I want to write something about the death of George Floyd, but when I try, I realize I have no authority or background from which to write.
I’ve read and heard the stories that describe the sad event. I’ve studied the video clips. But I haven’t lived as a minority member of this society. I haven’t lived knowing I could be hauled off the street by law enforcement at almost any time for almost any reason. I can’t fathom how a lifetime of knowing that must crush the human heart and spirit.
Floyd is a black man who died last week in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Cameras and phones captured the moment, as they do nearly everything these days. Seeing isn’t always believing, but, man, it’s hard to view the video clips and come away thinking anything but that you know exactly what happened.
Floyd died in handcuffs, face down on a Minneapolis street with the knee of a police officer pressed on his neck. The knee remained for several minutes, even as Floyd gasped that he couldn’t breathe, even as the officer looked toward a phone or camera he had to know was recording the incident, even as onlookers begged the other officers on the scene to step in.
I couldn’t see in Floyd’s demeanor or behavior any suggestion that he was a threat to the officer kneeling on him. Earlier, he seemed to be no threat to the officers called to the scene. Apparently, an allegation was made that Floyd tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. That hardly seems an offense serious enough to require hooking him in cuffs and hauling him into custody. It certainly shouldn’t have reached a level at which — intentional or not — lethal force was employed. I can’t reconcile the idea that, in this country, in this age, a person could be killed over a $20 bill, counterfeit or not.
I’m a white man whose entire life has been spent in small towns in South Dakota. I’ve had a handful of official interactions with law enforcement – a couple of speeding stops, a taillight out, a sobriety checkpoint. In none of those interactions was I considered a suspect in any significant crime. I don’t know what it’s like to be considered a suspect in virtually every situation. In fact, my only experience with law enforcement and fear is this:
In Pierre years ago, a friend gave me a ride home from work. He pulled to the curb. I got out and stood talking with him as his car idled there. A passing police officer paused beside us and told my friend to move his car. Why? He never said. “We’re just finishing up,’’ I said. Truly, that was it. To my surprise, the officer put his car in park, set his light bar flashing and stepped out. He told me if I gave him more backtalk, he’d run me in. My heart nearly stopped. I was standing in my own yard. My friend was parked out of the traffic. We couldn’t have been breaking any laws. Even so, I felt fear. It occurred to me that if I said another word, the officer might arrest me and take me to the station. “Yes, sir,’’ I said as respectfully as possible, and I headed toward my porch steps.
I was frightened and humiliated that day. I was angry, too, at myself and at the officer. Even as I describe the incident now, 50 years later, the feelings return, stronger than I might have expected. How much stronger must such feelings be to a minority member of our society who experiences them every waking hour? Imagine how that weighs on a human soul.
I love the United States. For all the good things about this country, though, its history includes regular, frequent instances of violence and casual cruelty to its minority people, too often by those entrusted with serving and protecting the rest of us. Each instance of violence and cruelty tears away a piece of our shared humanity.
For most of my life, I believed we would gradually become better. These days, I struggle to believe.