By Matthew Capuano-Rizzo
Protesters in front of the White House on Monday, June 1st. When we arrived at around 3pm, there were less than thirty people gathered with signs. By the time we left, just before the 7pm curfew, H street was filled with hundreds of protesters and echoed with chants of “I can’t breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No justice! No peace! No racist police!”
Protests have erupted across the United States, in cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Washington DC. The rest of the world has also joined, with protesters gathering in Paris, Pretoria, Seoul, Tunis, Manchester, Sydney and Frankfurt, among other major cities. Standing before the White House on June 1st, I saw trucks unload national guardsmen and military police, while the park police stood in front of protestors, clutching riot shields. Little did I know that just minutes after I left the protest, police would descend in the exact place I was standing, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd to clear Lafayette Square for the President’s photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been set on fire that Sunday.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old back man, was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25th, 2020. In a video of the event, Derek Chauvin – the white officer that led the arrest – pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while the other officers looked on. During the final two minutes and 53 seconds of the hold, Floyd appears unresponsive. On June 1st, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner found that his death was a homicide, the result of “cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s).” An independent medical examiner, commissioned by Floyd’s family, also determined that Floyd’s death was a homicide, but attributed the death to asphyxiation, caused by Chauvin’s actions. Derek Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, and the three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
If the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police is any indication, we should be somewhat wary of medical examiners’ conclusions in cases of police violence. Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore police in April 2015 and his death inspired massive protests in the city. According to an in-depth nine month investigation by Rolling Stone journalists Amelia McDonnel-Parry and Justine Barron, prosecutors based their entire argument on the conclusions of the Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Allan, who found that Mr. Gray’s death was the result of a “shallow driving accident.” These findings were, however, derived solely from police testimony, as Baltimore’s attorney general office failed to provide Allan with the many witness accounts of Gray’s treatment by police. Most notably, witness Jacqueline Jackson saw Gray being thrown head first into the back of the van, an action that experts say could have caused the neck injuries that ended his life. Allan, however, disregarded this possibility because the police officers claimed that Gray was shaking the van during Stop Two, a story that has been contradicted by both other witnesses and CCTV footage.
Fast forward to the present. Despite several instances of violence and looting, the protests have been largely peaceful. On June 2nd, President Trump’s suggestion to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, and deploy active duty troops against US citizens, further worried many senior Pentagon officials and everyday Americans. It was a move that demonstrated the resistance of those in power to much-needed change, going as far as to wield state power against peaceful protesters. This is why I march.
Why I march
Racism is not a single instance. It is not one bad police officer. Racism is institutional and we are all a part of it. While American school students learn that we long overcame segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education, our schools are still segregated, and still unequal. More than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act, the US as a whole still sees numerous instances of residential segregation. Our cities are increasingly diverse, but remain divided by race, with food deserts prominent in minority neighborhoods. Such segregation is caused by historical practices like redlining, and is one of the reasons why people of color, including African Americans, Latinos and other races (Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American) live in areas that – on average – have 66% more air pollution, which in turn has been linked to higher coronavirus death rates because of exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). We have seen how COVID 19 has hit racial and ethnic minorities harder due to unequal access to health care, higher rates of pre-existing conditions, and lower living standards and working conditions. In the workplace, 58% of black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work and black people represent less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
In the criminal justice system, racism is impossible to ignore. Getting killed by the police is a leading cause of death for black men and boys in America, who are 2.5 times more likely to die from an encounter with law enforcement compared to their white counterparts. At the protest, my parents were more worried about me catching coronavirus than being harassed by the police. Meanwhile, my cousin James, a six-foot black man, is being gassed, maced and shot with rubber bullets everytime he protests.
American policing originated as Slave Patrols, and continued as a means to terrorize communities of color throughout the Jim Crow era. This continues today through the phenomenon of mass incarceration. Since the announcement of the War on Drugs in 1982, public officials have presented America’s ‘drug problem’ as a ‘black’ one. Evidence for this assertion dates as early as the Reagan administration’s 1985 publicity campaign in poor black neighborhoods, which saturated the media with images of black “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack babies” (The New Jim Crow, page 5). We see disparities continue with a 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, despite there being no chemical difference between the two substances. In fact, the only difference was that crack users were predominately black, while cocaine users were predominately white. A 1994 crime bill – championed by the now-presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden – adopted harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, and encouraged states to do the same. The former Vice President also sponsored the aforementioned Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that led to massive racial disparities in incarceration.
