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We Refuse To Call It Murder, But How Else Do You Explain The Killing Of George Floyd?

Protestors demonstrate outside the Third Precinct Police Station after the killing of George Floyd on Tues. May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd was killed Monday while in the custody of Minneapolis Police. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Protestors demonstrate outside the Third Precinct Police Station after the killing of George Floyd on Tues. May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd was killed Monday while in the custody of Minneapolis Police. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

On Monday, police in Minneapolis were called to the scene of an alleged check forgery. They detained the suspect, a 46-year-old African American security guard named George Floyd, and eventually forced him onto the ground. Police claim Floyd resisted arrest, though explosive video footage from a nearby restaurant calls that claim into question.

Three officers then held Floyd’s body down, while one kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Because the entirety of the incident was filmed, we can hear Floyd beg for his life. After a few minutes, we see him stop moving. He is choked to death before our eyes.

Had the officers in question chosen to restrict Floyd’s movements by, for instance, hanging him from a nearby tree, we would call what happened to him a lynching.

But because in America we reflexively employ the language of white supremacy, we don’t call what happened to Floyd a lynching, or a state-sanctioned execution, or even a murder. We call it a “violent incident” or “an alleged case of police brutality.”

The four officers in question have been fired, the FBI has initiated an investigation and the killing has sparked protests.

Amid the frenzied news coverage of Floyd’s death, it’s important to step back and place this atrocity into its proper historical context.

It is not some unfortunate anomaly towards which we should cast “thoughts and prayers.” Floyd’s slaughter is the natural and intended consequence of the Republican Party choosing to rally around a sense of exalted white grievance and victimization. Because that victimization is always weaponized and turned against people of color.

The dark irony of white supremacy is that it’s a disguise for the profound and lethal fragility of the white psyche in America.

Consider the public execution of human beings of color — which includes Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery and hundreds of others whose deaths weren’t captured on film.

Consider the Trump administration’s policy of tearing apart Latinx refugee families at the border and caging children.

Consider the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionally ravaging communities of color, and the employees of color at meatpacking plants.

Consider the GOP’s concerted, shameless and illegal efforts to suppress voting in communities of color.

All of these outcomes arise directly from the empowerment of white supremacy.

They begin with the assumption that white lives, white liberty and white power are both sacred and constantly under siege, and that the lives of people of color are inherently disposable.

If you can’t accept that, please scour the internet and try to find a video of a group of African-American cops handcuffing a white suspect, wrestling him to the ground, and — while he pleads for his life — killing him. Or video of a white jogger being pursued through an African-American neighborhood, as a perceived criminal and shot dead.

I’ll wait.

The dark irony of white supremacy is that it’s a disguise for the profound and lethal fragility of the white psyche in America.

The very notion that white people should take routine precautions to protect themselves and others from infection during a global pandemic — to wear masks, that is, or quarantine at home — becomes, in the warped math of white supremacy, an abrogation of God-given rights, one that entitles them to storm a state capital, armed with automatic rifles.

Again, if you don’t believe in white supremacy, please show me the media coverage of heavily armed African-American protestors storming a state capital while law enforcement officials calmly absorb their aggressive behavior.

The very notion that an African-American bird watcher would tell a white dog owner to obey the posted rules and leash her animal becomes sufficient pretext for that white dog owner to call the police and fabricate a story about him threatening to harm her.

If you’re having trouble imagining the race roles reversed in this scenario, that’s because we live within the imaginative boundaries of white supremacy, a space where police are defined as guardians of white privilege against the perceived threat of uppity African Americans.

For decades, the Republican Party’s appeal to its “base” has been to stoke racial grievance as a diversion from the economic injustice of its policies. In this sense, too, the rise of Donald Trump was inevitable.

He merely wolf-whistled the racism that had been dog whistled in previous eras.

The point isn’t that he promoted a racist conspiracy against his African-American predecessor, or introduced himself as a candidate by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” or flaunted his contempt for “s***hole countries” or praised avowed fascists as “very fine people.”

The point is that his base adores him for doing these things, for openly promoting white supremacy.

It’s important to remember one of Trump’s first forays into civic activism here. It took place back in 1989, when he was just a failed real estate magnate seeking a toehold in politics.

Protesters stand in Foley Square in New York City on December 4, 2014 during demonstration against the chokehold death of an unarmed black father-of-six by a white police officer. It is the second consecutive night that demonstrators took to the streets of New York to condemn a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer over the July 17 death of Eric Garner. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters stand in Foley Square in New York City on December 4, 2014 during demonstration against the chokehold death of an unarmed black father-of-six by a white police officer. It is the second consecutive night that demonstrators took to the streets of New York to condemn a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer over the July 17 death of Eric Garner. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

A white woman jogging through Central Park was raped and assaulted. That same night, a group of boys entered the park from East Harlem. Some threw rocks at cars, others robbed passersby. The police took a number into custody and quickly concocted a theory that five of them — "the Central Park Five" — were the perpetrators.

Trump, with his unerring instinct for racial demagoguery, took out full-page ads in the daily papers advocating that the suspects — who had not yet even gone to trial — be executed.

“What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it,” he wrote. “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

Thirteen years later, the Central Park Five were exonerated based on DNA evidence and a full confession from the actual rapist. The City of New York agreed to pay the five wrongly accused men $41 million in 2014.

In this dream, slavery may have ended, but its underlying racial assumptions live on.

Trump, of course, never apologized to the Central Park Five, or accepted the evidence of their innocence. As recently as last year, he claimed that “you have people on both sides of that.”

In a legal and scientific sense, of course, this is false. Everyone in the criminal justice system knows the Central Park Five are innocent.

But in a larger sense, Trump’s statement is true. There are people, such as the president and his core supporters, for whom white supremacy acts as a kind of overpowering dream, one with the force to undo reality. It grants them permanent immunity from moral oversight, and silences the biddings of their consciences.

In this dream, slavery may have ended, but its underlying racial assumptions live on. To be white is to be the unassailable sovereign, the eternal victim, the righteous accuser. The Central Park Five are still guilty. George Floyd deserved to die.

It was this dream that Trump was evoking in his pledge to “Make America Great Again.” It was an implicit promise to reinvigorate the most shameful and abusive aspects of our national history, in which whiteness bestowed the right to bully, lie, cheat, spread illness and even murder without consequence — so long as the victim is a person of color.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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