Updated: Oct 21, 2021
It's a tragedy when police kill an innocent man. It's still a tragedy when they do it to someone who's guilty.
"Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice"
There were quite the number of outlandish takes from all ends of the political spectrum during the buildup to and aftermath of the Derek Chauvin trial and subsequent guilty verdict, but it’s this one from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that still blows my mind for its unbelievable tone-deaf quality. The near-universal backlash to such a moronic statement, however, overlooked a larger, underlying aspect of the discourse about George Floyd’s brutal murder and how we as a society chose to process it. It’s something that has gone undiscussed in the countless hours of punditry and op-eds hoisted upon us by the media and political class. That is, namely, the fact that many people seem wholly unable to process George Floyd’s death for what it was, a brutal, senseless murder, and have tried their absolute hardest to wrangle some sort of meaning from tragedy.
I’m not going to spend several paragraphs recapping the events of last spring and summer; we all lived through them, we all know what happened, etc. So I’ll cut right to my main point. The conservative response to the murder of George Floyd was relatively predictable: for months they chose to not acknowledge the event itself at all, instead spending every waking moment trying to redirect attention away from the brutal act and towards the riots that were supposedly destroying our cities. Later, the narrative from the pro-police, conservative media class shifted to attempting to sell the public on some bizarre alternate reality where George Floyd was this vicious drug addicted criminal that deserved his fate but also Derek Chauvin was somehow not responsible for his death because of Mr. Floyd’s asthma or something. It, predictably, more or less fell flat; there’s only so much you can do to create your own narrative when there’s very literally an eight-minute video meticulously documenting exactly what happened.
Cops and their defenders stretching the truth of what happened to grotesque ends is nothing new to anyone who paid attention last year. Police lie all the time and are rarely ever called out on it when they do, even though their official statements almost always serve as the basis for any crime reporting. Never forget that the way the media initially broke the news on this vicious murder was via police report using the cold and calculated quote: "Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction." It was the response from liberal spheres that to me was more telling. Pelosi’s comment was the most egregious, but there was an overall attempt by many to paint George Floyd as some sort of civil rights icon unjustly cut down. Cities named streets after him while doing absolutely nothing to reform their police departments. Murals of him went up on walls everywhere. The same photo of him was plastered on magazine covers in countless languages. Society came together to mourn this modern-day MLK.
Never mind the fact that George Floyd wasn’t a civil rights hero or anyone who lived a particularly notable life at all. He didn’t hold elected office, give inspiring speeches, or march on Washington. He was just a guy. He had a family, including two young daughters and an adult son. He held various jobs, mostly as a truck driver or bouncer. He was a former college athlete. He struggled with drug addiction and had various run-ins with the law that led to him serving jail time on several different occasions. He, like many people in this very dark world of ours, wanted strongly to improve the lives of people around him but acknowledged his own mistakes and shortcomings.
All of this is to say a seemingly obvious but still necessary fact: you don’t need to be a hero for your death to be tragic. And make no mistake, George Floyd’s death was as tragic and senseless as they come. But instead of confronting the deeper issues of a racist, overfunded, and ultramiliterized police class trained to use deadly force at the slightest perceived threat, we instead chose a narrative that was easier for our brains to process. It’s a strategy that’s been deployed countless times over for the last few decades, especially in recent years with the rise of high-profile mass shootings. Someone commits a heinous act due to some sort of darkness within them, we identify what that darkness is be it racism, Islamic fundamentalism, incel ideologies, etc, and then we as a society are able to move on with a neat and tidy lesson to learn from. Dylan Roof? Racism. Pulse Nightclub? Homophobia. Sandy Hook? Mental health issues. A tragedy occurs, we find out why, and we resolve to do better about that thing in the future. It’s hard to blame people for naively clinging to this formula; a tragedy is undoubtedly scarring to even those not involved, and our brains need a motive we can comprehend to process it. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Nancy Pelosis of the world started trying to convince us there was a very important and meaningful lesson to be learned from all this.
