George Floyd’s America. And Ours.
Two years ago today, George Floyd pleaded for air, his mother, and his life. With tragic irony, he also breathed new energy into the movement for civil rights and Black lives.
At that very moment, his fellow African Americans were also dying from COVID, at twice the national rate of whites. This confluence mobilized Americans of all races to take to the streets demanding change around health inequalities, police brutality, and structural racism. And change did come. Or so it seemed.
One year after his murder, in April 2021, The New York Times examined data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. It seemed the nation was embracing the change we want to see in this country with states passing more than 140 measures designed to reform the criminal justice system. As the Senior Editor for Race & Justice at New York Public Radio, I followed these developments closely: new laws to limit use of force, chokeholds, and no-knock warrants (especially after police stormed Breonna Taylor’s home, killing her in the night). The shameful inaction of Derek Chauvin’s partner and other officer’s on the scene of Mr. Floyd’s murder also led many states to require police officers to intervene when their colleagues use excessive force.
In my state of New York and elsewhere, the long and hard-fought battle to unseal police disciplinary records finally began to yield results. Nationwide, leaders were talking a good game about investing in mental health (Minneapolis), trauma counseling (Boston), and youth programs (Los Angeles).
But as the time passed, so too did the commitment to making the deep structural change we need to to stem the tide of violence.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a perfect example of this. The federal legislation would have broadly transformed policing, but it failed in the Senate after a year-long journey through the halls of Congress. At bottom, too many of our leaders and the people they represent do not want realign the the foundational problems corrupting the soul of our nation.
Unwilling to grapple with our demons, we are caught in an ugly loop of violence in this country, one that has defined too much of our history and that is too often rooted in our long tradition of racism and hate.
This is the America George Floyd knew. This is the America I know all too well. This is the America too many of us had come to fear, even before an eighteen year old white supremacist shot up a market in Buffalo, earlier this. month, and another teenager took the lives of at least twenty-one people, most of them children, at the Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday.
These latest victims of our unwillingness to see around our blindspots were too young to fully appreciate the violently dysfunctional history we brought to bear on their too-short lives. We owe it to them, as we owed it to George Floyd to reckon with who we truly are as a nation. Without this honest reckoning the bloodshed will continue.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. ~James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin spent a lifetime begging America to confront its racism and oppressive violence. His words are calling out to us still. It is true: we made some progress after Medgar Evers, after Emmett Till, after George Floyd. But we have never been willing to drill down to the heart of the matter — to confront the hate at the root of this violence.
On this two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, we no choice but to do just that. To honor all the lives lost, and all the blood spilled. And to save our nation from itself.