Every American should be outraged by what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd on a Minneapolis street on May 25th, pressing his knee into the 46-year-old’s neck for nearly nine minutes while ignoring his pleas for breath, killing him in broad daylight. The homicide, a travesty in itself, is a product of the racist rot at the core of American police practice, which devalues black lives even as it subjects them to heightened surveillance and criminal enforcement that white communities would never tolerate.
Americans in all 50 states, from the biggest cities to smallest towns, have taken to the streets to demand justice. Rolling Stone stands in solidarity with protesters. And we support calls for a radical reimagination of policing in America — shifting resources from paramilitary law enforcement into community-led public-safety initiatives, including education, job training, and mental-health services that can reduce crime and violence.
If the actions of officer Chauvin (now charged with second-degree murder) and his Minneapolis Police Department colleagues were truly an aberration, or an affront to police values, cops would be leading marches across our cities and demanding swift justice for Floyd’s children and loved ones. But that’s not how it goes in America. The moment a window breaks, a dumpster burns, or desperate people — in this case, abandoned by their government during an economy-shattering pandemic — loot a store, calls for “order” overwhelm the drive for justice. And when that shift occurs, regular as the tides, cops show their true colors. Those entrusted to protect our constitutional freedoms instead abridge them, and with brutal force. And in 2020, this suppression of our core liberties of speech, assembly, and the press have the backing of the president, who has all but declared war on dissent.
In the police mythos, cops hold the “thin blue line” between civilized society and disorder. But over and over in the days since Floyd’s murder, police officers themselves have become agents of chaos. In the uprising of 2020, it’s the cops who have been clobbering peaceful protesters with batons in the streets. We’ve seen them seize black men from peaceful crowds, just for taunting them from afar. We’ve even seen cops seize black men from peaceful crowds for shouting words of love and forgiveness. We’ve seen cops plow into protesters with police SUVs in a deadly form of crowd control. And we’ve seen law enforcement shooting into crowds of people, killing the owner of a Louisville, Kentucky, barbecue restaurant in a hail of 18 bullets. Documenting these reckless acts is plainly a threat to police impunity; we’ve seen cops smash television cameras with riot shields, maim journalists with rubber bullets, and casually pepper-spray reporters in the face.
Police in America operate under a dangerous code, in which brutality against black people cannot be admitted, even in the face of video evidence. Recognizing one crime requires recognizing them all. If George Floyd was murdered, so was Breonna Taylor. So was Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, and on and on.
It is a shattering truth to acknowledge that at random intervals, but with absolute certainty, black people can and will be killed by police without cause. These modern lynchings serve as a warning to all black people — to begin early survival training for children, to comport themselves with fear in public spaces, and to humble themselves before the power of the state, lest they be next. It is a valid fear: Police violence is a leading cause of death for young black men in America. According to a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, over a lifetime “about one in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.” Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they accounted for 30 percent of unarmed people fatally shot by police since 2015, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
The roots of modern policing are poisoned by America’s original sin. Among the earliest police systems in this country were slave patrols that hunted runaways and crushed uprisings. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was tailored to guarantee these militia the right to bear arms. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, a central component of police work in the South was brutal enforcement of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Outside the South, policing has long served a similar purpose, quelling unrest among the underclass, primarily black and immigrant communities, to protect the property of the powerful.
The officially sanctioned violence of police has always empowered a system of white supremacy. And it is that system — not the health and welfare of the public — that American police ultimately protect and serve. It is this racist order, too, that our reactionary president seeks to buttress and elevate in his campaign to “Make America Great Again.”
President Trump crows that he stands for “law and order,” but when white demonstrators armed with semiautomatic rifles shut down state government in Michigan in early May, decrying that state’s stay-at-home order, Trump tweeted a defense of the militants: “These are very good people, but they are angry,” Trump wrote, exhorting Michigan’s governor to “see them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Yet when black protesters took to the streets, demanding justice from a system that treats their lives as expendable, Trump channeled his inner Bull Connor, the infamous Alabama commissioner who directed violence against civil-rights protesters, threatening to sic “the most vicious dogs” on anyone who breached the White House grounds, denouncing protesters as “THUGS” and vowing that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The president has vacillated between displays of cowardice — hiding in a bunker and turning out the lights at the White House — and aggression. In a startling burst of authoritarianism on June 1st, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military under the Insurrection Act to crush dissent across America, condemning the unrest accompanying the protests as “acts of domestic terror.” Then, in his own act of terror, Trump had Lafayette Square, outside the White House, violently cleared of peaceful protesters by military police with riot shields and tear gas. Trump has since made a fortress of the White House, cordoning the presidential palace behind nearly two miles of eight-foot-tall fencing.
The uprising in the streets has arrived amid a pandemic that has also brought the systemic racism of America into sharp relief. Racial disparities in health care, in living conditions, and in which kinds of jobs are considered “essential” have left black Americans in peril. They are dying at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts from COVID-19. The president’s rush to “reopen” the country, damn the death count, is further endangering black lives.
Voting Trump out of office is a necessary, but insufficient, step. Throughout this upheaval, Joe Biden has displayed decency, compassion, and a willingness to listen to black voices. Should Biden gain the presidency, Americans must demand he make amends for a dark record on criminal justice, stewarding the passage of the 1994 crime bill that remains a linchpin of America’s system of mass incarceration. This should be a moment of painful introspection for many liberals. Police violence against African Americans is a national shame, but it is empowered locally, across thousands of jurisdictions. The bluest cities in America are not exceptions. To the contrary, they often provide the worst examples of systemic brutality and tactical violence — crushing nonviolent pests with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, and sonic weapons.
This is not a moment for “police reform” — which has been long promised but rarely delivered. It’s time to radically rethink law enforcement. We all need to live in an America where armed police do not intervene as first responders, but as a resource of last resort. Promising experiments are underway. Callers to 911 dispatch in Austin can now request community-health medics, instead of police, for someone experiencing a mental-health crisis. The city of Camden, New Jersey, has disbanded its police department, rebuilding a community-focused force with a mission to protect vulnerable community members, not criminalize them. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis has vowed, in the words of City Council President Lisa Bender to “end policing as we know it and to re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”
Americans should support radically reforming the role of the police in our country, as well as shifting tax dollars from law enforcement to programs that improve the social mobility of black people, as well as other marginalized communities. Every American should be invested in this transformation, because we all pay extravagantly for the status quo, a racist and increasingly militarized system that feeds America’s prison complex, now warehousing 2.3 million people.
The civil-rights generation did not dismantle America’s system of white supremacy, and ours may not either. But the giants of the 1960s opened the pathway to change — showing how daunting, and sometimes deadly, the work of demanding justice is. We are seeing their children and grandchildren rise to their clarion call. And we should be encouraged by a nation taking to the streets to demand racial equality and police accountability. Our democracy will not long survive without both.
This editorial has been updated from it’s original text and will appear in the July print issue of “Rolling Stone.”