I condemn riots, destruction, property theft and all manner of senseless violence. But I understand the feeling that animates these spasms. When I watch the video of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him and ignoring his cries of distress, I want to throw something. When I see the video of Gregory and Travis McMichael accosting and shooting Arbery, I want to throw something else. I can’t help but think of my own two sons and how, for either of them, a routine encounter with police — or a run-in with self-appointed sheriffs — could be fatal. I want to scream.
I feel this way even though I have status in this society, an income that allows me to live comfortably and a megaphone — in the form of this column and my television appearances — with which to make my complaints and opinions heard. I wonder how I’d feel if I lacked these things, if I were powerless and voiceless. I wonder where my frustration and rage would find their outlet.
We’ve been through this so many times that we can always cite earlier killings as reference points to put new killings in context.
Floyd’s killing took place just across the Mississippi River from the suburb where, four years ago, an innocent cafeteria worker named Philando Castile was pulled over in a traffic stop by police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who thought Castile resembled a robbery suspect because he had a “wide-set nose.” How many black men have wide-set noses? What black man, in Yanez’s view, would not have looked suspicious?
Castile understood the danger he was in. He was a licensed gun owner and told the officer that his gun was in the car in a deliberate attempt to defuse their interaction. Yanez warned Castile not to pull out the weapon; Castile responded that he was not pulling it out; the nervous Yanez shot Castile dead. All of this was captured on video by Castile’s girlfriend, while her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. Yanez was charged with manslaughter and acquitted.
Floyd’s last words of anguish — “I can’t breathe” — were the same as those of Eric Garner, who in 2014 was approached by New York policemen for standing on a Staten Island sidewalk, selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold and killed him. Pantaleo was never charged with a crime. He wasn’t fired until August 2019, and he is suing the department, arguing that his termination was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Arbery’s killing on Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Ga., brought back the memory of Trayvon Martin, a baby-faced 17-year-old, who in 2012 was innocently walking through an Orlando suburb when he was stalked by George Zimmerman, a wannabe cop who had appointed himself guardian of the neighborhood. After a struggle, Zimmerman shot Martin dead. Zimmerman was charged with murder and acquitted.
Not only do these unwarranted killings of black men keep happening. They also keep going unpunished.
Yes, Gregory and Travis McMichael — along with William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who recorded Arbery’s killing on cellphone video — have been arrested and charged with murder. And yes, Derek Chauvin and the three other police officers who watched him kill Floyd have been fired, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has called for criminal charges to be filed against them.
But if the only result is another couple of trial-of-the-century media circuses that produce lots of drama and controversy but no justice, then nothing will change.
Please don’t try to tell me that somehow these killings are about anything other than race. Floyd, Arbery, Garner and Martin were unarmed. Castile was legally carrying his pistol; while black Americans didn’t always have Second Amendment rights, we do now. All of them are dead.
Just a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of white protesters, some carrying all manner of deadly weapons, stormed into the Michigan state capitol and disrupted legislators trying to do their official business. Police saw them as exercising their constitutional rights and let them come and go without incident.
A mostly black crowd protesting Floyd’s killing, on the other hand, was met Tuesday night with tear gas and rubber bullets. City officials perceived the Minneapolis unrest as an emergency. This nation needs to understand that life-threatening racism is an emergency, too.