'I Can't Breathe'

Jesse Jackson | 6/5/2020, 8:15 a.m.
The murder of George Floyd was a lynching in broad daylight. Three police officers stood and watched as a fourth, ...

The murder of George Floyd was a lynching in broad daylight. Three police officers stood and watched as a fourth, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd's neck. They watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with Floyd unresponsive for 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that, according to the criminal complaint against Chauvin. They did nothing to stop the murder. Their silence was as much an act of violence as Cauvin's knee. And if there were no video recording of the murder, they likely would have upheld the Code Blue loyalty, and lied about what happened.

Floyd's murder sparked peaceful demonstrations in cities across the country, demonstrations that, in Minneapolis and a few other places, turned toward riots. Chauvin and his co-conspirators weren't immediately arrested for the murder. Had Floyd, an African American, done this to a white person, he would likely have been jailed immediately, with a bond too high to reach.

For too long, for too often, African Americans have been brutalized without consequence. Floyd's plea for mercy - "I can't breathe" - was an echo of Eric Garner's last words. Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, too often the killers walk free. The signs say Black Lives Matter. Yet, the very people who are supposed to protect us too often, in too many places, don't seem to agree.

Instead of accountability, police have been given impunity. There were 17 complaints filed against Chauvin in his 19 years on the force. Only one even resulted in a reprimand. Too few of the police live in the communities they patrol. Too many see themselves as enforcers, not protectors. There are only a few bad apples we are told. But the Code Blue wall of silence protects the abusers, and too often rots the entire barrel. Young officers learn that if they want to advance, if they want better assignments, better pay, more security, they have to fit in. And the rot keeps spreading.

The demonstrations are necessary. The rioting understandable but regrettable. Already, the damage done to property, the exchanges with the police becomes the subject, not the agenda that is necessary to focus on the outbreaks of rage that are inevitable.

"In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard," Dr. King taught us, "What is it that America has failed to hear?"

In the last years of the Obama administration, peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations occurred in cities across the country. In a stunning display of discipline and self-control, demonstrators protested police brutality and murders peacefully, shutting down major thoroughfares.

The Obama administration began an effort to encourage police reform. The sentence disparities between crack and cocaine - the "black" drug and the "white drug" - were reduced. Transfers of military weaponry to police forces were restricted. The Obama Justice Department entered into a series of consent decrees with more than a dozen police departments to encourage them to change their practices - to become more a guardian than an occupier. The consent decrees couldn't root out racism, or dismiss the sadistic or the disturbed, but they could encourage a change in tactics, and perhaps in attitudes.