The George Floyd Protests
By George J. Chanos, Jun 3rd, 2020
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck, for more than 8 minutes, ultimately asphyxiating him.
And to make matters even worse, while this was happening, and while others gathered and began to film the encounter with their cell phones, 3 other officers did nothing to help Floyd. Instead, they either participated in restraining Floyd or looked on, ignoring Floyd’s repeated pleas of “I can’t breath”, and the pleas of others who tried to alert the police to what was a clear and obvious threat to Floyd’s safety. Floyd died shortly after the incident.
Protest and riots across the county soon followed and have continued unabated for the last seven days.
The world is now watching, as Americans take to the streets in an attempt to address the historical inadequacies and inequities of a criminal justice system that too often fails to provide equal protection under the law.
And what the world is seeing, what we are all seeing, in addition to peaceful protests over a just cause, is police being shot, innocent people being injured, businesses being destroyed, and neighborhoods and communities being terrorized.
These protests are a lethal mixture of well-intentioned young people, the disillusioned and the disenfranchised, angry political and social activists, opportunistic political operatives, criminal gangs, looters and anarchists.
It’s a troublesome and toxic mixture. One that seems designed, during a presidential election year, to bait President Trump into further inflaming existing tensions, by employing the Insurrection Act. An Act that invests the president of the United States with extraordinary powers, to deploy military troops within the United States to suppress civil disorder, insurrection, and rebellion.
While peaceful protest is as American as the country itself, violent protest is not only criminal — it’s counter-productive. And the George Floyd riots, regardless of how legitimate the underlying cause, are no exception. These riots won’t create the change required by their underlying cause, nor are they an excuse for ignoring the underlying cause. What they are, most importantly, is a warning sign. One that we ignore at our collective peril.
Like many countries, America has an ugly history of racial conflict. A century ago, on May 31, 1921, white mobs destroyed more than 1,000 black homes, businesses, and churches, during what became known as the “Tulsa Race Riot”, leveling entire city blocks. Why? Because a young black man was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator.
Today, we still have unresolved racial conflict and inequality in America. These issues have their roots in a history of racism, discrimination, and oppression. A history marred by slavery, lynchings, and events like the Tulsa Race Riots.
Those of us who are alive today didn’t create these problems. Most of our ancestors never owned slaves or committed acts of oppression. We didn’t participate in, or experience these historical transgressions and, for the most part neither did many of our ancestors. But that’s not true for many African-Americans. Many African-Americans, and other people of color, continue to experience the traumas of racism endured by their ancestors — traumas reinforced by their own modern-day experiences.
As Americans, we can’t escape our history. We can’t ignore the fact that America inherited certain responsibilities from the acts and omissions of its founders and forefathers. And whether or not we want these responsibilities, as Americans, and members of a society still burdened by racist beliefs and behavior, we have no choice but to accept these responsibilities. At a minimum, we have a responsibility to address and attempt to resolve the inequities that remain with us today. Just as we have had the responsibility to address and resolve other inequalities and inequities by, for example, providing women the right to vote, or by ensuring equal protection under the law.
Here, America’s responsibility, to all people of color, is to acknowledge our nation’s history, attempt to address the sins and the suffering created by it, and, to the greatest extent possible, attempt to resolve the residual legacy of that history which remains with us today.
For far too long, America has failed to even acknowledge, let alone discharge that responsibility. Instead, we have mostly ignored it, in the naive hope that it will simply fade away. Well, it hasn’t and it won’t. Instead, recent events, like the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created 25% unemployment, and which has disproportionately affected many of our African-American communities, has exacerbated racial tensions. And these tensions are now being agitated and manipulated, both by those who seek power and by those who seek change.
The killing of George Floyd underscores the urgency of addressing these issues. Black men are being imprisoned and killed in America, at rates and under conditions that confirm an underlying inequality in our criminal justice system, and in other areas of our society. And that is unacceptable — in any civilized society.
People of color are not afforded equal protection under the law, by those who are entrusted to administer our laws. And this has been the case, both before and after the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments. It has been the case for centuries. And despite all the progress we have made, as the killing of George Floyd illustrates, it remains the case today. People of color continue to be denied equal protection under the law.
We need to recognize that the anger and frustration that we are seeing, has been building for centuries. And it won’t go away without further action.
So, America has a choice to make. We will either recognize and address the root causes of the anger and frustration we are witnessing, or these root causes of hopelessness and despair will continue to grow like a cancer and eventually destroy us.
Those who argue that this is ancient history are wrong. It is both ancient and modern history. It is part of our present experience. And absent corrective action, it will remain a dangerous and destabilizing part of our future experience.
America’s history of racism and oppression didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. America’s “ghettos” were another form of oppression. And America’s policing and incarceration policies created a new form of oppression and control. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. Prisons became America’s new form of involuntary servitude. A new form of control and oppression.
