When an African-American friend of mine after the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in February said he worried about running outside, I wasn’t sure what to say. Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old, was fatally shot near Brunswick, Georgia, when he went out for a jog and was pursued by two white men. I tried to find the right words to console my friend, but they never really came. I stumbled on some trite words of support, but they felt inadequate and wanting.
And then this week, I watched the footage of George Floyd’s death, the 46-year-old man killed when Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin had him handcuffed for allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20, lying on the ground, and stuck his knee hard into his neck, and again I rack my brain trying to find the right words.
I keep playing the TV news images over in my head and my heart starts pumping. I get angry when I see Chauvin’s face look up as he holds his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I get angrier when I read that a fellow policeman checked Floyd’s pulse when he became unresponsive and Chauvin kept his knee there for an additional two minutes and 53 seconds. I get angry that three other policemen were on the scene and failed to step-in or come to Floyd’s aid.
I believe in due process, but I get angry that it took the District Attorney’s office four days to charge Chauvin. I get even angrier because other charges have not come. I get angry when I see the looters and rioters take the peaceful protests and take the focus away from righting a wrong. I get angry that I see smart people upset over the looters, but I don’t see them saying much about Floyd’s death or inequities in our judicial system.
I want things to make sense. I want strong, but fair law enforcement. I want Floyd to get off the ground, none the worse for wear. I want Arbery to stand up and continue on with his run. I want Breonna Taylor, the Louisville EMT who police mistakenly fired on and killed as part of a “botched raid” earlier this month, to wake and go to her job at a local hospital. I want Eric Garner, the New Yorker, who collapsed when a New York City Police Department officer, put him in a chokehold and later died and a host of other African-Americans who have died at the hands of police over the years to get up and walk away.
I want to change history, but I can’t. Mostly I get sad that racial tensions and inequities remain an issue. An issue in fact that’s always there, under the surface, but never addressed, never completely solved. African-Americans are nearly three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police and five times more likely than white Americans to be killed unarmed, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.
Like some TV talking heads, I want to look away. I want to say these protests are started by others with their own agendas, but dozens of protests in cities across the country, that’s more than a coincidence. We’re facing real racial problems and need real solutions.
So, mostly I get sad that I don’t’ have the words to console my friends. I get mad that I can’t explain it to my son. I keep searching for the right words, but they never come. Hell, I get sad that I can’t explain it to myself.
When words do I finally come, they come from an unlikely place. They come from Floyd himself. In his final moments, on the ground, he told police, “I can’t breathe. Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”
No matter the skin color, it is time for a change, this has to change.