America went to bed Wednesday in a fitful state of mourning — as the death toll from coronavirus sprinted past the 100,000 mark, miles ahead of any other nation — and befuddlement over a president who was too busy golfing and rage-tweeting baseless murder accusations at a TV host to even notice the grim occasion until hours and hours later.
The nation woke up Thursday to one of its great cities on fire.
There was a grim inevitability to the bright-orange glow of Thursday’s Minneapolis dawn, the second night of an ongoing uprising that was prompted by the video of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, who’d been accused of a trivial crime, dying handcuffed with the oppressive knee of a white police officer hard across his neck, as he moaned again and again, “I can’t breathe.”
Springsteen may have sung that “you can’t start a fire without a spark,” but the kindling underneath Minnesota’s largest city has been laid down for decades, as a police force with so many of its members — like the officer who choked Floyd with his knee, Derek Chauvin, from 81% white Oakdale, Minn. — commuting from suburbs to treat the black and brown citizens of Minneapolis like an occupying army. African-Americans comprise 20% of the citizenry but more than 60% of those shot from 2009 through 2019 by a police department that, according to its own data, is more likely to pull over, use force against and arrest blacks than whites.
It’s an ugly situation that screams out for intervention, even in a nation where the cries of “Black lives matter!” since the lifeless body of Michael Brown was left on the simmering Ferguson pavement in the long hot summer of 2014. Instead, the president of the United States came to Minneapolis roughly nine months ago to rally with white current and former police officers wearing blood-red “Cops for Trump” T-shirts — to douse the city’s rotting kindling with his putrid gasoline.
On Oct. 10, 2019, at the cavernous Target Center downtown, Team Trump invited the head of the Minneapolis police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, to be a featured speaker. His hosts were presumably untroubled that Kroll had been accused in 2007 lawsuit by five black police officers (including the current chief, Medaria Arradondo) of wearing a “white power” patch on his biker jacket as part of hostile work environment (Kroll disputes this), or a broader pattern of racism by local activists. On this autumn night, the off-duty cop in the red pro-Trump T-shirt served up even redder meat to the basketball arena throng.
“The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” Kroll said, an apparent reference to post-Ferguson investigations in cities with ling histories of police brutality and killings that had led to a series of Justice Department consent decrees. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around — he decided to start let cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of [on] us.”
Kroll didn’t have to elaborate what he meant about the president who just two years earlier on Long Island, backed by a sea of cops in navy-blue uniform, had urged officers to “Please don’t be too nice” in tossing suspects into the back of a van and who backed up his crude words with government policy, from the return of sanctioned militarizing of the police to his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, renouncing those consent decrees as well as any other moves that might curb America’s police brutality, to pardoning Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for his cruel treatment of immigrants and other prisoners.
Just 227 days after Trump blessed the Minneapolis police and its reactionary police union, Lt. Kroll’s band of brothers didn’t just “put the handcuffs on” George Floyd — a former standout athlete who’d moved from Texas to Minneapolis seeking a better life, whose alleged nonviolent crime was passing a counterfeit bill — but they put a heavy knee across his neck during most of a bystander’s nine-minute video. Don’t worry, Mr. President — these cops weren’t being “too nice.”
You know, if this apparent police killing — Floyd was unresponsive and had no pulse when paramedics finally arrived — had happened six years ago, I would write a shocked, indignant and outraged blog post headlined, “I can’t breathe!” Jarred from my shocked years of white privilege, I’d ask: “When will Americans accept there are two justice systems in the country — one for the powerful, one for the powerless — and when will something be done?” I know this because it’s exactly what I wrote on Dec. 3, 2014 — the day I for the first time saw the video of New York City cops killing a black father named Eric Garner, whose alleged crime was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, with a violent chokehold.
I could change the names and write the same piece on May 28, 2020 — because what exactly has changed, other than 62 million Americans installing a buffoonish autocrat because he promised to take the shackles off of law enforcement, whatever the hell that means, rather than rein in decades of state-sanctioned terrorism against black and brown people in this country? Seriously, dammit, what has changed since they strangled Eric Garner and left Mike Brown’s body in the street?
Democracy is supposed to fix this, but in Minneapolis the drumbeat of the police baton has continued unhindered whether the people there elect Republicans or Democrats. Indeed, one Democratic district attorney went a remarkable zero-for-30 when it came prosecuting alleged crimes by that police in the county that includes Minneapolis. That ex-prosecutor, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, had been preening to be her party’s vice presidential candidate — a bid that also went up in flames Wednesday night.
There’s a group in Minneapolis called Citizens United Against Police Brutality that pays tribute every year to area citizens who’ve been killed by the police with a pop-up memorial to their Stolen Lives, with a list of dozens of names that gets longer every year. There’s Jamar Clark, whose heavily disputed killing by two Minneapolis police officers in 2015 led to days of protests and unrest, and Philando Castile, pulled over in 2016 for a busted taillight and killed as he reached for his wallet, and lesser known cases like Wayne Reyes, shot when six Minneapolis cops responded to a crime scene in 2006. One of those officers was Derek Chauvin — one of a number of dubious incidents in his police career before his knee ended up on George Floyd’s neck.
Every year, the pile of kindling tamped down by the boots of oppressive policing kept getting thicker and thicker. The killing of George Floyd was only the spark that ignited it.
In the final years of his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was frequently called upon by white interviewers to condemn the riots in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere. And he while he continued to embrace nonviolence, he also explained in a 1967 speech: “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
For the last six years, thousands of black and brown people and white allies have marched in the streets of America, demanding a better world in which black lives like those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and George Floyd would truly matter. Instead of listening, a majority of white Americans voted for a president who (a) mocked African-American voters with the phrase “What have you got to lose?” when the reality was that when it came to civil rights of black folks, they could lose a lot in just three years, and who (b) embraced their oppressor cops like Lt. Bob Kroll.
When Mike Brown was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement was kicked off, many people were shocked to learn that more than 1,000 Americans die at the hands of police every year. During the years of protest and empty political promises, that number has barely budged. In the past year, according to the Washington Post, 1,014 people were shot and killed by U.S. police (a number that doesn’t even include George Floyd). What has changed?
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has eaten away any remaining facade about the persistence of lingering racism in America in the 21st century, with black and brown people dying at significantly higher rates because of pre-existing conditions exacerbated by a lack of health care, by smog-choked cities and by low-wage jobs where quarantine was not an option. Meanwhile, a string of events ranging from the deadly (the self-styled fake “vigilantes” who murdered jogger Ahmaud Arbery in broad daylight) to the everyday (Amy Cooper making false allegations to police about black birder Christopher Cooper) has shown that discrimination remains immune to any type of lockdown order. Just like in MLK’s 1967, the plight of the black and the brown and the underprivileged has worsened over the last few years.
And now Minneapolis is on fire — just the latest 911 call from a nation that may fall completely apart before it can even reach the next election. Maybe that’s because the anguished voices on so many other 911 calls — when they screamed that Eric couldn’t breathe or that Tamir’s “gun” was just a toy or that Ahmad was only out for a jog — ended up as the voices of the unheard.
Are you listening now, America?
Will Bunch is the national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.