The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We are the governed. We no longer consent to let the police kill us.

Terrence Floyd, second from left in white T-shirt,  on Monday visits the site where his brother, George Floyd, died last week.
Terrence Floyd, second from left in white T-shirt, on Monday visits the site where his brother, George Floyd, died last week. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

This coast-to-coast uprising is not about terrorism, foreign or domestic. It’s not about arson, looting or carpeting streets with broken glass. It’s about a powerful phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “the consent of the governed.” Police in this country no longer have our consent to kill African Americans unjustly and with impunity.

Is that clear now?

What’s striking about the protests over the killing of George Floyd is not just the intensity of the anger the protesters express but how widely that anger has spread. Citizens have held demonstrations, marches and vigils in more than 60 cities across the country and in nearly every state. And in the week since a Minneapolis police officer ended Floyd’s life by kneeling on his neck, as Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe,” passions have not diminished. If anything, crowds have become more ardent.

This rendition of the poem ‘Black 101’ memorializes the innocent lives poet Frank X Walker says are terrorized by white rage, including jogger Ahmaud Arbery. (Video: Frank X Walker, Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

To me, this feels less and less like just another iteration of the set-piece drama we’ve lived through so many times — an unjust killing, a few days of protest, a chorus of promises of reform, a return to normal, an all-too-brief interlude until the next unjust killing. This eruption feels like a potential inflection point, a collective decision that “normal” is no longer acceptable.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

That message is being delivered in every major American city. Whether it is being heard and understood remains to be seen.

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It is no surprise that President Trump and his aides are deaf, dumb and blind. Trump was chased into his underground bunker Friday night when protesters briefly threatened to storm the White House fence. He salved his bruised ego with a tweet about how anyone who managed to enter the grounds would be met by “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.” But on Sunday night, as some protesters set fires across the street in Lafayette Square and the city of Washington imposed a curfew, I saw something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: The White House went completely dark. It looked like a vacant home, an empty mansion, a luxury property perhaps in foreclosure.

In terms of the kind of presidential leadership that could help heal the nation, the “nobody’s home” metaphor is depressingly perfect. Trump went into hiding to avoid the protesters. When Trump did call Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, to offer his condolences, “He just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about,’ ” Floyd said afterward. And the message certainly hadn’t gotten through by the time Trump convened governors for a Monday conference in a call in which he reportedly told them that “most of you are weak” and urged them to “dominate” the protesters with overwhelming force.

Trump isn’t alone in his deafness. Presumably stating the view of the administration, Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, told CNN on Sunday that he did not believe there was any “systemic racism” in U.S. police forces. Rather, he said, he thought there were “a few bad apples” who need to be rooted out.

And as for the violence and looting seen in some cities, the administration is focusing its fire instead on “antifa,” a loosely organized leftist movement — and paying no attention to white-supremacist groups that reportedly also are taking advantage of the moment to provoke greater conflict, much less to actions by the police that have escalated confrontations in some cities.

That whole analysis — apples and antifa — is wrong to the point of irrelevance. Look at the sheer number of protests. Look at the level of anger, and yes, the destruction of property. Look at the persistence of demonstrators who pour out of their homes night after night, putting themselves at risk not only of clashes with police but also contracting covid-19. Look at the protesters themselves — African Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, a rainbow of outrage.

They are saying, quite clearly, that enough is enough. What happened to Floyd should never happen again. Consent is withdrawn. 

Policymakers should realize that it’s time to stop talking about police reform and actually change the racist army-of-occupation culture that poisons too many police departments. This will be hard to do — veteran officers who define that culture are hard to dislodge, powerful police unions often resist reform efforts, justice systems reflexively give police officers the benefit of the doubt even in the most egregious cases.

But the basic principle is simple: Policing is something that must be done with and for a community, not to a community. Those officers should have been made to understand that their duty was to treat Floyd like a citizen — not like some black guy whose life was worthless.

Governors, mayors and police chiefs around the country must hear and understand the message: If these racist killings continue, there will be hell to pay.

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