We’ll see the video of George Floyd being killed over and over again.
Each time, anyone with a shred of humanity will recoil watching a black man, handcuffed and face down on the asphalt, slowly and painfully die with a white Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck.
It’s a slow-motion murder. And like the videotaped deaths of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Eric Garner on Staten Island and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, it’s an explosive and visceral reminder of American racism. Each tragedy pulls back the curtain on a cultural crime scene few do more than glance at—we walk away from the scene, unsettled but unwilling to do the hard work of solving the crime.
So racism lingers. In our criminal justice system. In our politics. In our social media feeds and tucked in the back of the minds of white people who swear up and down they’re not racist, right up until the moment they’re caught on video calling the police because they’re frightened by a black man bird-watching in the park.
Amy Cooper became nationally reviled when, while walking her dog one Monday morning in New York City’s Central Park, she called the police on Christian Cooper, a black bird-watching enthusiast, after he asked her to leash the dog. He recorded her panicked call to police. We saw her frantically and inexplicably claiming a black man was threatening her life. The video went viral, launching a million conversations about casual racism.
On Monday evening, Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and the conversations quickly switched to police brutality against black men.
Both events came on the heels of the deadliest and most violent Memorial Day weekend Chicago has had in five years. There were at least 10 people gunned down and 40 others wounded, prompting Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to criticize the city’s new police superintendent, David Brown.
“While I know that there was a lot of energy and coordination among a variety of groups, what I said to the superintendent this morning is this was a fail,” Lightfoot said. “And whatever the strategy is, it didn’t work. ... This weekend’s violence was out of control.”
Chicago’s endemic violence, like racism in America, exists because people refuse to take the lengthy trek to its root causes. And too often they do what Lightfoot did and lay the blame at the feet of police, or place the blame solely on the violent perpetrators while ignoring the circumstances that led those people to become violent.
I know the mayor recognizes the underlying issues. She explained them clearly as a mayoral candidate when responding to questions from the Illinois Justice Project: “... we cannot arrest our way out of our violence problem. Instead, the city and its partners must treat this epidemic of violence as the public health crisis that it is. This means addressing the root causes of violence by revitalizing economically distressed neighborhoods, ensuring access to quality schools in every neighborhood, eliminating food and medical deserts, and providing a pathway to good jobs that pay a living wage.”
The root causes. Those are what matter, whether you’re taking about violence on Chicago streets or cops killing unarmed black men or protesters in Minneapolis lashing out in bursts of rage.
Discussing the protests and looting that followed Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey spoke empathetically, calling it “the result of so much built-up anger and sadness, anger and sadness that has been ingrained in our black community, not just because of five minutes of horror but 400 years. If you’re feeling that sadness and that anger, it’s not only understandable, it’s right. It’s a reflection of the truth that our black community has lived. While not from lived experience, that sadness must also be understood by our nonblack communities. To ignore, to toss it out would be to ignore the values we all claim to have.”
And therein lies the problem. We do ignore the sadness and anger in the black community, as well as the fear. We rush in expressing shock and outrage when a black man is killed by a white police officer, but we don’t collectively plumb the depths of the racial disparities in our justice system. We feel a temporary upset over violence in minority communities without recognizing the privilege that our upset is temporary.
And we get defensive. When black people chant “Black Lives Matter,” some white people reflexively respond by saying “ALL Lives Matter,” or show solidarity with police officers by shouting “Blue Lives Matter!” Instead of deflecting, perhaps it would be better to work on understanding why black people need to point out that their lives matter.
Instead of hoping the police will magically solve Chicago violence, trace the history of who lives in the city’s most violent neighborhoods, the intentional, long-ago segregation of people of color and the distinct lack of educational and economic resources that have eviscerated hope and opportunity and fostered fear and violence.
Rather than listen to a president rage-tweeting violent statements like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” consider why his reaction was so dramatically different when heavily armed white protesters tried to intimidate lawmakers in Michigan’s statehouse.
These things matter. Ignoring them brings the predictable result of history repeating.
White people in America have to look inward. We have work to understand—honestly understand—what Mayor Frey in Minneapolis called “the truth that our black community has lived.”
We have to demand better of our police, our politicians and ourselves.
Without that, the killing of George Floyd, like a violent weekend in Chicago, will just be supplanted by another tragedy.
And then another.
And it will not end.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. This column was first published May 29, 2020.