By Rachel Puryear, Attorney at Law
In the form of protests, much of the world mourns the racist murder by a police officer of an *unarmed* African-American man. George Floyd, 46, died after a Minneapolis police officer suffocated Floyd by kneeling on his neck, while Floyd lay handcuffed on the ground.
Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown. These are the names of just a few of the people who have lost their lives in recent years to racist violence. Each of them left behind loved ones who must now live with the loss, as well as with the horror of what happened.
Demonstrations have followed since Floyd’s death; not only around the country, but around the world. For the most part, protests have been peaceful, and some have been refreshingly multiracial. Minnesota officials believe that groups *not* aligned with protesting police brutality are responsible for much of the looting and violence which has occurred, but do not agree on who is responsible.
There are policy changes which could be made to reduce the likelihood of such violence from happening in the future. In Massachusetts, lawmakers who are also people of color are proposing several ambitious police reforms, including chokehold bans and independent investigations. See also the ACLU’s manual on fighting police abuse. To have a realistic chance of passing any such reform, turning out to vote nationwide for candidates who support police reforms (or at least voting against those who don’t) is essential. Policy alone will not solve everything, it usually happens on a glacial timeline, and it takes a lot of resources and organized efforts – but it is still important.
What is also important, however, is to show up and speak up. Anybody can speak out against racism and violence. It doesn’t require expending resources, and it can be started right now if you have not already been doing so. If you are white, you can – and should – use the privilege you have to speak out against racism and the systemic marginalization of people of color. The choice of whether to do so is a privilege that everyone else does not have.
Speaking up does not have to be anything complicated or difficult. Nor do you necessarily need to fight anyone or confront people you don’t know if it seems immediately dangerous (be careful). You can instead start with friends, and people you already know – in fact, that tends to be the most effective place to start. Speaking up can be as simple as commenting openly that police brutality and other (macro and micro) forms of discrimination are wrong, and expressing remorse and compassion for the victims. Or telling people you know and love that you will vote for anti-racist candidates (and against ones who condone racism), and why, and encourage them to do the same. Or posting on social media with anti-racist comments, articles, and pictures. Or simply expressing your belief in racial equality, and support for actions and policies conducive to racial equality and justice. It is also important to honestly acknowledge that white privilege is real, and that white people have advantages that other people do not. It is also important to talk to children in your life about race, and about racism. See also here about discussing resistance against racism with kids, and instilling in them a sense of obligation to fight systemic racism (and other oppressions). Anti-racist sentiment is a good start, but consistent and deliberate effort and action against racism and oppression is also necessary. See also here about raising children with race consciousness. And of course, please teach your children – in your words, attitudes, and actions – that all people have equal worth and deserve freedom and equal opportunities regardless of their race, gender, class, abilities, who they love, how they look, and other demographic differences which do not determine their character and capabilities.
Showing up also can be done in many ways large and small. You can attend a protest – please stay peaceful towards people who are not hurting you, be considerate of people who live and work and have their businesses where you are protesting (especially white people going into minority neighborhoods – also be careful about attracting police attention there), and wear a mask. If you’re not someone who can feasibly protest for various reasons, that’s ok, there’s still plenty more important work for you. You can listen to people of color on racism, and make the effort to empathize, and then to take action where you can. You can contribute to causes which help promote racial justice, and support minority-owned businesses. You can make a video if you see people of color being stopped by the police – and in general, please only call the police on a person where someone else is clearly in or at risk of danger. Whatever you do, if you are white, also keep in mind that your role in fighting racism is a supporting one.
And if you are in law enforcement, please make the effort to be honest and self-aware of your own biases, and to be an example to your colleagues. We all have biases, but the powers police have make unexamined biases much more dangerous than for most civilians. Ask yourself and others around you what better recruitment and training policies could be put into place to prevent future tragedies – and advocate for this both in your department, and more broadly if possible. You are also in a powerful position to speak out against racism and abusive police behavior in your department. Yes, all of this is difficult and risky – but did you at some point choose your career because you wanted to help people, even where it was difficult and risky? You chose to become an officer, but civilians of color did not choose to be on the disadvantaged end of racism, and in a position of having to live in fear of racist violence. Furthermore, incidents of police brutality also put police officers in greater danger on their jobs. Police officers who recognize that serious changes are necessary are also not alone. Some police departments, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have implemented police reform programs which have shown positive results so far. Of course, the relatively progressive political environments of these cities likely helped make this happen.
Always remember that fighting racism and other evils must be cultivated as an everyday practice – not just when it is convenient, makes one look good, is popular, or when open outrage is high. End the silence. Be a good example for others, especially kids. Even with a lot of people doing their best, often progress won’t be made or it will co-occur with setbacks, or equality will regress as we have seen – but fight racism anyway (especially white people), with no excuses.