A police officer with his hand casually in his pocket knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while several colleagues watched or knelt on other parts of Mr. Floyd’s body. The officers knew people were filming, but they were confident no one would stop them. They were right, and they killed Mr. Floyd without interference from anyone, apart from the cries of horrified bystanders. After all, they had badges and guns. On that day, Minneapolis police conducted a racial terror lynching of George Floyd in broad daylight that was filmed by onlookers and then sent across America. President Trump’s reaction tells you all you need to know about his commitment to seriously address racism in America.
The President called Mr. Floyd’s family. The call was “so fast,” Mr. Floyd’s brother Terrence recalled. “He didn’t give me the opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.'”
Once the call was finished, so was any expression of concern about the racism that enabled Mr. Floyd’s murder. When demonstrations turned violent, Trump quoted an infamous Miami police chief from the ’60s: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” When people across party lines expressed outrage, Trump claimed he did not mean police should shoot people committing property crime. Yet when protestors showed up at the White House, he threatened to unleash vicious dogs and ominous weapons, later adding that the power of the federal military should be used.
On a conference call with governors, Trump was as clear as he could be when he said, “You have to arrest people. You have to try people. You have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” He added, “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.” His solution to the protests is the response that has always been embraced in America — suppress them aggressively. Send some people to prison. Harass some activists. Maybe next time, they will take the thoughts and prayers and shut up.
These demonstrations are about more than murder by police officers. Earlier this year, Trump claimed that there was a need to study the impact of COVID-19 on Black America. This is necessary only if, like the President, you have turned a blind eye to history and fact. COVID-19 stripped away any cover we had to avoid seeing the true impact of inadequate health care, under-funded education, gentrification, and economic disparities — conditions in communities of color, and in Black communities in particular, that are the direct result of centuries of intentionally created structural racism.
These are the things behind the unrest in America. However, the racism and hatred behind the murder of George Floyd has faded from our President’s focus because he has identified something more important than a racial terror lynching by police. He has identified the real enemy.
Who is it? Well, depending on the circumstances, for Trump it is Mexicans, Muslims or the Chinese. This time, the real enemy is not the racism in America that let police officers choke the life out of a man in front of numerous witnesses with unfettered confidence. It is the demonstrators — Trump calls them “thugs” — many of whom are Black Americans.
So instead of actions to eliminate the racism that pressed the knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck, we get threats about what is coming for these “thugs.” Unless cities respond with an overwhelming law enforcement presence, he will “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” If you wonder what he meant by domination, you have your answer.
How many times can a country offer thoughts and prayers in the face of senseless death with no progress or solutions before it becomes clear that the thoughts and prayers were meaningless? George Floyd must remind you of Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor and Terence Crutcher should be alive today. Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery are dead because their blackness alone marked them as criminal. If thoughts and prayers made a difference, why are we living in this moment of crisis 99 years after the Tulsa Massacre, 52 years after the King assassination, and 29 years after Rodney King was beaten?
The federal government is pushing for cities and states to make a maximum effort to prevent property damage. The President is willing to commit federal law enforcement resources and even the military to defeat the enemy, protect property, and reinstate the status quo. What would America look like if we ever put the same commitment and resources into the elimination of and reckoning with racism?
Take a good look at Mr. Floyd’s lynching and the centuries of unaddressed racism in America. What’s it going to be this time — more thoughts and prayers, with Trump’s military threat waiting if anyone complains? Or, for the first time in our history, a maximum effort with dedicated local, state, and federal resources to transform America’s history of racism?
Our President has given you his answer. America is going to have to answer the same question.
Jeffery Robinson is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality.