Here we are once again. A black man—George Floyd—lost his life when a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck, asphyxiating him, his hand resting casually in his pocket and unconcerned that his action was being captured by a cellphone camera. Meanwhile, three cop colleagues abetted this excessive use of force that resulted in a public murder.
The response—mass protests involving Americans of all races erupted in more than 750 cities and towns throughout the nation and in cities around the world. For the most part peaceful, the starkest images we have seen involved police overreaction. A septuagenarian knocked to the pavement by police in Buffalo, exacerbated by fellow officers flaunting their approval for this outrage by walking past the bleeding victim’s inert form, was shocking enough. That was compounded by large-scale police defiance of the city’s timid step of suspending the assaulting officers.
While it is clear that discriminatory law enforcement and police misconduct, as well as the systemic racism that still today infects the American psyche, need to be addressed, there is no guarantee that both injustices will be.
Four hundred years of coping with America’s original sin—slavery—teaches that excising racism is a very long, hard slog. Comparing efforts to counteract anti-Semitism, note that despite going back millennia, hate crimes against Jews continue and have skyrocketed in the last three years, encouraged by dog whistles and more overt endorsements by the country’s elected leader (see, e.g., Charlottesville). At the very least, it will take education at every level to begin the lengthy, generations-long process of attempting to expunge racism from society. In America, progress is usually a step forward followed by a half-step back. Moreover, unlike the 1960s civil rights movement, there is no clear, charismatic leader around whom the movement can coalesce, no Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That too could be a problem.
However, the situation is not without hope. We are certain to see some immediate law enforcement reforms. Several states and cities have already begun the process in response to Floyd’s murder. Banning chokeholds and strangleholds has been one development. In cities where this policy was already in force before, the ban has decreased police killings by 22 percent. Mandating body cameras and their activation at all times has also proven to be a strong deterrent to police brutality. Requiring a duty to intervene by attending officers has had a positive effect. Similarly, de-escalation training. It is also likely that psychological testing as a component of police officer recruitment will be instituted by some local departments. Congress too is considering a spate of reform proposals, including a national police misconduct database. If there will be a roadblock to reforming police procedures, it will likely be found in the collective bargaining agreements that, virtually across the board, protect officers from transparency and accountability. That is where the resistance will coalesce.
Despite these hurdles, we can hope that this time will be different and that America will be a better country because of it.
June 12, 2020