Tag Archives: Minneapolis

May I Remind You

I just published a long piece about the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. As I wrote it, another story kept emerging in my thoughts, a true story from my distant past.

It was 1968. April 5. A nice warm spring day in Washington DC, where I worked as a newly-minted trial lawyer at the Civil Aeronautics Board. The CAB offices were in a building at Connecticut Avenue just below the Washington Hilton. My then wife worked some blocks downtown for an association. Typical Washington jobs.

We got the news the previous day that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, the city where I grew up from age 2 to age 17 when I left for college. Washington was in flames, we were told, and the government was closing. I made my way downtown, leaving my car, a Volkswagen, parked on a sidewalk and walked to my wife’s office. Everyone was confused. There was no internet, no Google, no good way to find out “breaking news” that is now a staple of our daily existence. The rioting had started the evening before but there was no up-to-the-minute news. So, we watched the scene unfolding outside at a major downtown intersection. Gridlock. Total gridlock. No one moving. Horns honking. People shouting at each other from their cars. Panic.

I took a glass of scotch and walked down to the middle of the intersection, threading my way carefully through the cars. I wore my customary work clothes, a vested suit, as was common in those days. I put my drink down in the dead center of the intersection and became a traffic cop. I began “ordering” cars to wait before entering the intersection. Most drivers, though not all, obeyed, and a semblance of order began to emerge from the chaos.

Every so often a car would stop in passing by me, roll down the window and a frantic person, always white, would look out at me and yell “Thank you, oh thank God for you.” I didn’t know what to say except “you’re welcome.” The scene was totally surreal.

White people were fleeing the city by the tens of thousands. Some crying. I could see the smoke from the 7th Street NW and 14th Street NW corridors, just three blocks from where I stood and could smell the acrid odor. For whatever reason, I was not afraid, but fear was all around me. I suspected that those people thought the black people burning Washington were going to come after them if they didn’t get out of town quickly.

The aftermath is well known. One of the major reactive themes was, “those people are crazy because they burned their own businesses.” It was true. Many black-owned businesses in the area were savaged in the rioting. The rage was simply that – rage – and the rioters took it out on what was near them, their own businesses and even homes.

Crazy? Perhaps, but that’s what rage does. White people seem to think that rage should somehow be rational, in the way that a professional boxing match is rational – people fighting by agreement over a prize, winner-take-all. But, of course, that is not rage. That is just business. Rage is something else altogether, and we’re seeing it in Minneapolis and many other cities across the country. We should not be surprised.

My story ended quite simply and quietly. A relatively young police officer appeared out of the chaos surrounding the intersection. He was black, as were many members of the Washington police force. He walked toward me slowly, carefully. I thought, “great, reinforcements.” I looked at him and he looked at me, the anger etched in his face. He was in no mood to have a friendly chat with the white stranger doing a policeman’s job in a scene of total chaos. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I think I tried to smile and asked if he was going to stay. He said something about taking over and I picked up my drink and backed out of the intersection. He had no time or further interest in me. I understood then and understand now why that was so.

I can still see his face. He was in control of his anger, but it was obvious how conflicted he was to have been ordered to help these hysterical, panicked white people flee the city that was burning just down the road. I suspect he came from that direction, knew what was happening but was here now to do his duty, despite his personal pain and despair.

I confess I was glad to get back inside. But I will never forget the way that young black policeman looked at me. He felt no sense of thanks for me having helped out, no empathy, and I didn’t expect otherwise. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of his suffering even as he continued to do the duty he had sworn to perform.

The coda to the story is that there were mass arrests of protestors and rioters alike. A call went out for lawyers to come downtown to the courthouse to help process and represent those huge number of detained people, many of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing. My good friend and officemate at the CAB and I decided to volunteer. We drove into Washington that evening, passing military guards on the Key Bridge. Soldiers were stationed in the doors of businesses on M Street in Georgetown. Machine gun emplacements were visible on the lawn of the White House. Ultimately, we were rejected by the administrators of the court on grounds that as federal employees we had a conflict of interest in representing individuals charged with federal crimes. We drove home. The rioting lasted for four days.

And here we are again. Fifty-two years later. Same story. Again. And again.

Déjà vu All Over Again – We’ve Learned Nothing

Minneapolis burns. Los Angeles. Memphis, Louisville. Others.

A police officer in full view of multiple people, including store surveillance cameras, calmly kills an unarmed, non-resisting person accused of trying to pass a fake $20 bill. The unarmed, non-resisting man is a big man, imposing stature, but not resisting. His hands are in cuffs behind his back. The police officer forces him to the ground on his face, or maybe he sits down on his own. Maybe he said something offensive or even threatening. So what? He is cuffed and defenseless. The officer places a knee on the man’s neck. The man complains “I can’t breathe.” Multiple times. The officer ignores him. The other three officers on the scene ignore him. Witnesses plead with the police to check the man, but they are ignored. The man stops breathing. Still the police officer sits on his neck. The man dies.

The man dies in the presence and under the complete control of FOUR ARMED POLICE OFFICERS EQUIPPED WITH PEPPER SPRAY, TASERS, CLUBS, SIDEARMS. IF the man said something threatening to the officer OR IF the man did “resist” by passively dropping to the ground, under what police procedure and training did one of the four officers to think that the appropriate response was to sit on the man’s neck until he died? Is it even conceivable that police procedure condones this practice? Anywhere in the United States?

The prosecutor goes on TV and says there is “other evidence” indicating no crime was committed. What evidence? No comment. Why, then, did the prosecutor think it was a good idea to tell everyone he already had doubts about what virtually every non-racist person on the planet believed was almost certainly a crime – the deliberate taking of a life without justification under color of authority? Again.

