“Please, please, please I can’t breathe. Please, man, please.”
George Floyd pleaded, politely. He showed civility. And still they killed him. The cause of death, per the Hennepin County medical examiner, may not have been strangulation. But after watching the horrific video, the only conclusion we can see is that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s continuing to press his knee on Floyd’s neck, and the actions or inaction of the other three police officers, caused Floyd’s death.
We’re all for civility. We push for it in public discourse. But just as the cause of Floyd’s death is painfully obvious, so too is the fact that civility alone is woefully inadequate for this moment. Of course the violence, destruction of property, the looting, the burning of businesses — many of them minority-owned — is devastating and counterproductive. But let’s not pretend for a minute that civility will put out the fire of bigotry, systematic inequality and division that has been smoldering in this country since its inception. Quietly kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality was civil, but it was condemned, too, and the brutality has continued.
There is perhaps no greater ivory tower right now than an editorial board in Bangor, Maine — a city that is more than 90 percent white in a state that continually ranks among the least diverse in the country. We, as white people in a state that is predominantly white, do not have the answers in this national self-reckoning. But, we know that police misconduct exists, even here. We know that racism and bigotry are here. We know that white silence has perpetuated the brutality and bias that cost Floyd, and thousands before him, their lives.
At the same time, we have the luxury of worrying about people gathering in large crowds, for any reason, during a global pandemic. We have the luxury of going about our daily lives without worrying whether we will be accused of a crime. We have the luxury of expecting that we will be treated fairly by the police, of not worrying that any interaction could turn deadly.
For these reasons, we must speak out. We must speak up for those, like George Floyd, like Eric Garner, whose voices were not only ignored by the very people who had a responsibility to protect them, they were silenced forever. But we can’t help feeling like our words are inadequate. How do we help give breath to those who are oppressed without adding oxygen to the fire? Listening and looking around always seems like a place to start.
Though Maine has thus far been spared the riots and chaos that have erupted in other states, the costs of this long-standing inequity are plain to see, particularly during the coronavirus outbreak. Even in a state as white as Maine, the virus is taking a heavier toll on people of color. Black Mainers accounted for 20 percent of the cases in which racial data is disclosed as of Wednesday’s data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, they represent only 1.6 percent of the state’s population. The disparity is likely, in part, because of the overrepresentation of people of color and minorities in low-wage frontline jobs, and because of racial inequities when it comes to access to health care.
Being aware of such an imbalance is the first step toward rectifying it. Next, comes doing something about it.
That is the huge challenge facing police forces around the country. The first step (when the situation has calmed, not necessarily during a riot) is for police to step from behind their armored vehicles, their riot gear and their guns to interact with the people they are sworn to protect as fellow citizens.
That’s what Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson did in Flint Township, Michigan, on Saturday. “We want to be with y’all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down,” Swanson can be heard saying in a video. “I want to make this a parade, not a protest.”
He asked protestors what they needed. “Walk with us,” they chanted. And he did. It was “the best moment of my police career,” he said, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“That would not have happened if they had not wanted to listen to what I had to say as well, so it is mutually agreed upon that I need to hear what they are saying,” Swanson added.
Americans need to listen to each other, and to act on what we hear. Maybe it’s our privilege talking, but we still hope and believe that it is possible to build a better future together rather than letting the tensions of a chaotic present divide us further.