By this point, one must be oblivious or indifferent to miss the connection, but the death of another African American at the hands of law enforcement in America surely explains why some Americans weren’t too terribly outraged by the spectacle of professional football players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem a couple of years ago.
True, many of us believe more effective and appropriate ways exist to protest and address a sustained pattern of police violence visited on unarmed African Americans. But to cavalierly write off such protests as unpatriotic, an offense to the nation’s military/law enforcement/flag (take your pick), is to deny the very historical context of racism in America, one that demands earnest engagement by more everyday Americans.
The grisly example in Minneapolis this week is a national disgrace, unfolding by light of ebbing day on a city street. Whites and blacks begged police to take care with the handcuffed black man slowly being strangled to death in their charge. “I can’t breathe! Please, the knee on my neck,” 46-year-old George Floyd is heard gasping in a video following his arrest on an allegation of using counterfeit money. No one in the police ranks did anything.
So a man died, the city of Minneapolis fired four police officers and protesters went on the warpath, matching rocks and water bottles with tear gas and flash grenades. Makes armed, mostly white protests over temporarily shuttered hair salons and face masks look pretty damn marginal, at least in the context of lives lost and civil rights trashed.
Nationally respected law professor Mark Osler, formerly of Baylor Law School, wrote on his blog Wednesday that he normally awaits more information before commenting on such situations. The video gone viral made such hesitance unnecessary. “This is troubling on many levels,” the former federal prosecutor now living in Minneapolis wrote. “The racial injustice is clear — this is yet another incident with a white police officer and a dead black man. And where does that degree of malice come from in one empowered to act in the public interest? Something is very much wrong in our culture of law enforcement.”
Not all law enforcement are infected by this virus of malice and contempt, though certainly some are. This week’s incident further justifies active police engagement with Waco’s communities of color. Our past three police chiefs — Alberto Melis, Brent Stroman and Ryan Holt — as well as District Attorney Barry Johnson have won high marks in this regard. We’ve watched as they answered any and all questions, some blunt. Efforts must intensify as the politicians aggravate our racial divides. Law enforcement must ensure strict accountability to groups such as the NAACP; keep locals informed of training to keep even our culture of law enforcement from turning toxic, complete with any self-destructive us-versus-them mentality; and, most importantly of all, remain vigilant for trouble. Given Waco’s own history of racial violence and police complicity involving horrific lynchings in the last century, it’s the least we can do in these increasingly troubled times.