America has 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. One out of every three black men born in America today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. That is a horrifying reality that should alarm all of us. And it has rightfully caused deep resentment and distrust, for America’s system of justice, within the African-American community. A new Axios-Ipsos poll shows that 77% of whites say they trust the local police, compared with just 36% of African Americans.
I respect, trust, and support our police. I formerly served as Nevada’s Attorney General, the state’s chief law enforcement officer. I know the sacrifice police make and the dangers they are exposed to every day. I have attended and spoke at their funerals. Then again, I’m white. I haven’t lived the black experience. But I can see it, as clearly as I can see the sacrifices and the heroism of the men and women, of all colors, who protect and serve. We need to see all sides of this issue. We need to see the challenges that police face and the challenges that the people they serve face.
America’s crime-infested ghettos weren’t created exclusively by the people who live in them. They were designed as out-of-the-way places for society to contain impoverished persons of color. We went from slavery to segregation. Generations of housing discrimination created those ghettos. Decades of white protest, against black people moving into white neighborhoods, created them. Zoning laws, redlining, predatory lending, a lack of investment and economic opportunity, the breakdown of the American family, and the resulting increases in crime and addiction, that flowed from all of the above, created those ghettos. We created them. Our failed policies and misplaced priorities created them. Our affirmative acts of oppression, together with our benign neglect and indifference created them.
America leads the world in incarcerations. One out of every two black males is arrested by the time they’re 23. Black residents in New York City were 8 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white residents and 11 times more likely to be frisked.
These actions, inaction, and indifference, have led to hopelessness and despair. And that hopelessness and despair have led to what we are seeing today.
Is what we are seeing a spontaneous and organic movement? No. It is a highly organized movement. Is it only about George Floyd or a history of racism? No. It’s clearly about much more.
It’s about fear over growing economic inequality and economic insecurity. It’s about dissatisfaction, with our failed political institutions and our failed national policies in healthcare and education. It’s about disgust, over our corrupt and dysfunctional government. A government that no longer enjoys the confidence of a majority of its citizens. It’s about a new generation that is awakening from what was the “American Dream”, to discover a future that looks more like a “National Nightmare”. A generation that wants to make a difference and wants to create real, positive, and sustainable change. A generation that is more diverse and multicultural than prior generations. A generation that is searching for purpose and meaning in their lives and is willing to take to the streets to find that purpose and meaning. A generation that has few other options, to create real change, in a system controlled by elites whose interests are not aligned with their own.
What we are seeing is also the result of outside actors throwing fuel on our smoldering tinderboxes of discontent. The same thing happened in our last presidential election. And it’s insidious. It should be criminal. But this doesn’t change or in any way alter or diminish the legitimacy of the underlying grievances.
The fact that some are intentionally agitating America’s disenfranchised, during a pandemic and a presidential election year, is an important issue that needs to be addressed. It should concern all of us. But it does nothing to lessen the urgency of our taking action to address the very real and legitimate deficiencies and injustices that are genuine, and do currently exist. If anything, it increases the urgency of reform.
It is important to understand how these deficiencies and injustices expose large segments of our society to the threat of agitation and manipulation. Agitation and manipulation which has the potential to tear apart our already deeply divided nation. These systemic deficiencies represent America’s Achilles heel. They expose America, to the profound risks of increased agitation and division — both foreign and domestic. And that, beyond the legitimacy of these grievances, is why we all have a vested interest in ensuring that these deficiencies and injustices are resolved at the earliest opportunity. The time for change is now. And the change required is clear.
To reform our criminal justice system, we need continued work in some areas and bold new initiatives in others. We need:
- An increased emphasis on sensitivity training and conflict diffusion training for our police;
- Improved screening on the hiring of police, with psychological testing that attempts to identify candidates that have any racist tendencies or are otherwise unsuitable;
- Police compensation structures that provide bonus compensation which takes into consideration the number and nature of complaints made against an officer, and rewards and incentivizes optimal behavior.
- We need changes in our policing priorities, that move away from petty crimes that disproportionately ensnare minorities;
- We need to increase and improve communication between police and community leaders;
- We need a joint police/community effort, to reduce serious crime within our urban communities;
- We need stronger sentencing for violent offenders, that keeps those offenders off the streets;
- We need to reduce arrests, and the severity of sentencing, for non-violent crimes;
- We need to hire police officers that are more reflective of the communities they serve;
- We need police accountability boards, that are separated from the departments the police serve in, and the prosecutors they work with;
- We need increased empathy for all stakeholders — including the police;
- We need to transform our inner cities into communities that foster and attract increased investment and economic opportunities for those living within those communities;
- We need community centers to keep kids off the streets and to facilitate increased mentoring by community leaders;
- We need to teach all young people, within these communities, to respect all forms of authority, including parents, teachers, employers, and police.
Is it a big challenge? Yes. It’s one of many major challenges that we must address and resolve if we are to survive and thrive in the 21st century. The time for denial and delay is over. The time for inspired action is now — before communities across the country again rise up, in the name of the next George Floyd.