On Not Wanting to Rest Content
When the George Floyd incident first happened, you could almost feel where this was going. With the release of the bodycam footage, here we are.
If something has a pattern to it, and keeps happening, you would think folks would ask why that pattern repeats. “I am sure,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr from his Birmingham jail cell to clergyman who were bothered by the demonstrations that had landed him there, “that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
Superficial social analysis is the order of the day some 57 years later. Our day and age spins quickly on news cycles full of effects with little time for causes. Spinning so fast, and with a profound ignorance despite having the entirety of human knowledge available in the palms of our hands, patterns go unnoticed. Too much bobbing between waves of information and events, trying to not drown and be overtaken by the next one, to notice things like the tides.
Contentment with easy answers that handwave the struggle without examining the cause is a dangerous thing.
When the George Floyd incident first happened, you could almost feel where this was going. The makings of a familiar pattern were all there, forming and coming together like some cosmic signal went out to gather the banners of strife and turmoil. Writing some 10 days after Floyd’s May 25th death, I pondered about the sense of the pattern coming:
We know the arguments and excuses coming, because they are the same reasons trotted out every time law enforcement crosses a line. He was resisting. He may have had “potential intoxicants in his system”, as the medical examiner helpfully proffered for the upcoming defense. He was possibly a criminal. He was a perceived threat to the police officers.
All of this said as if resisting while handcuffed and restrained by 3 men while maybe being intoxicated and allegedly being involved in passing a possibly counterfeit $20 bill voided George Floyd’s right to not die slowly face down in the street. Whatever the words Chauvin’s defense will use, his actions tell us what he thought, what a trained officer of the law made of this man’s rights. George Floyd “had rights, but…” and then insert whatever rationalization you please.
It’s a very old tactic for law enforcers to use against people they deem unworthy of equal rights.
I wish I had been wrong.
Now, some three months later, footage from the body cameras of Alex Kueng and Thomas Lane, the first two officers to respond in the George Floyd incident, started making the rounds. An incident that ended with those officers and Derek Chauvin on top of a dead man who was alive when they first met him, a video that went viral, and a country that has been arguing, protesting, and debating issues surrounding it ever since. Footage that shows an agitated, anxious, uncooperative, and clearly not right George Floyd. Footage that came before the now-infamous eight minutes and forty-six seconds of Chauvin’s knee on the back of George Floyd. Footage that proved to be the last five minutes and fifty-three seconds of Floyd’s life, and the two minutes and fifty-three seconds his lifeless form stayed underneath Chauvin.
And yet for some, George Floyd being a uncooperative, drug using suspect changes everything for them.
Rob Dreher, writing in The American Conservative a piece that has already had a title change, several apologies, and — as of this writing — 12 updates added to it by the author, came right out with the sentiment that George Floyd killed George Floyd:
George Floyd did not just resist arrest. He spent at least eight minutes gasping and shrieking and carrying on like a lunatic, all the while refusing frequent, entirely legitimate orders by police. I had been under the impression that they had brutalized him from the beginning, throwing Floyd to the ground and kneeing him in the neck. That’s not remotely what happened. What happened is that these police officers gave Floyd chance after chance to obey. He was high on fentanyl and meth, though he denied twice that he was on anything, but his behavior was completely bizarre. Was it because he was high? Maybe. It might also be because he had four previous criminal convictions, and had done a prison stint for assault and robbery. What brought the cops in Minneapolis out that afternoon was that he was attempting to pass counterfeit bills in a local store. Floyd must have known that given his criminal record, he was going to be in a world of trouble over the fake currency…
George Floyd is dead today almost entirely because of George Floyd. (emphasis original to Dreher’s piece) Watch that bodycam video above (it ends just as he is on the ground with Chauvin’s knee in his neck), and tell me how there is any other reasonable conclusion? All he had to do was obey the police, who gave him chance after chance after chance. They did not come down on him hard, with the neck restraint, because he was black. They came down on him because he hysterically resisted arrest, for at least eight minutes.
