This is America: George Floyd
What this means for the past, present, of future of the United States of America
On May 25th, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a deli employee called 911 accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Just seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived on the scene, Mr. Floyd was pinned beneath the knee of a white officer, unconscious, and showing no signs of life. He was pronounced dead around an hour later.
The riots that have spawned as a result of this incident have spread nationwide. As the situation of what is happening here in the United States has been escalating for the past week, I’ve spent this time gathering my thoughts on the matter. I’ve been thinking deeply about what this all means for our past, present, and future. I would like to share my thoughts.
I have been feeling a multitude of various emotions — anger, frustration, injustice, disgust, fear, powerlessness… but most of all, sadness.
As someone who was born and raised in the United States, I have lived the entirety of my twenty-four years here. As an American, I am saddened to see the condition of what is happening in my country. It seems as though we are living in a dystopian shell of what we have the potential to be.
Taking a look back
It is disheartening to see a nation that, when at its very best, has been capable of extraordinary feats of achievement. In the twentieth century, the United States was responsible for a substantial number of scientific and technological advances such as space exploration, the invention of computers and the internet, and the rapid industrialization of its cities. The country’s capacity to assimilate innovations from around the world during two world wars allowed it to be the only major power to avoid economic ruin during WWII.
As an economic superpower, the country was able to cultivate the world’s greatest artists, leaders, and thinkers. Scientists in America and around the world worked in the fields of engineering, communications, physics, medicine, genetics, and psychology to develop breakthroughs that would go on to advance the quality of human life as we know it today. For these reasons, the twentieth century is regarded by many to be “the American century”.
So what happened? How did we get to where we are now? Well, if we take a closer look, we will find that many of the problems that plagued us then continue to plague us now.
The truth is, we are fighting a civil war. It is a war not of race, but of class. What is happening in the United States is part of a more systemic problem, and the first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one.
James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book first published in 1941 that documented the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the American Great Depression. It is a piece so devoted to its humanist argument, that it is considered one of the most intimate studies of American poverty ever attempted.
In it, Agee is quoted by saying, “Consciousness is shifted… to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” What he is describing is his desire to approach clarity and truth without diverting one’s perceptions into science or art, but rather presenting problems for what they are.
We as an American people should do the same. We should be having prolonged arguments about whether or not the kind of country we’ve built may or may not be a good thing. In order to better understand the systemic problems of this country, one should look no further than the American crime drama television series, The Wire.
Created and primarily written by author and former police reporter David Simon, the series is a depiction of the current condition of western democracy and of the post-industrial world that has been enveloped by it.
I recently finished watching the series in its entirety, and although it is over a decade old, I was fascinated by just how much it holds up today — perhaps now more than ever. The Wire is not a cop show. Yes, the main story revolves around a series of police wiretap investigations, but its primary focus is illustrating the city of Baltimore by showing its various institutions and the individuals that make up those institutions.
It is a portrayal of how economic, political, and individual motivations affect how institutions operate. The main takeaway from the show is how these motivations keep the institutions in a cycle of failure, impossible for the individuals involved to reform.
The problems depicted in The Wire are an actual dynamic in places like West Baltimore where people are marginalized and destroyed as a systematic function. The truth is, West Baltimore is simply a representation of the many post-industrial cities and metropolitan areas across the United States. The show rarely prescribes a solution but seeks to mostly illustrate the very problems that continue to go unresolved to this day in Baltimore and many American cities.
The affirmation of this notion is confirmed by the current existence of the ongoing riots in various cities all over the country right now. These cities include (but are not limited to) Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York City, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, and many more.
We deserve better
We as a people are upset, and understandably so. We feel as though our own institutions have failed us. In this particular instance, our police system has failed us. Derek Chauvin and the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd in broad daylight as he pleaded for his life.
The manner in which Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck serves as an analogy for the way the system has held its knee to the neck of its oppressed people for long enough. “I can’t breathe.” These final words of George Floyd echo loudly in the halls of injustice.
We feel betrayed by the ones who are supposed to protect and serve us. Now, do I think all police officers are inherently evil? No, of course not. However, as Detective Jimmy McNulty from The Wire puts it, “The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America.”
This is where the problem lies. Because the police institutions in America carry so much power, they have a great responsibility to exercise that power for the good of the city they are protecting. It is only when they abuse this power that they are doing their fellow citizens, and by extension, their own society, a massive disservice.
When the ones who are supposed to protect us won’t listen, what are we supposed to do? As Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his lifetime, a riot is the language of the unheard. Rebellion has always been used to defend liberty, and this time is no different.
Those who are willing to buck against the systems do so out of desperation because they see no future for themselves in those systems. The victims of separate America that these systems have created are rising up to voice their grievances, and we stand with them. Enough is enough. We should not live in fear of the very institutions that are put in place to keep us safe.