The thing is, there isn’t much to take away from George Floyd’s death. At least, not one with a simple, understandable resolution that we could issue a public statement on and move forward with our lives. It was a brutal, senseless, wholly unnecessary act and to try to wrangle some sort of meaning from it, that it was in any way a sacrifice or a martyring, is nothing more than a ghoulish attempt to distract from the sheer, abject violence of it all. The killing was rooted not only in the racism of the murderer himself (who it should not be forgotten had more than 18 misconduct complaints against him already, many against black teenagers), but of the institutional racism and violence that is baked into the fabric of American policing. Until we as a country are ready to reckon with this deeply and fundamentally flawed apparatus (and the failure to pass any sort of police reform at any level of American government proves we’re objectively not), there will be no lessons and takeaways to be gleamed from this tragedy. The reaction to Pelosi’s comments showed that this attempt to sell the public on a martyr narrative hadn’t really worked. Instead, a major way that a large swath of the American public was able to reckon with this event was to focus on George Floyd’s innocence or guilt.
Let us not forget the reason George Floyd found himself forced onto the ground with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck was because a store employee thought that a bill he attempted to use was counterfeit and called the police. While to my knowledge it has never been verified whether the bill was or was not counterfeit, this didn’t stop scores of well-intentioned do-gooders from opining how much worse it was to be murdered over a crime you’re innocent for.
Their heart is in the right place. But this is a misguided line of thinking.
Assuming George Floyd used a perfectly legitimate $20 bill and was unjustly racially profiled by the store employee and therefor unfairly arrested for a crime he was innocent of, does that make his murder any more tragic? The fact remains, he was brutally slain over a dispute involving less than $20, does it really make a difference whether he was innocent or guilty? Which brings me to my overall point: guilty people don’t deserve to be murdered by police either. This is a fact uncomfortable to many that is rationalized by an obsession with whether or not said victim was innocent. It’s something that our culture has drilled into our heads through cop TV shows and other forms of propaganda. We can understand an MLK-type figure who was martyred for his beliefs. We can even understand a crooked cop unjustly committing police brutality on an innocent man, like in the tragic case of the accidental shooting of Oscar Grant. After all, what’s the main explanation of police brutality by those sympathetic to police? It’s not a systemic issue, it’s just a few bad apples. But if a man has committed a crime, then to society he’s guilty and if the police shoot him, well then it must have been justified.
Take the case of Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old man from Kenosha, Wisconsin who was shot four times in the back by police officers. In the wake of the shooting as Blake fought for his life while chained to his hospital bed by police officers, pundits were quick to dispel similarities between this and the George Floyd incident, highlighting that Blake had a warrant out for his arrest from a month earlier. The allegations in the arrest warrant were troubling indeed, as Blake had been accused of crimes including sexual assault, domestic violence, and trespassing. Cops and their defenders could rest easy; after all, this was a criminal who was shot, not an innocent man. Never mind of course the fact that Jacob Blake had not been convicted of any crime and that his allegations, as troubling as they were, remained allegations. It’s one of the first things a young student learns about our legal code: that any man is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. But beyond this obvious fact, what bearing did his guilt or innocence in an unrelated event have on whether he deserved to be shot by the police when they arrived on the scene as Blake was attempting to break up a fight? Why does an outstanding warrant provide justification for police officers to shoot an unarmed man in the back? What does the character of a man and his past transgressions have to do with whether an officer should be allowed to carry out an execution-style shooting on a man trying to get back into his car?
This is something that when people take the time to think about, they can usually wrap their heads around. After all, the idea that one’s past transgressions don’t define your future and that people deserve a second chance is one with a reasonable amount of support in society. But where even the open-minded among us fall short is in the discussion of those who are killed in the act of committing a crime. It’s a fact that cannot be restated enough that American police kill a mind-bogglingly higher number of people than anywhere else in the world. Sure the George Floyds and the Breonna Taylors, brutal miscarriages of justice that resulted in meaningless tragedy, get the most attention, but police in America kill far more people than just the high-profile ones that spark protests, around 1000 people a year to be precise. In 2019, when American police killed 1099 people, police in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Germany combined to kill 71. Not 71 in one month, 71 in a year. Amongst four countries. Adjusting for population, American police kill 33.5 people per 10 million of their population. The next highest? Canada and Australia, with 9.8 and 8.5, respectively. After that? The Netherlands with 2.3, and those are the only other countries with a rate above 2 per 10 million. Since 1900, police in the UK have killed 52 people, about half the amount that US police kill in one month. Take a second to sit with that and process it. Adjust for population, demographics, whatever you like, the fact remains: in 121 years UK police killed the same amount of people that US police did in two weeks.