The media’s narrative is false. All the George Floyd riots, all the George Floyd protests, have been based on a lie. That lie, though, has become so fundamental to the left’s narrative that disbelieving it will be impossible for countless people.
Watch the video. It really is shocking to realize how badly we have been misled by the media, by politicians, by celebrities, and by activists.
It’s a nice neat package to use such reasoning. George Floyd had it coming, you see, and all the priors that were straining against the collars of restraint about the events surrounding his death can now break free. All the uncomfortable questions can now be safely put back in the box of status quo, with the lid sealed shut with a dismissive side eye at the media and others for stirring up an otherwise peaceful society. As long as the drugs, and bad decisions, and troubled mind of an individual is to blame, then the rest of us can remain content that it is someone else’s problem. The facts have all now changed, the events were all wrong, all must go back to how it was before.
Except for the most important fact: George Floyd still died underneath three police officers, one of which was on his neck. They continued to hold him down for two minutes and fifty-three seconds after he stopped breathing with no urgency whatsoever to render aid. Somehow, we are to believe that the officers knowing he was clearly out of sorts is exculpatory when it is actually damning. Police officers were responsible for George Floyd from the moment they put their hands on him, and suspecting him to be high and behaving erratically should clue them in that a medical event could be imminent. Pre-existing conditions, drug use, erratic behavior, and resisting arrest did not lessen George Floyd’s rights or the police officer’s responsibility to protect them.
A jury will decided the “chance after chance after chance” the officers offered Floyd. The men charged have that right, to a fair trial, to competent counsel and defense, to be judged on their actions by a jury of their peers. Those are the rights for the men involved that lived. George Floyd did not get such consideration, having been determined by those men that “he had rights, but…”
No doubt in the coming trials we will hear another round of the same story that “he had rights, but…” Floyd having illicit drugs in his system will be a recurring theme. His resisting arrest will mean he “had it coming” to some. He was a criminal, so of course the police are blameless. Druggie. Criminal. Resistor. Terms that become a form of othering for a human being no longer with us.
If this was the first time such tactics had been used, it would be one thing. Oddly, the alleged criminal activity of Chauvin is not suggested as a factor, nor the mindsets of the officers, nor their level of training. Why is it the victim gets those questions every time one of these incidents happens? That these themes continue to appear in major racial incidents makes ignoring the pattern impossible.
Ahmaud Arbery was trespassing, you see. He was doing God knows what in that nice neighborhood, not his neighborhood, don’t you know. He didn’t belong here, and Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, Jr. were trying to arrest him to stop his crime spree and he just wouldn’t comply and was trying to escape so we had to shoot him, don’t you know…
Why, that Botham Jean had marijuana in his apartment when that poor, confused police officer thought he was an intruder and frantically defended herself by shooting at him twice, hitting him once, and killing him before he could do God knows what to her…
That Philando Castile just had to be shot five times at point-blank range because, per Jeronimo Yanez’s own words “I thought, I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me..”
Patterns. More patterns of forcing events into narratives that would let us remain content, and safe, and unbothered.
Never mind that Ahmaud Arbery was — and there is no other word for it — hunted down and lynched because of the assumptions, feelings, and twisted motivations by his killers. Never mind the amount of pot in Botham Jean’s apartment, HIS apartment, was less in weight than either of the bullets Amber Geyger fired at him, having now been convicted of murdering him. Never mind Castile’s body took five bullets without his killer ever seeing a gun, or the other officer even reaching for theirs, but somehow magically knowing marijuana being present meant Yanez was in mortal danger nonetheless.
Most of all, to those folks, the least bit of impropriety renders invalid not only the events themselves, but all the reaction to them that they do not approve of. Or a cause rendered unworthy because of the politics of the believers. Or the disapproval of the manner in which the aggrieved voice their frustrations. Which is also a pattern. All facts must be bent to put everything back into the comfortable box of our priors, least we be forced to re-evaluate anything too hard to deal with. Comfort must be maintained.
