‘I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd. Begging for air, near death and desperately pleading with his soon-to-be killers, he suffered a police knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes before he died. Caught on video, this act of police brutality was sickening. Another unarmed black man killed at the hands of police officers. The four Minneapolis officers involved were fired and then charged with murder-related offences.
Capitol Hill Senate chaplain Barry Black, commenting on the death, said “may they strive to find a vaccine to inoculate our nation against hate, sin and despair”. His measured response implied a toxic culture, an unrestrained use of brutal force and a deep-seated institutional racism at the heart of many police forces in America.
But he also rightly reminded us that there is a complex set of intractable problems of colour prejudice and racist forces, which over centuries America has been unwilling to face up to.
A deeply racist America is a country frozen in time, paralysed by fear, hate and cowardice, immune to suffering, and lacking in political leadership at every level. A compliant criminal justice system and weak laws have created a Wild West culture in some police jurisdictions: a country that can land a man on the moon but cannot keep black men safe from racist police officers.
Rooted in slavery, racism is tearing America apart and the destruction of black lives will continue.
This is the same country that tolerates regular mass shootings and the gut-wrenching massacres of innocent schoolchildren which, at frequent intervals, shame America. After the eulogies, the expressions of grief and the promises of reform from politicians, nothing changes. Then it happens again and again. The whole structure of society, institutions, culture, religion, and politics seems moribund and dysfunctional, holding out little prospect of change.
This miserable story of ambivalence and neglect partly explains why white police officers keep killing unarmed black men and why George Floyd will not be the last.
Racism within the police has deep roots and can be traced back to South Carolina in the 1700s. In simple terms there were two strands of American law enforcement: central municipalised forces, Boston being the first, and those of the southern slave-holding states with their roots in the “Slave Patrols”.
These patrols of white vigilantes were created to keep slaves in check and return them if they absconded. They crushed uprisings and meted out severe punishments. They were key to the enforcement of segregation under the Jim Crow laws in the southern states after slave holding was officially abolished.
There is no doubt that the Slave Patrols were instrumental in embedding racism in the southern states and institutionalising the deeply offensive ideas that African Americans were somehow ‘inferior and of less worth than white people’.
The organisation of the police in the US makes scrutiny and accountability impossible. There are nearly 18,000 police agencies, employing nearly 900,000 officers, 80 per cent of them white, covering city police departments, county sheriff offices, state police, highway patrol and federal law agencies. In the UK there are 46 police forces.
The difference is striking and it illustrates the problems of agreeing operational rules, enforcing regulations, providing oversight, improving recruitment and training, and ensuring a consistency of standards across America, especially in relation to the use of force and the weeding out of racists, particularly those with white nationalist or supremacists leanings.
When police officers act with impunity, it is difficult to impose discipline and maintain ethical standards. Without sufficient oversight, rogue policing can have such evil consequences.
The person who killed George Floyd had 18 complaints against him and was still allowed on the streets. And, following thousands of police killings between 2014 and 2019, 99 per cent of the officers were not convicted of a crime or even charged.
Obtaining numbers of people killed at police hands is difficult, but the New York Times, the Guardian’s “Counted Out”, and the “Mapping Police Violence” group, provide figures which are shocking and prove once again that the US is a global outlier and “kills more people in days than other countries do in years”. In the first 24 days of 2015, the police in the US fatally shot more people than the police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.
Each year in the US, about 1,000 to 1,100 people are killed by police officers. In terms of killings per million, black Americans are twice as likely as Hispanics to be killed and three times as likely as whites to be killed. The police kill all types of Americans, but the largest burden falls on black men.
International comparisons are stark and show America as an outlier in police killings, setting aside Brazil, Syria and Venezuela. America with its estimated 1,000 killings in 2018 can be compared with Germany, UK, and Denmark with 11, one, and zero, respectively.
Even acknowledging the levels of violent crime, the fact that police carry guns and the crazy levels of gun ownership in the US, these statistics suggest that criminal justice governance in the US is incompetent and complicit. No ethical or political will exists to make the police accountable and, as a result many police department officers are out of control.
This is the point at which calls for reforms meet the resistance of powerful police unions. Too often their traditional focus on salaries, benefits, job security and conditions is extended “to pushing for safeguards against investigation, discipline, dismissal and the use of excessive force”.
These protections allow people to act with impunity. Police officers require safeguards, but not to cover up inhuman and racist behaviour.
America requires a seismic shake-up of governance, democracy, politics and humanity, if African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics are to be spared racial hatred and injustice.
While the reforms of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s were beacons of hope on a long and very dark journey, new leadership is needed to take America in a new direction.
Governors’ mansions, state legislatures, the US Congress, the Republican and Democratic parties, and the Justice Department should stop hiding and progress common sense reforms that do not need a political revolution, but instead require courage, common sense and a commitment to human decency.
If America is to defeat racism, then human rights must triumph.
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