I wanted to look away so many times. I, along with millions of others in this country, watched a video of a man murdered as he cried for his mother and told arresting officers he couldn’t breathe.
I watched as a man was pinned down with an officer’s knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, several minutes after he had obviously gone slack and was only minutes away from death.
It was the closest I felt I have ever been to watching a lynching.
We all know the name George Floyd now. The fallout from his death on May 25 after police in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground despite his cries for help is literally tearing apart an already broken nation.
I originally started this column a few days after George Floyd’s death, but I stopped for a few reasons. First, I couldn’t find the words to describe the horror of what I was seeing. Second, the protests had started and then the looting followed. And I admit that I wanted to do something I had heard from a friend – search my heart about my own prejudices.
It would be easy to say something about how George Floyd was murdered, because that is honestly what I believe happened. In fact, I pity the court that thinks it is going to find an unbiased jury to try the case of the officers involved in his death. The official autopsy said he died of a heart attack, but an independent autopsy conducted at his family’s request and released June 1 concluded George Floyd died of asphyxiation due to neck and back compression. I know this will be an ongoing part of this developing story.
Anyone who watches the video of George Floyd’s murder, I would hope, would say what happened was wrong. There was still plenty of silence from many people, but there also were some people who spoke up that you normally wouldn’t see taking such a position, especially involving police officers.
But what about what comes after? What about the peaceful protests and the chants of “Black Lives Matter,” which rubs so many people the wrong way?
What about when the first skirmishes with police happen? What about when buildings and vehicles are set on fire? What about when businesses are looted? What about when someone else dies as a direct result of the protests?
What about when the things I stand against – violence, breaking the law, hatred – try to overshadow that shared horror so many of us felt when we first saw the video of George Floyd pleading on the ground for his life?
How long does solidarity last in the face of all of that?
Emotionally, the days that followed George Floyd’s death were beyond draining for me. As hard as it was, I challenged myself to take it all in and then look within to see how I truly felt in the face of everything that is happening.
So, the days that followed were filled with reading stories and watching videos of how our nation was being rocked by the aftermath of this tragedy. In addition to regular news coverage, I have a wide range of friends and acquaintances on social media who literally have opinions and beliefs across the spectrum.
That means I heard the cries of anger and disbelief from friends who never got off message about the underlying problem of race in the United States.
I saw the videos of peaceful protests happening all across the country.
I saw the videos of law enforcement officers attacking protestors or shooting tear gas into crowds.
I saw the videos of protestors threatening or attacking law enforcement officers.
I also saw the videos and images of protestors protecting or hugging law enforcement officers.
I saw the videos of looters ransacking stores. I saw the interviews with business owners – not the Target owners but the small business owners – devastated as they saw the rubble that used to be their hopes and dreams.
I saw the Facebook posts that were very obviously fear-mongering or outright lies meant to support a particular world view.
I saw the Facebook posts of people who were simply heartbroken and couldn’t find the words to adequately express it.
I saw the descriptions of George Floyd as a martyr and the ones of him as a criminal.
Lastly, I saw the many pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with quotes about how violence never solves anything along with pictures of protestors in the 1960s walking peacefully arm in arm. Few, if any, of these showed how many of these same nonviolent protests ended in protestors being beaten, gassed, or shot with water from fire hoses or the people sitting in jail for simply asking not to be treated like a second-class citizen because of the color of their skin.
So, after all that “taking in” of information, here is what I decided. There is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said. It was said with the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. It was said by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in peaceful protest and being called unAmerican for it. It was said when celebrities used their platform to speak out about racism about industries such as film and pro-sports and being told they were misusing their positions. It was said when the family of Ahmaud Arbery cried out for justice after the 25-year-old unarmed black man was chased down while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood and shot and killed.
Yes, it has been said, but, what the heck, I’ll say it, too – we have a problem with racism in this country. And just because we can drink out of the same water fountain now without it being considered illegal for some of us doesn’t mean that every problem Civil Rights activists were fighting against has been solved.
If you really want to talk about what Dr. King might say about George Floyd’s murder and the cry for justice spreading across this nation as a result, remember there were pastors in Birmingham, Alabama, who thought of him and his followers as “outsiders coming in” and stirring up trouble. And his response in his letter from Birmingham City Jail included this very poignant message, which seems to be ripped from the pages of today’s news coverage.
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.” – MLK, August 1963
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.