America Is Failing George Floyd
Photo: Lawrence Sumulong via Getty Images

America Is Failing George Floyd

One year after Floyd’s murder, we’re still awaiting actual justice and…

As we near the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death and the worldwide social actions that occurred in response to it, reflections have begun to appear and others are sure to follow. Articles like these seek to measure how much has changed. The majority of them will have to admit that almost nothing has. To acknowledge that sad reality is the honest response, and it dishonors such a profound death to pretend otherwise.

What has changed in a year?

Both the size and the global proliferation of protests following Floyd’s death prove that awareness of the Black struggle has changed, but the extent to which such knowledge has transformed into usable empathy is hard to find. The sheer amount of bias training and equity initiatives implemented by companies and organizations suggest that narratives around race and class have changed. And yet, school teachers have had more bias training than police officers in the year since Floyd was choked to death in front of the world and the spirit of his mother. So what we likely mean by a change in narrative is that the language of White guilt has changed, how Whiteness is recentered, how Blackness is called in to absolve. Not much else has appeared to move the needle into concrete, real-world change. A few local laws; a few budget adjustments in a couple of cities. Nothing too profound. Nothing national. Nothing new.

Admittedly, the question of change has levels. What passes for change in Minneapolis hits different in New York or Ohio. There are more murals. There are still protests. There are more news stories. But there are scant few differences in widespread accountability or process or police budgets. And Daunte Wright’s family would certainly have something to say about change around Minneapolis after his April 2021 killing during a traffic stop in the suburb of Brooklyn Center.

A week and a half after Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council banned police chokeholds. Enacting this change prior to May 25, 2020 would have potentially saved Floyd’s life, but then this prohibition needed to change anyway — and still does anywhere the practice remains. A ban on chokeholds should have happened six years before when Eric Garner was killed in New York, also on camera, also saying “I can’t breathe” like a prayer. If anything, Minneapolis is extremely late to this change, and at least one person that the world knows of is dead because of it.

Is it really reform if the changes you make only raise the bar to the bare minimum requirements of not just policing but human decency?

Several other amendments to Minneapolis Police Department procedures were implemented in the three months after Floyd’s death. Among them was the mandatory reporting of chokeholds, intervention allowances by other officers in instances of improper use of force, a requirement to use the lowest force necessary, reporting of deescalation tactics used, and incident report completion prior to body cam footage review. Then, in August, the city approved half a million dollars to put more officers on the street.

There’s change, and then there’s the change you were asking for.

What’s even more mind-boggling is how many of these reforms are the way most Americans think policing already works. If you asked the average American prior to Floyd’s death if they thought that mentioning the application of a chokehold was an optional part of the police reporting process, they’d say no, of course you have to report a chokehold because it’s a use of force. Most of these reforms are what community-minded policing should have implemented decades ago, not after half the world spent a year taking to the streets to demand police treat people like human beings.

As of last November, Minneapolis police are required to announce their presence and purpose prior to entry, meaning they’ve restricted no-knock warrants. At the federal level, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act can’t get through Congress. It’s filled with exactly these kinds of day-one, shovel-ready reforms, yet legislators can’t get them passed. Most citizens agree that policing needs reform, but I think most people would be appalled to discover how much basic dignity and common sense aren’t accounted for in a cop’s job description or the law. Politicians are still debating over body cameras in 2021, which at this point seems an archaic measure to be without. Requiring body cams is the least you can call for if you’re trying to enact change.

Is it really reform if the changes you make only raise the bar to the bare minimum requirements of not just policing but human decency?

On some levels, the world has changed because of George Floyd’s death. And yet, at other levels of engagement, the world remains the same or is arguably worse. If you measure change in awareness, then yes, the world has changed. The thing about awareness is that you’re not obligated to do anything with the knowledge that comes with that new information. If you claim to care about justice and a belief that people’s lives matter, then yes, you are obligated to do something with your newfound awareness. But since you cannot be made to do anything — like be forced to do more or the right thing or anything that makes you uncomfortable — then for all intents and purposes, you are not obligated to change. Which is why so much of what needs to change must find new spaces in which to seed and grow. The seed can only grow so tall in the soil of politics, protest, and entertainment. The seeds must be sown in legislation, community development, and education.

At this point, you may be thinking about former police officer Derek Chauvin and how his conviction represents change. You wish to remind me of the one cop the state has seen fit to punish like he was not a sacrificial lamb, as if I have forgotten that such legal determinations — which are not justice — can still happen. As if I, someone who has lived my entire life in a test market Midwestern city not unlike Minneapolis, cannot name three Black people killed by police in this so-called transformative year.

Right now, the man who directly killed George Floyd is sitting in a prison as I type this. It didn’t take a year to determine his guilt, and for obvious reasons ,I can now use words like “killed” and “guilt” without qualifying them. This isn’t because courts are infallible—far from it. It’s because most people assume that if a court finds any police officer guilty of having done anything, the act must have been truly egregious. And so, in the sphere of Floyd’s world — where his family and children and friends exist — the conviction of Derek Chauvin is progress. But when you pour the whole of Black people in America into the bowl, it is progress the way Malcolm X’s partially pulled-out knife from the wound is progress.

Every disparity about policing that existed prior to George Floyd’s death still remains. The only thing that’s measurably different is the pall of grief over everything. That grief is more palpable in the year since his death, not less.

For a year, the world has put the name of a Black Minneapolis son in its mouth but has only seemed to swallow and sleep the meal of his soul away. The nine-and-a-half minutes of Floyd’s killing has turned into the 10 seconds of Ma’Kiah Bryant’s killing, which five months ago was the 10 minutes in which Andre Hill was shot four times, then handcuffed, then was not administered first aid, and then died. The George Floyd moment is still happening.

I have seen the changes in American discourse around policing over the last 12 months referred to as a “racial reckoning.” A reckoning suggests that one has not only been made aware of an issue but that they have been called to account for their part in the problem. I suppose that much of a definition and its common context lines up with reality. But the slick thing about a racial reckoning is that it doesn’t account for any actual response to the calls for accountability that it generates.

A recent New York Times article points out the number of Republicans who, for once, voiced support for Black Lives Matter issues shortly after Floyd’s murder. The article then displays how quickly and far that support dropped off as protests spread and calls for action became real demands. The minute America was called to the carpet to implement actual change, it regressed into its White comfort zones.

Every disparity about policing that existed prior to Floyd’s death still remains. The only thing that’s measurably different is the pall of grief over everything. That grief is more palpable in the year since his death, not less. That grief becomes sharper because we know that every day that real change doesn’t happen, more people will die.

In this country, police kill someone nearly every day of the year. Most days log two or three deaths. It would be grossly naive to believe that those deaths are all above board, and that we’re only aware of the most egregious ones. Those statistics suggest that, as sad and debilitating as each public case has been, we have been lottery lucky to have caught the moments we saw recorded. We’re only scratching the surface of the problem. Change that doesn’t seek to address that reality needs to be called something else.