Statement on George Floyd and Thoughts on Needed Reform
On May 25, 2020, a police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as Floyd pleaded for air, while three officers passively stood by and watched. I condemn the actions of these four Minneapolis police officers, and applaud the legal charges that have finally been brought against them in response to the ongoing protests across the country.
The George Floyd murder, so quickly following the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery, has proven to be a seminal event in our nation. African Americans and allies of all races decided enough was enough and took to the streets in protest. The bulk of those protests have been peaceful. The majority of the violence occurring has been attributed by the Department of Justice, local police departments, protest organizers, and eyewitnesses to fringe extremist groups more interested in chaos than a political cause. On the other hand, some of the violence has been attributed to white supremacist infiltrators, which work to actively undermine the message of the protests. We can easily become distracted by pointing fingers at those detracting from the message of racial equality in our time, in hopes of supporting a political “team,” but we must rise above such impulses. What truly matters is the ongoing pursuit of our shared American ideals – justice, equality, and freedom – which have always required a great deal of internal reflection and collective change to be realized.
The events of this week and month have highlighted a variety of pressing societal issues requiring urgent and immediate political action. Among the most dismaying of these is the continuance of systemic racism, still dominating much of our criminal justice system. Additionally, we must combat habitually excessive police violence, and the increasing militarization of the police. Too many state judges and state laws allow police to skirt around constitutional guarantees to privacy, search warrants, and due process. We must also protect the media and free press as they seek to inform the public during ongoing events, like protests, and decry the chilling attacks made against them by citizens and law enforcement. The authoritarian impulses expressed and unconstitutional actions taken by President Trump must be swiftly countered. We must also protect the independence of religious institutions and the First Amendment right to peaceful protest, while ensuring that criminality is countered with appropriate law enforcement and assured due process.
The necessity and overwhelming success of organizations like the Innocence Project and Equal Justice Initiative repeatedly demonstrate how unjust the criminal justice system can be, particularly to black men. Our prisons are overcrowded with those convicted of minor crimes, and once out of prison, it becomes virtually impossible to find work or assimilate back into society in a productive way. The many ways that the system works against the black community deserves its own long and detailed analysis. Suffice it to say, if we sincerely wish to heal the racial divide tearing our nation apart, then we need to honestly listen to those who are suffering because of unjust policies and work together – outside of the proverbial box – to change them. It is possible and needs to happen. Local and state governments need to lead the way, with support from the Department of Justice and laws passed by Congress where appropriate
Second, we need to address the reality of ongoing police violence. I’ve long wondered why police seemingly shoot to kill both violent and non-violent suspects. The suspected crimes are not capital crimes and therefore do not merit the death penalty, but nonetheless, such penalty is too frequently meted out. Conservative columnist David French addressed this issue eloquently. I agree with French that we need much better training of our police. We need to help them be able to cope with pressure. We need to end qualified immunity as just a first step to providing accountability. We need to require functioning body cameras on all law enforcement. Reforming the police unions will also help with transparency and allow justice when police break the rules. Together, this is the bare minimum of what can be done to help
Breonna Taylor would still be alive and working as an emergency room technician had the police not executed a poorly documented no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. Her involvement with the suspects the police were pursuing was so tangential that the warrant should never have been issued. Fourth Amendment issues urgently need to be addressed by Congress and legal, constitutional parameters need to be set on the appropriate issuance and use of police warrants.
One of the disturbing elements of this past week’s protests has been the literal assault on the media. Legitimate media members have been arrested, deliberately tear gassed, and beaten. One such assault has led to the Australian Prime Minister calling for an investigation into the attack on two Australian journalists. The frequent verbal and written assault by the President on the media. Instead of allowing for a free press that gives a variety of views (both right and left have their favorite news sources), there is a push to label the media that the Administration doesn’t like as “the enemy of the people.” Before the protests there was already concern about the safety of American journalists at home and abroad, but this past week has seen more than 125 attacks, mostly from the police. Sensible laws protecting the media from law enforcement repercussions need to be enacted immediately. I propose a free media law that would protect journalists covering news events from arrest and law enforcement actions, with federal consequences for agencies that violate this.
President Trump’s response to the protests has been inflammatory. Whether it was tweeting the racially-charged, “When the looting starts the shooting starts,” or threatening the use of “vicious dogs” against protesters who might breach the White House grounds (another charged threat due to its racist history), there has been no attempt to unify the country in an hour of turmoil. On Monday night, the President finally gave a public address. It was the antithesis of calming. He threatened to unconstitutionally override states’ right to handle their own public safety by sending the military into states that are facing unrest. During his speech, peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park, without warning, were hit by gas and pepper balls and attacked by law enforcement half an hour before curfew. It was soon understood that this was undertaken so that the President could take a walk for a photo op in front of a nearby historic church that had had a fire in its basement the night before. With no advance warning of the presidential photo-op, the priests and church volunteers were forcibly removed from the premises of their own church by police. There was no vital national security issue that should have allowed this private religious facility and members of the clergy to be used in this way. This was an appalling assault on the sanctity of a church and its clergy by the national executive and needs to be addressed to provide better protections in the future.
The vast majority of protesters this week have been an interracial mix of people peacefully seeking justice and fighting for change. But external groups have hijacked the protests and used them to foment violence. They have succeeded in killing and maiming, looting, and arson in cities around the country. There are investigations into who is responsible for these attacks, and no easy answers are available. The Department of Justice needs to help states determine who is behind these attacks in a fully transparent process. Meanwhile, police need to ensure that peaceful protests are able to proceed. Police who engage in violence against these peaceful protests need to face professional and legal consequences.
Finally, all Americans need to listen to our African American community as they share the pain of their experience of dealing with the racism that surrounds them. Rather than downplaying their feelings and experiences through the prism of white experience, we need to seek to be empathetic, to allow for a different perspective, and find solutions that can make meaningful and permanent change.