My heart is broken by the violence and hatred we are seeing in this country. And I’m not talking about broken windows and spray-painted storefronts; I’m talking about the years of systemic abuse and racism in the police force that have finally boiled over into a cry for help.
Living in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio, I am at the heart of some of the tensest race relations and strictest police responses in the country. On Saturday, I attended the Black Lives Matter protest at the Justice Center in Cleveland with the goal of helping protesters who had been sprayed with tear gas. There, I saw police cars ablaze, walls vandalized and glass shattered — but more importantly, I saw police firing rubber bullets, tear gas and flare bombs into a crowd of primarily peaceful protesters.
After police incited violence, the peaceful protest devolved into riots on Saturday night, with fires lit in trash cans outside our apartment and storefronts being broken into with blunt objects. Since Saturday, the City of Cleveland has been on lockdown in response to the riots and made 99 arrests. Not only has the mayor continued to lie about what we’ve seen, but the police response has been inconsistent with public statements made by leadership.
Since Saturday, all the highway entrances to downtown Cleveland have been blocked off by police cruisers. On Sunday morning, David and I left to get the UHaul for our upcoming move to Providence. When we returned, the police officer blocking our entrance told us we weren’t allowed to go home and should leave the city for a few days, contradicting public statements made by the City of Cleveland that were meant to protect residents. Surely enough, we drove to another exit and were allowed through, but only after showing our apartment lease and address to the next set of police cruisers down the road. We were told if we didn’t go straight home after parking, we could be subject to arrest.
Clarifications have since been made, but the City has done little to address why the lockdown continues. They have extended these “precautions” to the end of the week, while giving vague reasons and contradictory answers to questions from residents (for example, statements made exceptions for people going to work downtown, only for the mayor to declare that businesses should be closed during the lockdown period). To me, the real answer for the lockdowns is clear: they say they are “preventing” more riots, but what they really hope to do is suppress free speech using the threat of increased police presence downtown to scare Black residents into hiding.
Voices are being silenced all across the country. If you’ve been on social media at all over the past few days, you’ve likely seen videos of cops beating up protesters and even an NYPD cruiser driving through a peaceful crowd. Many of my fellow white Americans have risen to the challenge, urging their friends and relatives to do better while sharing resources to promote change — but just as many appear to be more baffled by the level of anger or more enraged by the destruction than they are appalled at our country’s systemic abuse of Black people.
Whether or not you understand or agree with the Black Lives Matter movement and its tactics, I think we can all concede that it’s no time to be ignorant. As Americans, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, to take action to protect Black lives and to vote out our pathetic excuse for a president, who dispersed protesters with tear gas all for a petty photo op. So, before you reply with a comment like “don’t all lives matter, Haley?” I urge you to peruse the thoughtful collection of readings and information below to help you better understand where these protests are coming from.
Without education, we can’t form an opinion — and without understanding our white privilege and the perspectives of Black Americans, we have no right to feed into their oppression. Read on to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests spreading across America, what they’re all about and what you, as white ally, can do to help.
Who is George Floyd?
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd — a Black man living in Minneapolis, Minnesota — was accused of spending a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli when trying to buy cigarettes. A store employee reported the suspicious bill to police. Floyd was a well-known customer at the deli who never caused any trouble, but the manager was not onsite and the teenaged employee was just following protocol.
The teenager believed Floyd to be drunk, though Floyd was not armed and did not make threats of violence. The employee asked for the counterfeit cigarettes back, but told the 911 operator that Floyd was resistant. When the police arrived on the scene, one of the officers, Thomas Lane, drew his gun on Floyd. Floyd resisted being handcuffed, but became cooperative after being explained that he was being arrested for spending a counterfeit bill.
When police tried to guide Floyd into the back of their cruiser, Floyd suddenly froze and fell to the ground, stating that he was claustrophobic. Floyd was restrained by four officers, one of them named Derek Chauvin. Seeing that Floyd was distressed, onlookers began to film the incident on their mobile phones. Chauvin held Floyd down with his knee on Floyd’s neck, leading Floyd to say “I can’t breathe” and beg for his mother. Some photos show two other officers kneeling on Floyd as well. Six minutes later, Floyd became unresponsive.
By the time an ambulance arrived and transported him to the hospital, George Floyd was already deceased. Floyd was officially pronounced dead one hour after arriving at the hospital. The original autopsy denied that Floyd died as a result of asphyxiation, citing preexisting conditions like hypertension and blood pressure. Since then, two additional autopsies — one performed by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office and one performed by an independent autopser hired by the Floyd family — have ruled the death a homicide, stating that Floyd died by “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” The neck and back compression from Chauvin’s knee led to a decreased blood flow to the brain, while the weight on Floyd’s back and his handcuffs impacted the ability of his diaphragm to function.
Derek Chauvin was arrested on bail and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The other three officers, who stood by as Chauvin killed Floyd, have not been arrested. Protesters around the country continue to gather to demand justice for Floyd, with some protests resulting in the use of force by police, looting and rioting. Some of their demands include the arrest of the other officers involved in the incident, the raised charge of second degree murder for Chauvin and the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department by the City of Minneapolis.
So, Why Now?
If you follow the news, you know that the killing of George Floyd is not the first instance of racial profiling and excessive use of force by police. Many of these killings have been widely publicized due to the fact that they were documented on video, but most have not received such extensive media attention. Some of the cases that dominated the news in recent years include:
- Freddie Gray: A 25-year-old Black man was arrested for possession of a knife and died in police custody after being injured in 2015. In 2016, a hung jury dropped all remaining charges against the officers involved. The family’s case was settled out of court with the City of Baltimore. The Department of Justice chose not to file federal civil rights charges.
