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29 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:46pm

How white America excuses its own violence

The killing of George Floyd has, like other killings of black Americans, been quickly repurposed as a story about the violence of the ensuing protests.

By Emily Tamkin

George Floyd was killed by the police on Monday. The officer who arrested him had him on the ground, his knee pressed onto Floyd’s neck. Floyd begged for his life; he said he couldn’t breathe. The officer did not take his knee off Floyd’s neck, and George Floyd, a 46-year-old black American, was dead.

This was recorded by a teenage girl, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier. Because it was recorded, the four officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired on Tuesday. Online city records show that the officer who killed him, a white man named Derek Chauvin, has had 17 complaints filed against him. Sixteen of those complaints were closed without any disciplinary action.

Protesters filled the streets after Floyd’s death. On Tuesday night police fired tear gas at those protesting, an action notably absent from the predominantly white protests against stay-at-home orders earlier this month. On Wednesday, CNN reported that “protests transitioned to rioting and looting”; the looting of a Minneapolis Target received particular attention. Prosecutors said on Thursday that no-one had been charged but that justice would be served. On Thursday night, protesters lit a Minneapolis police station on fire.

“….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Donald Trump tweeted (Trump was quoting a 1967 line from Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who said in the same year: “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality; they haven’t seen anything yet.”) Twitter decided that the tweet violated community rules for glorifying violence, but let it remain up as a matter of public interest. Meanwhile, Omar Jimenez, a black CNN reporter covering the protests, was arrested live on TV despite having clearly identified himself to the police.

If this reads as familiar, it’s because it is. This is also what happened after Michael Brown Jr was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It is also what happened after Freddie Gray died in the back of a police van in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015. A black man — or child, in the case of Brown — dies at the hands of the police and white Americans point to the violence of the protests.

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The protests “turned violent”. The looting could not be borne. A black American is killed, the police are met with violent protests, and white America gawks at the violence of the protests, not the violence of the system to which they are responding.

Barack Obama condemned the violence in Baltimore. “Who will protect rights, lives and property of city’s residents?”, a Fox News opinion piece asked. But the violence of the protests was the second half of the story; the first was the violence against which they were rioting.

“In West Baltimore, some residents see rioting as a rational response to daily despair,” Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote for Vox back in 2015.

Similarly, if the looting of a Target in Minneapolis had happened in a vacuum, then perhaps we could sit around condemning taking something from a Target. But we are not in a vacuum. We are days after a black man was killed by the police in a city where police cannot seem to stop killing black men.

To say, “Well, a black man did have his breath cut off by a police officer’s knee for several minutes, but it’s wrong to hurt a Target”, or “looting undermines your cause”, or “I just don’t think violence is the answer”, is to put them on the same level. But they are not on the same level.

And yet there are many people, as there were after Ferguson and Baltimore, who are eager to focus on the wrongness of looting a Target instead of the wrongness of killing a man, or say that the one somehow negates the other, so we don’t need to talk about George Floyd.

“The question I’m trying to raise is a very serious question. The mass media — television and all the major news agencies — endlessly use that word ‘looter’,” the writer James Baldwin told Esquire in 1968. “On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.”

This is not only how white America responds to looting. It is also how it — how we — respond to the victim. White America claims that Floyd had resisted arrest, just like white America said Michael Brown was no angel, as if either of these contentions could be grounds for summary execution. White America will make excuses, because white America still will not take responsibility.

This, incidentally, is what another incident across the country on Monday had in common with events in Minneapolis. Standing in Central Park, avid birder Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper (no relation) to put her dog on a leash. She was in an area where dogs are not supposed to be unleashed.

Rather than admit wrongdoing, or say sorry and put her dog on a leash, Amy Cooper threatened to call the police on, as she made a point of repeating, “an African American man”. Both Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper would have been aware of the threat this implied.

White America will continue to threaten to call the police. White America will continue to decry rioting and looting, because white America simply cannot stand for threatening behaviour or violence — save, of course, for the systemic violence established, protected, perpetuated and excused by white America.

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