This issue goes far beyond the reaches of just policing, though. The murder of George Floyd is just the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned earlier, this is a far more systemic problem that our country is facing. Fear and money are the great currencies of conservative political thought in America. It is difficult for us as a population to root for order to be restored, because order itself is corrupt.
For example, the United States incarcerates more of its population in raw numbers than any other country on the face of the earth. This includes China, which consists of billions of people while we only consist of millions. We have more Americans in prison than China has Chinese in prison.
In fact, this year, the 2020 US Census Bureau has reported a population of approximately 332,639,000. Of this number, approximately 2.3 million people make up the prison population. This is about 0.7% of the US population currently in a federal or state prison or local jail.
Although this number may seem insignificant, this amounts to roughly 1%, which is one out of every hundred (if my math serves me correctly). This number is incredibly high. But why is this?
This can be attributed to various reasons, but in June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” A consequence of this war on drugs was a massive trend towards incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders.
The 1970 US Census Bureau reported a population of approximately 203,211,926. In 1971, the prison population was 200,000. This translates to about 0.001% of the population in a federal or state prison or local jail at the time.
In just 50 years, the prison population in the United States increased roughly 100x, disproportionately consisting of African-American and Latino individuals.
The war on drugs may have started as a war against dangerous narcotics, but now it is a war against the underclass, and it is being fought by people who have against people who have-not. A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted that the war on drugs was Nixon’s plan to criminalize the antiwar-left and black people. It is not a war waged on poverty, but rather on the poor.
The challenge of this counterproductive cycle is that these individuals go into prison, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while inside, only to come out and become permanently apart of the “other America”.
These individuals become unemployable, stripped of their right to vote, and cannot participate in their communities. Not to mention that this occurs at great expense to the state, raising taxes for everyone else in the process.
No other country incarcerates its population at this level. When we look at the population of individuals who stay unemployed as the economy grows and unemployment rates decline, the majority of it is individuals who have felony history. So, instead of allowing them to lead a responsible life, they are essentially foreclosed as American citizens.
This is not making cities safer, it is tearing them apart. One thing that makes a city safer is competent retroactive investigations of felonies, but in order to do that, police departments must use and not be used by informants, know how to testify in court, know how to write a search warrant that will hold up, etc. This tends to go above and beyond the call of duty for police departments that are focused on meeting their numbers and quotas.
Coexistence is possible
We are all human. We all make mistakes, albeit some worse than others, but humanity is at its best when we support each other — not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but rather when we encourage each other to grow, when we educate each other, and when we guide each other toward redemption.
However, addressing these issues is not making excuses for criminals either. We also need to humanize the police. Without law and order, we would be living in chaos. We must not lose sight of the goal, which is coexisting amongst each other in peace.
Police officers in this country do have a scary job. They put their lives on the line for us, interacting with dangerous members of society that lie, cheat, and steal every day so we don’t have to. Expecting them to just deal with it and hear nothing about it in return would be betraying them just the same.
The truth is that there isn’t a simple good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy. The pornography of American entertainment and politics is the depiction of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and black vs. white. There are bad police doing the right thing for wrong reasons, there are those on the wrong side of the law who seem to have just as much heart as those on the right side of the law, and vice-versa. To generalize any group would be to perpetuate the problem.
We are more alike than the media and the haters will have you believe. Empathy is a two‐way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding — an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
We are all the same. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic needs and concerns. Furthermore, all of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals. That is human nature.
With all of this being said, there need to be changes made in this country. I don’t have the answers, I wish I did. I know these are complicated problems that require complex solutions, for there is no brief explanation for how we should do governance that will apply to every single problem and in every single circumstance. I am not usually political, but this goes beyond politics.
Without mentioning the other problems we have with healthcare, retirement, education, income, savings, happiness, and trust in our infrastructure, we do have to start somewhere. That is why the peaceful protests taking place across the nation are a spark for something I would hope is fuel for change.
We are all in this together. As David Simon is quoted as saying,
“Collective responsibility without personal freedom or without personal liberty is tyranny, it’s totalitarianism… that is something we should fear always. But conversely, personal freedom and personal liberty without collective responsibility, without a shared sense that you are part of society, and that you owe it to society to participate fully, and to seek utilitarian solutions to society’s problems… that’s just selfish. That’s just bad citizenship. That is a recipe for a second-rate society.”
Change is coming
We have become an urban species, so we are either going to come to our senses and figure out how to live together in this increasingly crowded and multicultural environment or we are not. If we do not, we are destined to fail. We need to enlist law enforcement as an ally in this endeavor. This can be done administratively, but the real change comes from legislation.
In due time, change will come. Things must get worse before they get better, and we will get better. 2020 has been a rough year, to say the least. It is a year that will live in infamy, but I have a feeling we will be better off as a result of the hardships that it has brought us all.
We must learn to forgive, for forgiveness is a powerful antidote for hate. But most importantly, we must not lose hope for the future.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King Jr.