A riot is the language of the unheard.– Martin Luther King Jr.
Minneapolis is burning. A police precinct is breached. There is the usual looting and insanity, calls for calm, mayoral and gubernatorial speeches, and some dumb shit blurted on the internet by our game show host president. We have pretty much seen this all before. Why? How? Usually we have a difficult time coming to hard, cold answers here. We mostly muse. We parse. We mock. We deconstruct rigid realities from stories with many plot twists and angles. This one is easy.
Nearly six years ago a forty-four year-old unarmed African-American man was choked to death in broad daylight by a twenty-nine year-old police officer named Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, New York. Several police officers held down Garner or looked on as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe!” It was captured on camera. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Five months later a Richmond County grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo or any other cop on the scene. Naturally, people, like me, went nuts. I commented on it more in-depth at the time, so please read it to get my original gist.
But, really, what gist is there to get? Garner was murdered. Yet, Pantaleo didn’t go to jail. He was fired because he used an illegal chokehold on Garner, which, of course, killed him. But, you know, he murdered a man on video shouting “I can’t breathe!” and he is a free man.
Now fast-forward nearly six years. An unarmed George Floyd is murdered by a police officer, on tape, in broad daylight. The incident is eerily similar and much sadder, because we already had Garner’s case to look back on.
Floyd, a forty-six year-old black man, was attempting to pass a twenty-dollar counterfeit bill at a corner store. Someone at the store called 911. That call was odd in itself. The transcript reveals that the caller observed the man as “not acting right” and assumed drunk or high. The 911 operator asks, “What’s he look like, what race?”
The cops show up – four of them. They pull Floyd out of his car. They walk him uneventfully to the police car and he collapses. Then three officers, one of them, Derek Chauvin, forty-four and white, hold him down. Chauvin though, puts his knee and his full weight on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleads, “I can’t breathe!” Let me stand up! I can’t breathe!” Chauvin is clearly pushing his weight down on his neck with each plea for eight minutes.
I’ll tell you what, find someone, even your fifty-pound kid to kneel on your neck for eight minutes. Get back to me.
Then Floyd becomes predictably unconscious. The police pull his lifeless body onto a stretcher. He was dead. We know this because medics could not find a pulse in the ambulance. This is usually the sign of death. I am sure there is someone who will refute the concept of death as a counter-political argument for this, but let’s go with “no pulse equals death” for the remainder of this column and for all time, shall we?
Mayor Jacob Frye was asked on national television if he thought this incident rose to the level of murder. He said, “I do.”
Then, (cue the dramatic music), riots, looting, police vans being ransacked, cops in armored gear tossing smoke grenades and shooting rubber bullets into crowds. The city, as mentioned, is still on fire. I have a friend there, a screenplay writer, and she is frightened for her life.
This all could have been avoided. We had nearly six years to get on this. One man, regardless of race or vocation, kneels on another man’s neck until he dies. This is murder. I don’t need to know the circumstances. Also, I agree, and have written about this extensively for twenty-three years here, that police officers should be held to a higher order, they represent and protect our society. But then they also should be held to higher standards. But even using normal social standards, Chauvin killed Floyd, just as certain as Pantaleo killed Garner. If Pantaleo is not convicted of said crime, then it can and will happen again.
And it did.
This is similar to this nation’s initial reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was slow, confusing, mostly non-existent. It was a sloppy, embarrassing, deadly farce. It could have been curtailed. Instead it was not. One-hundred thousand people didn’t have to die. Just like if the people who were responsible for security at Newark Airport had done their jobs, not being heroes, just doing their jobs, there would have been no 9/11 attacks. If Pantaleo had been convicted of a clear crime of at least manslaughter, perhaps Chauvin would have thought twice about leaning onto a man’s neck until he died, and Minneapolis would not be on fire right now.
Or, to take us all the way back, as I have done with 9/11 and this pandemic, how about Chauvin having two prior violent incidents as a police officer that went unchecked. Not that this is pertinent to this case directly. I get it is part of the gig, but this guy appears to be a little shoot-happy. In light of Floyd’s death, Minneapolis authorities look as if they kind of averted their eyes to this guy. And while I do not condone riots, we know this shit is going to go down if this happens again and yet there appears never to be any justice in these cases and that just makes violent retribution a possibility, or, as the King quote above states, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Beyond all of this, I ask; When are we going to confront this issue? How about all the energy we spend getting pissed at NFL players for kneeling (ironically) to protest the inordinate number of African-Americans killed by police officers in this country, we use that fervor to find out why it keeps happening and do something about it when it does.