All four of the officers have been fired so they are not among the strike force of hundreds of police now sent to suppress the, surprise, rioting and looting that have broken out in the wake of yet another “good people on both sides” scenario. The police use tear gas, pepper spray, fire hoses, among other things, against the crowds of enraged protestors.

Many people who were silent in the immediate aftermath of the video releases that at least raised a presumption that a police officer had, for the how-manyieth-time, killed an unarmed, non-resisting black person have come out clutching their pearls over the terrible rioting and looting. Sure, there may have been a problem with the police conduct – maybe, who knows, there could be an explanation, let’s wait for all the evidence, don’t jump to conclusions –but rioting and looting? Outrageous. Taking property? Unacceptable. Must meet force with force. Law and order. Restore peace by whatever means. Call out the National Guard.

And if you’re the president of the United States, what do you do? Well, our current president calls people names, threatens to “take control” with the military and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Here is part of Trump’s actual message:

These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to get the president’s message: “I will declare martial law and I approve of the National Guard/military shooting protesters who are rioting and looting. That’ll show ‘em who’s the boss.”

The victim here was a black man named George Floyd. His name joins the pantheon of unarmed black people killed by police in circumstances where other means of addressing the “situation” were readily available. Often the “situation” is really just that a black or brown-skinned person was involved. Involved in the sense of just being there. Despite the availability of other options, the police in these cases chose the lethal option. It’s not an accident. It’s a choice. And in virtually every case, the police are exonerated. There have been a few exceptions, but precious few.

The officer who killed George Floyd had 18 complaints on his record. One of the other four had six complaints and was involved in a settled lawsuit alleging use of excessive force among other things. https://cnn.it/2M8R3mm

All four officers in the present case have been fired. Fine, but not enough. Not even close. They will no doubt face civil suits whether or not the City of Minneapolis takes action against them. Why they are still at large is unknown and inexplicable on the known facts. Reminds us of the initial reaction of authorities in Georgia to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The “there is other evidence” position of the prosecutor is very close, too close, to “good people on both sides,” the president’s unsubtle endorsement of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. The mind boggles at the thinking behind the prosecutor making such a statement while refusing to describe the evidence. But, rest assured, he will study this case really hard and be sure the law is followed. Rest assured.

While you’re waiting for the prosecutor, think about this. What would the operative difference be if, instead of kneeling on Floyd’s neck, the policeman had rolled him over, pinning his cuffed hands under his body, sat on his chest and choked him to death with his fingers? Any real difference?

The Minnesota GOP had plenty to say about the beaches being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but I can’t find anything they have had to say about the killing of George Floyd. No doubt, they are “extremely concerned” that there has been violence and property loss. They likely joined the Trump-led GOP chorus of outrage at Colin Kaepernick peacefully protesting by kneeling at a football game during the playing of the National Anthem. They can’t have it both ways. Peaceful protest – Noooo! Riots and looting – Noooo! The real message, obvious to me and others, is, “don’t be black.”

As a society, if that term still applies, we appear to have learned nothing. Armed racists threaten legislators over pandemic lockdown and masking policies, and no one lifts a finger. Police are expected, and do, stand in rows while being screamed at by AR-15 carrying vigilantes complaining about their “rights.” No one is arrested. In Minneapolis, on the other hand, today’s protesters were pepper sprayed by the driver of a passing police car for no discernable reason except a “take that” attitude by an unhinged and uncontrolled police force. The officers surely know they are being filmed but they are not concerned there will be repercussions if they wantonly attack protesters.

I get that police are under a lot of stress. I support the police almost all the time, but not when unarmed black and brown people are killed and there were readily available alternatives to the use of deadly force. Police are supposedly trained and re-trained on the use of deadly force. Presumably their calm under stress is evaluated carefully before they are unleashed on the community carrying an array of weaponry, some of which can be used to kill. Or maybe not. Maybe in Minneapolis and the countless other places where these violations of human rights have occurred the police are not really trained. They are just armed and sent into the community with instructions to “keep the peace” however they choose. Is this possible?

In the George Floyd case, ironically and painfully, the police didn’t need to use anything but handcuffs to kill a man. We have learned nothing from all the prior cases. And the president of the United States just fans the flames with hostile rhetoric, showing yet again his complete unfitness to hold office. Still, the Grand Ole Party is apparently silent. They sat silently and voted to acquit Trump when he was impeached for extorting a foreign government, allowing him to withhold relevant evidence and witnesses. They sat silently while Trump’s henchman Attorney General William Barr lied and distorted the Mueller Report. They preach law and order while the president’s immigration policy separates families and leaves small children parentless, in some cases forever, locking them in cages in concentration camps.

This is but a small sample of what Republican leadership has created in America. All the racism can’t be blamed on them, but they have endorsed and facilitated it over and over. And when the police yet again kill an unarmed and defenseless black person, they sit silently until their leader speaks and incites further hatred, dividing the country even further.

How long does the white conservative establishment think the underclass which is huge and growing is going to continue to tolerate this blatant racism and discrimination? Do they not understand that when large numbers of citizens no longer feel invested in the established order and peaceful change of that order is foreclosed, they lose their connection to that society and their justified but ignored and resisted rage boils over? How long do they think this can continue without serious and violent consequences becoming the order of the day, as the unwarranted killings of unarmed black and brown people has become the order of the day?

November is coming, not soon enough, but it’s coming. The good people of this country had better put an end to the Republican leadership that has brought us to this place. The consequences of failure are too grim to imagine, but it seems certain that the failing light of democracy that, at least in principle, was the founding dream and aspiration of this country will be extinguished if change is not achieved. That sounds apocalyptic, I know, but don’t believe it can’t happen here. It can and it will, unless we stop it. ENOUGH!