Disrupting Civil Society for a More Just Future

A protester writes George Floyd’s name on the wall of a highway overpass (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist


George Floyd’s murder was a modern-day lynching and a profound symbol for all to see what is wrong in America. Witnessing mass protests in all fifty states, widespread looting, and arson, I am not surprised that things seem to be unraveling in cities across America, including outbreaks in Pittsburgh unrelated to, but under cover of the march. The murder of George Floyd should have been expeditiously addressed. It wasn’t. 

When bystanders begged officer Derek Chauvin to stop chocking Floyd with his knee, he continued for two minutes after Floyd stopped breathing. None of the officers involved did anything to stop Chauvin. All officers involved should be arrested and charged in the murder. Instead, the county prosecutor announced lesser charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against Chauvin alone.

The county prosecutor’s failure to accurately charge all officers involved was the final straw in an accumulation of injustices that must be addressed at all levels. As Minnesota’s attorney general Keith Allison takes over the case, the original complaint should be amended and upgraded to murder two and charges should also include all officers involved.

The COVID-19 virus is not the only widespread infection in America. Far too many police departments and local prosecutor’s offices are infected with systemic racism, which must be confronted and reformed. It was not a question of “if” but “when” injustice and underlying tensions would boil over. With the advent of cellphone videos, white Americans are now witnessing police abuses and blatant racism that has killed countless others for decades. Black Americans are twenty-four percent of the victims killed by police despite being only thirteen percent of the population. Minorities are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed according to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group.

Police Departments where abuses have occurred must reform their recruitment and retention processes to better screen against racism and other toxic behaviors. Every department must establish strong standards and better train officers on safe arrest procedures. For example, Minneapolis police have used deadly neck restraints 237 times since 2015, with black being 3/5 of the victims. Records show forty-four choking victims were rendered unconscious. Police should not be above the law and must first be held accountable by their fellow officers, department heads, and by the criminal justice system. 

Congress must reform the legal standard of “qualified immunity” to address abuses by racist police officers. The legal construct of “qualified immunity” was an attempt in a landmark decision in Pearson v. Callahan by the Supreme Court.  The court attempted to balance two important interests—”the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” The standard is flawed and needs to be reformed in light of the abuses.

Just as bad cops and endemic racism in some police departments should not condemn the country’s entire police force, so too, looters, arsonists, and vandals should not condemn or undermine the message of the thousands of peaceful marchers. The latter are rightfully seeking justice for George Floyd and a better America. They are creating a clarion call for economic and political justice for all.

Martin Luther King, Jr once warned, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Distractive narratives focused on the criminal acts of looters must be avoided. We must not rush to judgment by condemning the law-abiding protestors by the actions of violence-seeking provocateurs who were hiding behind legitimate protesters.

One in seven of the protesters were from elsewhere. Some were well-trained professional agitators wearing backpacks full of the tools of violence in cities where violence exploded. As of this moment, the evil-doers who blended into the protests to loot and burn and initiate violent acts have not been identified. While we know that anarchists, including both right and Left extremists, and other outside provocateurs have triggered violence, we also know Russians have been very busy fostering divisions in the United States and in other democracies. For many years, far-right extremists have been arming themselves intending to spark a race war.

Our nation is in a high-stress environment. The pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans, permanently damaged the health of innumerable others, and put 40 million in unemployment lines. Children are going hungry, and more-and-more Americans are desperate for help that has not arrived. While the stock market has largely rebounded, and the wealthy have gained more wealth with a flood of support from the Fed, aid to the poor has been far too slow. Before the pandemic, income for black people in Minnesota was half of the average white people’s salaries and conditions are far worse today.

America has been going backward in so many wrong ways in recent years. Massive tax cuts for the wealthy, speedy bailout of the largest corporations during the pandemic concurrent with the failure to move quickly for the unemployed as examples. In the face of growing unemployment, hunger and suffering, Trump and McConnell said that the House-passed bill to help the needy is dead on arrival in the Senate. African Americans and other minorities are often under-protected, low-income “essential workers” who deserve our attention and support to address the many injustices. We must also address environmental racism that exposes the poorest to food deserts and the worst air and water pollution that makes them more vulnerable to the COVID virus. 

In his inaugural speech, Trump claimed “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” and added, “The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’” After protest broke out, Trump condemned Minneapolis demonstrators as “THUGS” in a tweet and threatened military intervention. Trump, paraphrasing a deep-south-racist sheriff, warned looting leads to “shooting.” Trump’s inflammatory tweet prompted the social-media company to take the unprecedented step of limiting the public’s ability to view and share Trump’s tweet. Since elected, Trump has been acting as the Divider-In Chief, so it is no surprise that he has been largely silent about police murdering and mistreating minorities throughout his Presidency. 

Let’s not forget that the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis representing over 800 rank-and-file police officers has been led by Lt. Bob Kroll with a reputation for inflammatory remarks. Last fall, Kroll sold “Cops for Trump” T-shirts and stood behind Trump at a recent Minneapolis campaign rally. Onstage with Trump, Kroll praised the “wonderful president” for “everything he’s done for law enforcement.” Kroll, and the officers in question, know Trump has their backs. In a much earlier event at the White House, Trump told cops: “Please don’t be too nice. When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, ‘Don’t hit their head’ & they just killed somebody, ‘Don’t hit their head.’ I said, ‘You can take the hand away, ok?'” Words matter and words from the President matter much more. 

Protestors are demanding changes to a police department that has long plagued by racism and repeated misconduct. Watching the Trump administration’s pardons, dropped charges, and failure to prosecute criminals aligned with Trump, we must end the divergent standards of justice. Along with racist officers, we must hold Trump accountable for his mean-spirited words and corrosive actions.

While many underlying factors have led to the calamity, racism and economic injustice must be on the ballot in November. Voters must demand minimum living wages for all workers, restore a just tax code, and end voter suppression in all forms. We must seek equal justice under the law.

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