My Uncle ‘Stanley’ was my favorite. He was funny, kind, and made me feel safe. I remember lighting up every time he came around in his uniform. The uniform that got him killed.
When my family was finding their way out of Liberia during the civil war, rebels at a checkpoint stopped him. Recognized as a police officer, he was executed.
When I think about Uncle Stanley, I can’t picture him. We didn’t think to take family pictures when we left Liberia and what else we had was lost. I sob, thinking of the honor he represented; the job he took that ultimately cost him his life. His memory instilled in me respect for the true value of public service.
With every instance of police brutality, my trust in the infallibility of public service and servants crumbles. Yet I think of Uncle Stanley and the commitment to public service he represented. George Floyd’s murder, and the persistent devaluing of Black humanity at the hands of public servants, has unearthed this tension once again. Can I hold two beliefs to be true? Does public service entail being honorable and just to all, or, do public servants sometimes cherry-pick whom they serve and exclude Black bodies?
George Floyd was a native Houstonian, where my family eventually resettled after the war in Liberia. He moved to Minnesota to start over and at 46, lived his last day on earth. On May 25, 2020, police were called to a store in Minneapolis, Minnesota because someone allegedly bought cigarettes using a counterfeit $20 bill. Ultimately, police arrested George Floyd. During his arrest, he fell to the ground, telling officers he was claustrophobic. While on the ground and still handcuffed, officers held his arms and legs.
Officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. While George Floyd begged, calling out “Mama” and saying, “I can’t breathe, he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
We live in a world where multiple things can be true at the same time. Grappling with that complexity is challenging for all of us. We often choose to ignore or to ascribe negative intent to inconvenient truths. It can be true that police were called to a crime, but it is also true and more important that the penalty for that crime, allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, should not be death.
In fact, in Minneapolis, the maximum penalty for using a counterfeit $20 bill is no more than one year of prison, and/or a fine of no more than $3,000.
It can be true that police officers are a part of a system designed to protect the public and should be called when a crime is suspected. But it is also true and more important that police officers do not get to unilaterally decide guilt nor do they get to unilaterally punish. It is true, for me, that any person who places his knee on a person’s neck while they cry out in pain, lose consciousness and dies is not a person I want in possession of the power we give to police officers.
I find myself struggling with the intersection of the ideals of public service and the reality of public violence. What I know is if you have already decided who in the public deserves service, and who in the public is subhuman and therefore undeserving, you cannot be a good public servant. You cannot acknowledge the humanity in someone if you place a knee on their neck for 8 minutes while they beg.
And, when you look like George Floyd, you are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence. In Minneapolis, despite only comprising 20 percent of the population, nearly 60 percent of the time police are physical, using “kicks, neck holds, punches, shoves, takedowns, Mace, Tasers or other forms of muscle,” Black people are on the receiving end.
As I devour every story about the man George Floyd was, I hear his family members describe him as being “[E]veryone’s favorite everything.” And I think of my own favorite uncle in his final moments. I’ve heard that he died proclaiming that he was proud of having served his country. I wonder if he thought to beg for his life like George Floyd did in his final moments. I wonder if doing anything differently would have changed the outcome for either man.
I think of George Floyd calling out for his mother and of his children watching him in his final moments. The things I do in 8 minutes and 46 seconds –like walking to the train or walking to the store, now feel like an eternity.
Leaving my house is becoming a daunting experience. At first, my fears were COVID-19 related. Now, it’s because I am afraid of either being swept up in protests or being racially profiled by police. I leave my house with multiple forms of identity and cash in case I must bail myself out of jail.
I do not have the power nor am I inclined to tell people how to express their anger, rage, pain, and hurt. I do know that we continue to battle a virus that has disproportionately and negatively impacted the Black community through infection rates, death rates, and economic devastation. Although only approximately 13% of the national population in the United States is Black, they make up 23% of all COVID-19 deaths.
Communities dealing with the trauma exacerbated by George Floyd’s death are experiencing a different form of trauma now. Yes, property is replaceable. But not all property gets replaced at the same pace or at all when that property belongs to Black folks in Black neighborhoods that have suffered from historical and often intentional disinvestment. They employ people from the neighborhood; provide services to people in the neighborhood and contribute to a sense of community.
They are also reeling from the fallout from COVID-19. The number of Black business owners fell from 1.1 million in February of 2020 to 640,000 in April of 2020, representing a 41% drop. And, up to 95 percent of Black businesses were ineligible to receive subsequent federal relief offered to businesses.
So when it’s stated that property can be replaced, be clear that some property, depending on who owns it, and where it’s located, won’t be.
Still it is unnatural to expect people to continue to bear trauma in silence.
When I learned of George Floyd’s death, I found out while glancing at text messages during a meeting at work. This most recent image of Black Death led me to my usual response to trauma. I immediately activated my “auto-pilot” mode: I finished my meeting, logged off and tried to stay away from the computer, phones, and the news.
However, it is hard to log off in 2020. I can turn on my Netflix, pop open a bottle of wine and still hear the constant sirens, emergency alerts and whirring of helicopters that make me feel like I am back in Liberia and under siege.
For many living in Black communities in the United States, police violence is a social determinant (defined as conditions which people are born into- in addition to the systems influencing their daily life) of mental health. The repeated instances of unarmed Black Americans killed by police imposes a “mental health burden” on Black Americans that is comparable to the mental health burden associated with diabetes, meaning, increased incidents of depression and stress. This happens even when there is no direct relationship to the Black victims.
I sob for the Black men and women who have been killed, and for their communities that have fought and waited for this national anger to receive some semblance of justice. At the root of this is my desire for people to see all of us (including those who are pushed to the margins) as humans and to be treated as such. As a former prosecutor, I became a public servant to represent all people, treating everyone, victims and defendants, as humans.
I ask myself: How do I help? How do I mourn? How do I grieve? How do I fight?
As I consider potential solutions, I think back to my native Liberia where years of unaddressed tension and grievances led to a bloody and lengthy civil war. And, I wonder whether a rapid evolution, ensuring justice and consequences when public servants fall short of the requirements of their position would have avoided bloodshed. In the United States a rapid evolution of this sort is not only possible, but on a smaller scale, it has happened before.
In Minnesota where George Floyd was murdered, a veto-proof majority of the city council recently announced plans to dismantle and disband the police department. The realities of governing will require a lengthy and more involved process than originally imagined. There is precedence, the city of Camden, New Jersey, also in the United States, disbanded and reimagined its police department to focus on rebuilding trust between the community and their officers.
Instead of baby-stepping our way towards change, this is a time for bold action and to assert, unequivocally through laws and reform that Black Lives Matter.
I do not know when or where I will be when my autopilot deactivates and the tears start to fall. I only hope that I continue to honor Uncle Stanley through leading with humanity and advocating for changes that will lead to justice. I call on others to do the same, no matter your vocation.