Events must be quickly and superficially examined and moved on from. And then those same folks act shocked and shaken at why the cries of injustice just keeping coming back up again, and again, and again. So the fingers will be pointed and the folks who are protesting again and again must be the problem. “We can’t control everything,” they will explain as they wash their hands of the uncomfortable questions.
Perhaps not, but some things are controllable. Perhaps the Drehers of the world could write in a place with “conservative” in the name of it on something very much within each of our abilities to control. The principle of individual responsibility, which at least used to be sacred to the conservative worldview. Such responsibility is quick to be slung around the neck of the George Floyds of the world, but somehow doesn’t apply equally to the police officers who stood up unharmed after he stopped breathing, and almost never to the folks in the larger world who pass judgement on such things from afar. Not only that, but Floyd wasn’t just responsible for himself, he was responsible for how everyone else acted as well. What Dreher and others are proposing is the fully-gamed out and logical conclusion to bootstrap theory, that those who refuse to pull themselves up by their own not only have it coming to them, but practically force others to make sure what’s coming to them arrives.
If you are keeping score at home, it took less than sixty years to go from Dr. King’s “cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps” to Dreher’s update of “If George Floyd at any point in that eight minutes had simply obeyed the police’s lawful, legitimate orders, he would be alive today.” Which isn’t even factually correct, since he was already dead for the last nearly three minutes of those “lawful, legitimate orders”.
Is that where we are now? Shall we be content with “comply and live” as the ethos of not only law enforcement practices but of our understanding of complex issues like race, culture, class, and a hundred other things? Are we so gone into the politics of the moment dictating our analysis of all things that we are comfortable with watching a man die with those sworn to help him as close to him as humanly possible and, as Rod Dreher figures it, a “reasonable conclusion” that George Floyd killed George Floyd?
Hell no, we should not.
Those who point to the bodycam footage as proof they were right all along never tie the threads together — Dreher certainly didn’t — that if George Floyd deserved what he got, and thus the protests are unjustified, they have really tripped over the truth. The truth that George Floyd’s death was a spark that lit a powder keg that’s been building for years. It wasn’t just George Floyd, it was the latest in a long line of things, just so blatant, so obvious, so on video even the moderates had to say “Enough.”
Individual responsibility properly applied means we can parse out tough things, like which protesters are peaceful, which rioters break the law, and which anarchists take advantage for ill reasons having little if anything to do with the cause at hand. That police still have to protect and serve the George Floyds of the world, whether the George Floyds of the world cooperate or not. That there were a hundred things that led George Floyd to be at that place in life that caused his death. Holding individuals accountable so that if they are in positions of authority their standard is higher and they must be held to it, not able to use the failings of others as excuses for failings of their own. While not comfortable, we must recognize years of failing to address issues that should have been confronted generations ago, which means the price of reconciliation will be far higher now that it should have been. The debt has piled up for longer than it should have. We do not have the non-violent protests of King, but that may well be in no small part because we didn’t heed the message then.
Taking responsibility for ourselves and how we act, think, and approach others before demanding the world turns exactly as we see fit from the comfort of our screens is an attainable goal. Responsibility to stop reacting to every viral thing, and take the time to understand the background, and root causes, and reasons that brought us here before thinking the imperfections of others excuses a need to investigate further. Holding the sins of a group against each individual is a two-edge sword that might cut you in places you won’t like if you insist on swinging it. Police still have to protect and serve the George Floyds of the world, whether the George Floyds of the world cooperate or not.
If only we do a few of those things, and do them more than once, maybe some new patterns can develop. Maybe we use the awesome power of technology to dig deeper into causes a bit more and a smidge less for the gratifying superficial responses. Imagine making things a little better, a little at a time, until someday you realize things are getting better. My, how comfortable that must be.
Then we can be content. But not before.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on August 5, 2020.