The nation is on fire — quite literally in some cases. Generations-old tensions, always simmering on the back burner and prone to overheat, are at full boil. The death of George Floyd, a black man, after being pinned beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked days of protests across the country. Rage over racial injustice and police brutality reached the steps of our nation’s capital. On Sunday, police fired tear gas and flash grenades near the White House to disperse protesters.
Floyd was suspected of buying a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20, a minor and nonviolent crime. Had he lived and been convicted, he probably wouldn’t have served time. Instead, he was mortally injured on the pavement. Before losing consciousness, he repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe.” Those who watch video footage will also find it hard to breathe. There is no place for this in America.
Floyd’s death came on the heels of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. On March 13, the 26-year-old EMT was shot multiple times in her Kentucky home after officers burst in to execute a “no-knock” search warrant. On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was cornered by white men and shot while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood. It was only after a video of the incident was posted online two months later that authorities pursued charges.
Even bird watching in a public park can be dangerous if you’re black. A woman called police from New York’s Central Park after a bird watcher asked that she put a leash on her dog. “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” she told the man. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Historically speaking, her actions could have threatened his life.
About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in the U.S. die at the hands of police, according to the Los Angeles Times. That makes them two and a half times more likely than white men to die during an encounter with police. Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over and more likely to be searched following stops and African Americans are incarcerated at rates five times higher than whites. Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that average nearly 20 percent longer, according to a report from the United States Sentencing Commission.
Some of this can seem very far away from our corner of the world. Maine is one of the least diverse states in that nation, but most Mainers pride themselves on accepting others. But racism can be subtle, even unconscious. We must speak up when we witness it and confront our own prejudices when they arise unbidden. And we must listen to the experiences of people of color, not try to project our own world views.
Looting, burning and violence are shocking, but not as shocking as the killings that precipitated the protests. The message must not be lost in the mayhem. Every police department in the nation should be vigorously assessing protocols to ensure officers are protecting and serving all Americans. More training and education are key, but so is hiring the right people. And we citizens of the United States need to police our own assumptions and prejudices. Though we may not be guilty of an overt act of discrimination, what have we done to support victims of racist acts and policies? As President Kennedy observed in 1961, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.