The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
Weeks of marches and demonstrations, in what is now being hailed as the largest civil rights movement in American history sparked by the death of George Floyd, led to the upgrading of charges against officer Derek Chauvin, as well as the arrests of the three officers who acted as accomplices.
Although just a steppingstone, this development was a significant victory for the movement that’s yielded so few satisfying results in the past decade. Yet, while I understand that George Floyd’s death was the catalyst for this swell of energy, I found it troubling when his name still dominated the signs and chants at the most recent march I attended. Not only has there not been any semblance of resolution in notable cases, such as Breonna Taylor’s, but there seemed to be a clear detachment from what was happening in our own city — Seattle, Washington — 1500 miles away from Minneapolis.
Nationwide, there is more urgency now than there’s ever been to harness this momentum and redirect our attention locally.
The most fundamental reasoning behind emphasizing the cases in our own communities is simply that these people are our neighbors — their loved ones may very well be marching next to us, still grieving, and disheartened by a glaring lack of recognition. This fairly new phenomenon of “justice for” hashtags has created an atmosphere where not only do you not have to dig to find information about a high-profile police shooting, but the posts on the subject are so pervasive online that you’ll feel a pressure to circulate the names, as well.
But, do you know the names of the lives lost to police brutality in your state? What about the deaths that weren’t caught on camera? Finding these cases will require digging —combing through less visible local news stories, tapping into discussions on social media, accessing available data that never made it to the media. Educating yourself on this issue may require more effort than you’re used to exerting, but every one of them deserves acknowledgment, even if you ultimately decide that the killing was justified.
Yet, the vast majority of these cases will go largely unnoticed. We know this is a major issue in the Black community, but it is perhaps most epitomized in the Indigenous populations throughout the country. Native Americans experience disproportionately high rates of death by the police, over three times that of white people, with an already modest overall population. And while most Native nations are under legal authority of neighboring police departments, their sovereignty and remote locations, among other factors, all but ensure that these cases will receive no media coverage.
Focusing on strengthening our communities, whether by making it a point to highlight the local lives lost or through building Black and Indigenous coalitions to address issues related to the criminal injustice system, is a necessary step in optimizing our social and political power to overcome the so far insurmountable obstacle of changing the way our communities are policed.
Additionally, beyond simple acknowledgement of our community members, focusing our efforts on homicides and instances of excessive force perpetrated by our local departments is necessary if we want accountability from the specifically — which we do. In the meager number of instances in which we’ve witnessed an adequate consequence handed down to officers, it’s felt like a collective victory for anti-police brutality champions. But they don’t, in reality, move the needle in the cities we inhabit.
While the unprecedented pressure we’ve seen in recent weeks has inched the people of Minneapolis closer to seeing some sort of justice, the emphasis on this case is now being used as a shield by police departments and unions, across the country, to distract from their own egregious failings.
A couple of weeks ago, in a now widely circulated video, New York Police Benevolent Association leader Mike O’Meara openly railed against what he characterized as mistreatment by the media and lawmakers.
“I am not Derek Chauvin. They are not him. He killed someone, we didn’t. We are restrained,” O’Meara said before ironically demanding the public stop treating them like “animals” and “thugs.”
O’Meara’s comments were a slap in the face to the loved ones of Eric Garner, who like George Floyd uttered “I can’t breathe” before he killed was by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo with a department-prohibited chokehold in 2014. Pantaleo was never charged.
In Tacoma, WA, a police union recently released a statement which included the lines “what happened in Minneapolis to George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police was wrong. It was repugnant to the badge. Tacoma is not Minneapolis” in an effort to divert attention away from multiple eyewitness videos proving they’d attempted to cover up the murder of Manuel Ellis. Ellis can also be heard on a recording telling officers he couldn’t breathe before dying from what the medical examiner now says is a homicide, due to a lack of oxygen “as a result of physical restraint, positioning” and the placement of a “spit hood” over his mouth.
This scapegoating is indicative of law enforcement’s recognition of the mounting support for the anti-police brutality movement all over the country and their desperation to separate themselves from the narrative. According to an analysis by Pew Research Center, just days after George Floyd’s death, nearly 8.8 million tweets contained the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag “making this the highest number of uses for this hashtag in a single day since the Center started tracking its use.”
Since then, the hashtag was used in over 2 million tweets per day, which is the highest sustained volume of tweets over the time period the Center has been monitoring it.
A New York Times study noted a rise in American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the two weeks following George Floyd’s death, equal to the total increase in the preceding two years.
But, none of this exciting galvanization will matter if we don’t leverage it to push substantial policy changes, which requires drawing attention to local cases, and supporting local organizations and activists both financially and with our physical presence.
This is not meant to suggest that we should stop fighting for Breonna Taylor if we don’t live in Kentucky. She was lying in her bed when she was shot at least eight times by police. To let her killers walk free would be unconscionable. However, the Louisville council passed Breonna’s Law unanimously, recently, banning no-knock raids like the one that resulted in the young EMT’s death. That legislation grants protections to the people of Louisville and them alone.
The police do approximately 20,000 no-knock raids every year. One in particular involved a Texas man named Marvin Guy, who killed a police officer during a pre-dawn, no-knock raid on his home. Even though Guy says that he believed he was shooting at an intruder, which is wholly plausible as the police were climbing through his window not coming through his front door, and they found no contraband in his home, a grand jury still indicted him. He’s been in jail on a $5.5 million bond on four capital felonies since 2014.
The new legislation banning these dangerous practices in Louisville won’t save Texans, like Guy, or Utahns who live in a state where no-knock warrants make up about 40% of all warrants served, from an increased risk of deadly force by police and infringements on various self-defense laws.
Shifting our primary focus away from oversaturated hashtags toward what’s happening on our front steps is crucial in this moment.
George Floyd’s tragic martyrdom pushed this movement to new heights — his legacy will live on forever as the sparkplug for what I hope will be the beginning of radical changes to the way our communities are policed. But, critical reforms, along with substantial downsizing and defunding of departments will never happen in our own cities if we don’t concentrate pressure there.