All of this circles back to the point where even those of us who wouldn’t characterize themselves explicitly as pro-cop still just assume fatally shooting an armed suspect is a natural part of police work. Sure, we should work to make sure police aren’t doing it to innocent, unarmed civilians, but what about violent armed criminals, what other alternatives are there?
Turns out a lot, actually.
Take a few cases outlined by sociology professor Alex Vitale in his outstanding book The End Of Policing (which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in police reform/abolition). In 2014, a UK man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia beheaded his neighbor and unarmed police were called to the scene. The police were able to talk him down long enough to rescue all nearby children who were in imminent danger before armed police arrived to use Taser shocks to subdue him. In 2011 in London, a machete-wielding man was restrained after a seven-minute-long confrontation where officers utilized trash cans and riot shields to non-lethally subdue him. In both instances, police utilized methods that didn’t involve just shooting at first sight to restrain someone who had either already committed or were at risk of committing violent crimes. They managed to de-escalate a violent situation without any additional casualties, either from those involved or innocent bystanders.
Compare this to the brutal 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, who used a knife in Laquan’s hand to justify firing 16 shots at his back in a matter of seconds from dozens of yards away. The defense of this being that a knife carried by a man walking in the opposite direction of the officer somehow presented an immediate danger to said officer standing more than 2 traffic lanes away. Or take the 2019 Miramar, FL shootout, where cops responded to an incident in which a UPS truck had been hijacked and its driver taken hostage by indiscriminately firing at the perpetrators in the middle of a busy highway, killing not only both robbers but also the hostage as well as a bystander. There are alternatives, we just don’t want to acknowledge them.
The writer, Catholic socialist, and social media addict Liz Bruenig has over the years written an excellent series of articles chronicling people on death row in her advocacy for eliminating the death penalty. To those on death row, the stakes of innocence or guilt are the highest they can possibly be: quite literally life and death. Because of this, an inordinate amount of attention has been paid to several high-profile cases of wrongfully convicted men proven innocent by new technology or a renewed investigation. These stories are often a radicalizing moment for many young activists, as there is no greater miscarriage of justice than a man wrongfully killed by the state for a crime he didn’t commit. But the uncomfortable truth remains that the majority of people on death row are in fact guilty of whatever heinous crime they were convicted of. The crimes are unthinkable: murder, rape, molestation, the very worst things a human can do to another human. And they still don’t deserve to die.
Bruenig writes, “Killing never reduces moral risk; there’s no cosmic ledger it can, by subtraction, set right, and no slate it can wash clean with the right amount of blood. In this way the lives of the innocent are no different from the lives of the guilty. The abolition of the death penalty will likely rest on whether we are willing to make that case.”
“It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve. I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.”
The debate over capital punishment is a morally complicated one that could certainly not be summed up in this article. But I agree with Liz that our society’s focus on proving that a vast swath of prisoners are innocent is a way to avoid reckoning with more complex issues. It’s easier to pretend that every inmate on death row is wrongfully convicted and deserves to be freed than to accept that no one, from good people who’ve made some mistakes to violent criminals that commit violent crimes to the very worst among us who commit unspeakable acts, deserves to be killed for their actions. Executing a murderer won’t bring their victims back. Shooting an unarmed man doesn’t heal the wounds caused by his past transgressions. And certainly, ending a man’s life over $20 is barbaric whether he’s guilty of the accused crime or not. It’s an oft repeated saying by anti-war advocates that you can’t bomb your way to peace. In that same vein, you can’t kill your way to justice.