I stopped where I did in yesterday’s Year in Review blog post because I had caught up to the event that drove protestors into the street in vast numbers, mid-pandemic. On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin killed 46-year-old George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as Floyd said more than 20 times that he couldn’t breathe.
We know how long the choking lasted and what Floyd said because it was all captured by police body cameras, security cameras, and eyewitness cameras. In fact, Chauvin looked directly at a teenage witness’s camera. He knew he was being recorded and didn’t care. Why? Because there are rarely consequences when police harm or kill Black or brown people, even when there is visual and/or audio evidence. That was true in 1992, when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of brutally beating Rodney King the year before, in an attack that was caught on video. That’s continued to be the case even after police forces across the country invested in body cameras based on the supposition that cameras would cut down on police violence by exposing cops to consequences. “It turns out that images matter, but so does power,” wrote Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calling “the hope that pervasive cameras by themselves would counterbalance systemic racism … simply a techno-utopian fantasy.”
As Twitter user Ethan Grey pointed out in a long thread yesterday, the assumption that people who commit racist atrocities can be shamed stems from our shared denial of America’s long history of shameless white supremacist violence. The thread delves into 19th- and 20th-century “spectacle lynchings” — the public torture and murder of Black people as entertainment in front of hundreds or even thousands of white people. The grotesque details of these killings were reported upon contemporaneously by eyewitnesses and newspapers as well known as the New York Times. Again and again, it was documented that there was no rock bottom for an inflamed white racist mob, no abuse so vile as to make one person step up and say, “We’ve gone too far.” It was the opposite: The only white people who were stopped in their tracks by other white people were those whose actions might give a Black victim a quicker, more merciful death. The torture was the point — really, it was a fetish — and the white supremacists were thrilled by their own impunity. Grey links this history to the surge in white supremacist fascism under Trump and pours cold water on some people’s wishful thinking that we’ll “go back to normal” post-Trump, pointing out that no one has ever been embarrassed out of racist violence in our past. I highly recommend that white people read this in its entirety to understand our current policing and politics. But if you’ve suffered any racial trauma, this is likely to be unnecessary and much too upsetting.
Going back to George Floyd, what happened to him might not have caused the outcry it did if not for another video taken in New York earlier that day. Chris Cooper, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, recorded a white woman named Amy Cooper (no relation) calling 911 and lying that he’d threatened her, all because he had asked her to leash her dog in an area where dogs were, indeed, supposed to be leashed. White people could see and hear the kind of incident that can be the starting point for the kind of lethal police violence that is later justified by allegations “threatening behavior” and “resisting arrest.” Two different cities, same day. Cause and effect was finally clear to those who hadn’t had to live under this threat all their lives, and, as a result, people poured into the streets in the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and thousands of other Black people killed by police or by civilian white people “policing” neighborhoods. I was among the protestors and like everyone else, I had to get dressed to go out. The revolution still requires clothing and fashion actually takes on more meaning — and does more work — than it does in less traumatic times. What I wore will be in my next post.