How do we sort out the George Floyd story?

I wish I had succinct and clear answers for you this morning about all things related to the death of George Floyd.

Maybe some of you already see the events plainly, but perhaps there are those of you like me who are having difficulty sorting it all out.

First, there is the death itself. A police officer forces his knee on the neck of a handcuffed Floyd.  He cannot breathe and he dies.

It is reasonable to conclude that police officer Derek Chauvin used excessive force and must be held accountable.  But the death prompts a larger question—is this yet another example of police brutality against a black person, since blacks are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police officers?

It would be absurd to conclude from the numbers that all police are prone to violence against black people.  However, as former President Barack Obama said, there is “a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

Distrust breeds cynicism and anxiety. When you distrust you assume the worst, which means that encounters between the police and people of color begin with a higher risk of something going wrong.

Then there are the protests, which are so ingrained in the law and culture of the country that they are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment is so broad that it protests speech that is unpopular and even antagonistic.

But there are limits to that freedom, and a line is crossed when the protests result in violence and/or destruction of property. Martin Luther King famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” but King also preached non-violence and called riots “socially destructive.”

Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson, who is black, condemned destruction of property, theft and senseless violence, but added, “When I watch the video of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him and ignoring his cries of distress, I want to throw something.”

That is a legitimate expression of anger, which is different from someone smashing a window of a retail store and carrying off a flat screen television.  Poverty or unequal opportunity contribute to the anger, but it is not a justification for the destruction and theft of someone else’s property.

The tumult is a graphic illustration of the unsettled issues relating to race in this country. Our struggle with the original sin of slavery, followed by decades of Jim Crow, are like Lady MacBeth’s frustrated attempts to wipe the invisible spot of blood (guilt) from her hand.

It is inevitable that we talk about race during this emotional time, but when the house is on fire it is too late to check for smoke detectors.  We are better served by ongoing and candid conversations among people different from ourselves.

Those conversations can improve understanding and empathy, which are hallmarks of a civilized society.




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