alive. He said he couldn’t breathe. He begged officers not to kill him. He called out for his mother. He died.
Truthfully, I could only consume a little bit of this at a time. I watched very short segments of the raw video footage and then stepped away to take my own deep breath, the kind that Floyd was crying for, the kind that would have kept him alive.
This is when I remembered a verse from the poem “For Warmth:” “I hold my face in my two hands … two hands preventing my soul from leaving me in anger.” The poem was written by Thich Nhat Hanh during the Vietnam War and inspired by the bombing of the city of Ben Tre. The verses reflect the poet’s anguish upon realizing that the catastrophic violence appeared necessary to the bombers.
A U.S. military officer is alleged to have said “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”
Perhaps, this is the same reason I am so tormented by this incident in Minneapolis. It was not a tragedy perpetrated by a rogue offender. It was bureaucratic violence, structured and organized making it appear rational and necessary. It would not have been a problem except for the fact that George Floyd died.
I should have been more prepared for this one, but I wasn’t. After all, I had been a police officer for 13 years and I had participated in systemic violence in poor communities under such ideological framings as the “War on Drugs” and fixing “broken windows,” and under programs and policies such as stop and frisk, weed and seed, zero tolerance and jump-out squads.
Now, for more than 20 years I have been a professor of sociology, studying police behavior. Over the past decade, I have followed closely as African American men and boys were being killed by the police. There was Eric Gardner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddy Gray in Baltimore, LaQuan McDonald in Chicago, Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Philando Castille in Minnesota, Walter Scott in South Carolina, and many more.
Each year in America, about 1,000 people are shot and killed by the police. This is more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed annually in Iraq during the most violent years of the war.
Make no mistake, the police are at war in many U.S. communities. The violence is unnecessary, counterproductive and often carried out incompetently. Since late November 2014, when 12-year old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police while playing with a toy pistol in a Cleveland city park, there have been 162 people with toy guns shot and killed by police. This lethal gun violence — with nearly 300 unarmed people shot and killed by police during the past four years — is significant, but only a fraction of the total police violence at issue.
Unfortunately, arresting the Minneapolis police officers for the murder of George Floyd will do nothing to prevent this from happening again, and again.
Even if the officers are convicted of murder and given a death sentence, this violence will continue to occur because it is exactly what the police intend to do. It is logical violence within the police bureaucracy. It is organized, scripted, protected, sanctioned, rewarded and it appears necessary in the same way violence in war appears necessary. The only way to stop it is to end the war.
There have been positive signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many police agencies to stop focusing on arrests as a measure of success and to consider the purpose of policing beyond law enforcement. But, whether this lasts beyond the pandemic remains to be seen.