- Tamir Rice: A 12-year-old Black boy was killed by Cleveland police in 2014. Police officers responded to reports of a man waving a gun. Tamir had a pellet gun tucked in his pocket and was fatally shot by an officer named Timothy Loehmann. Two officers, including Loehmann, were acquitted by a jury in 2015. Loehmann was fired and the other officer suspended for 10 days. The police union called the disciplinary action “politically motivated.”
- Michael Brown: An 18-year-old Black man was fatally shot by a white officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. A jury declined to indict Wilson and the Department of Justice chose not to file federal civil rights charges. The subsequent protests were an important catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Eric Garner: A 43-year-old Black man was arrested for selling loose cigarettes in New York City in 2014. Garner was placed in a chokehold by a white NYPD officer and died of asphyxiation. A jury declined to indict the officer or any others involved in Garner’s death. The City of New York settled the family’s civil case out of court.
- Breonna Taylor: A 26-year-old Black woman was killed during an unannounced drug raid in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment on March 13, 2020. Officers broke down the door while reportedly serving her a search warrant and shot her more than eight times. No drugs were found in her apartment. The case is currently subject to an FBI investigation.
According to Mapping Police Violence, the police killed 1,099 people in 2019. Statistics show that Black people are more than three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and that Black people killed by police are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than white people killed by police. Worst of all, police killings rarely result in justice for the victims; 90 percent of killings by police from 2013 to 2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.
Right now, you might be hearing white people say things like “not all cops are bad” on social media. It’s true that some police departments are at greater fault than others. Buffalo, New York’s population is 50 percent people of color (POC), yet reported zero police killings between 2013 and 2016. Meanwhile, Orlando, Florida is only 42 percent POC, but reported 13 police killings between 2013 and 2016. You can search for your local police division’s statistics at Mapping Police Violence, and learn the names and races of the victims. I learned that between 2013 and 2019, ten people were killed at the hands of Cleveland police, and eight out of ten of those people were Black.
In a country founded on slavery and racism, which oppresses POC via gentrification and racial profiling (among other grievous offenses), it’s difficult to deny that racism and white privilege continue to affect life for Black Americans in the modern era. After so many instances of police violence being carried out against Black Americans at disproportionate rates, many people are fed up. The protests and riots resulting from the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police represent the product of years of systemic abuse and trauma by white Americans against the Black community. When the democratic process continues to be stacked against Black Americans, when our government continues to ignore the peaceful protests and suppress the votes of so many people, many now feel they must turn to rioting in order to have their voices heard.
Resources for Change
As Americans, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and do our part to end racism and racially-motivated killings by police. Regardless of how you feel about the protests and riots this weekend, you should do your part to support the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledge your white privilege and donate your resources to people less fortunate than you. Below, I provide links to readings about race, privilege and police, as well as places you can turn to in order to donate money or get involved with what’s happening in our country.
To Learn More….
Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is a must-read that includes a checklist to help you assess your level of privilege.
Robin DiAngelo’s 2015 essay, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism, precedes her 2018 book of the same name, explaining why white people often become defensive when talking about race.
Dr. Michelle Andrasik writes about Historical Trauma and The Health and Wellbeing of Communities of Color, explaining why things like slavery and Jim Crow laws can’t just be forgotten, as well as how microaggressions affect non-white mental health.
In Being Antiracist, Angela Y. Davis explains what it means to be “antiracist” (as opposed to “not racist”) and how we can actively fight against racism at every level.
The 2017 Police Violence Report collected data on over 1,100 killings by police in 2017 and represents the most comprehensive report on police violence in the United States.
Campaign Zero’s Use of Force Report, published in 2016, analyzes police departments’ policies on the use of force against civilians and presents the data in an easy-to-understand chart format.
Campaign Zero’s Police Union Contracts Report, also published in 2016, describes how collective bargaining agreements allow police officers access to an alternate justice system that doesn’t hold them accountable for their actions.
Boston University’s groundbreaking 2019 study, The Relationship Between Racial Residential Segregation and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the City Level, reports that police in cities with more racial segregation disproportionately shoot and kill Black people.
Colorlines’ The ’94 Crime Bill 25 Years Later reviews Bill Clinton’s bill to reduce “violent crime” and how it has devastated Black and Brown communities for the past quarter of a century.
Graham Boyd’s The Drug War is the New Jim Crow explains how President Bush’s War on Drugs effort led to the disproportionate arrest of Black Americans for minor drug offenses, such as the possession of marijuana.
The Marshall Project’s article, Why So Many Police Are Handling the Protests Wrong, explains how riots result from escalating force by police officers — and why officers respond to protests with force in the first place.
Kara Jillian Brown’s How Sharing Images of Violence Against Black People Damages Their Mental Health presents a compelling case for why you shouldn’t retweet that video of George Floyd’s death.
This list of Bail Funds for Protestors allows you to put your money toward freeing those imprisoned for expressing their First Amendment rights in your area.
The official Black Lives Matter movement is working to end the systemic oppression of Black people. Currently, they are calling to #DefundthePolice.
The Innocence Project is putting an end to wrongful convictions, which disproportionately affect Black people, using DNA evidence.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works tirelessly to protect constitutional freedoms in the courts. Once of its chief causes is criminal justice reform.
Campaign Zero is fighting to end police violence by limiting interventions, improving interactions and ensuring accountability re: police encounters.