These measures – and many others at the state level – have led to a 700% increase in the United States’ incarcerated population since 1970, with 2.3 million people now in jail or prison. Despite only comprising 5% of the world’s population, the United States represents nearly 25% of the global prison population. While African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is 6 times that of whites, and even when they make up only 32% of the US population, African Americans and Hispanics comprise 56% of those incarcerated. Such disparities are life-changing, stripping those convicted of the right to vote and reducing the likelihood of getting a job by 50% upon release into society. According to the Marshall Project, the United States spends more than $80 billion each year to keep 2.3 million people behind bars.
There comes a time when you have to ask yourself whether you will be a consumer or a maker of history. On Sunday, I listened over the phone to a friend crying tears of rage and disappointment towards a country she used to look up to. Her family moved from Nigeria to France ten years ago, and she affirmed “that’s when I learned that I was black.” She described asking her mother what being black meant: “it means that the other kids will not want to play with you.”
“The US travels the world proclaiming the principles of liberty and justice. And this is it?” she exclaimed. “This is what you guys were talking about?” Tears rushed down my face. I broke down. What could I tell her? How could I respond? I couldn’t deny what I knew deep down was true: that I have benefited from racist structures; I hold racist ideas; and worst of all: I ignore systematic injustice. There are few times when life presents us with moments that encapsulate an issue — displaying an image so clear, so undeniable, that all understand. I think of the beating of Rodney King or the brutality of state and private police at Standing Rock. That image was a white knee on a black neck. As far as I was concerned, I was that white knee. So the next day, I left for the White House.
I did not organize the protests nor do I suffer from the systematic racism that birthed them, but I stand with them. I stood before the White House imploring police and the politicians that finance them to ‘stop killing us’—an ‘us’ that does not include me, because I am already spared. The words ‘I can’t breathe’ that slipped past George Floyd’s lips reminded us of another instance that we (many white Americans) had rather conveniently forgotten. But the world, faced with the death of George Floyd, saw what has been clear to many for a long time. It has been clear since families were ripped from their homes and shipped across the sea, since laws restricted newly won freedoms, since criminal charges stripped access to opportunities. We saw, or rather were reminded, that the way we treat African Americans, and all racial and ethnic minorities in this country, is fundamentally wrong. If you watch Amaud jogging or George struggling or think about Breonna sleeping, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that nothing should change.
What should change
Campaign Zero is a project with the goal of ending police killings, led by activists Deray McKesson (Black Lives Matter organiser), Sam Sinyangwe (pioneer of Mapping Police Violence and the Use of Force Project), and Brittany Packnett Cunningham (MSNBC and member of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force). The group recently launched an 8 Can’t Wait campaign to end police violence. In studying 98 of the 100 largest police forces in the United States, Campaign Zero has gathered unparalleled data on policies that reduce (and increase) police violence. They contend that if a department went from having none of the policies to adopting all of them, police violence would decline by a total of 72%.
Campaign Zero’s 8 policy proposals and their documented impact on police violence. –8CantWait.org
As the protests continue, we must continue to learn about these issues and advocate for justice. While the same issues remain, there is evidence that this time will be different. People are finally listening. The police chief of Houston is marching with protesters. The Denver police chief is marching arm-in-arm with activists in his city. Police chiefs have joined protesters or kneeled with them in Newark, Flint, Camden and even New York.
While such gestures of solidarity may not represent a wholehearted commitment to police reform, as the NYPD example clearly demonstrates, protesters do have the ear of policymakers. After the 2014 protests, Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka prioritized police reform, working with activists to create an independent citizen-led review board of police activities. The city also hired more police from minority communities and trained officers based on American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) standards. Such efforts led Newark’s crime rate to drop to an unprecedented low. Camden has implemented some of the strictest use of force policies in the country.
I would like to conclude by highlighting what Michael Tubbs – the current mayor of Stockton, California, and the city’s first African American mayor – has accomplished. Tubbs has transformed Stockton from what Forbes rated in 2010 as “one of the three worst places to live in the United States” to an All-American City for two of the past three years. He achieved this by implementing programs to aggressively fight poverty, mass incarceration, crime, and educational inequities. Tubbs’ administration has reduced homicides by 40% and created more than 3,500 jobs in the city.
This all goes to say: keep fighting, because we just might win.