There are certain moments in history. Something happens — a handcuffed man screams that he can’t breathe, the cop presses his knee ever more firmly against his neck, and the cop, I swear, looks so unbothered, so this-is-what-I-can-do-and-you-can’t-stop-me calm, ignoring those onlookers who plead for George Floyd’s life, while still pinning his knee on Floyd’s neck minutes even after Floyd is unresponsive and apparently dead — and people are sickened and disgusted and pained and, most of all, moved to act.
This seems like such a moment.
It was more than just the horror in that eight-minute, forty-six second video in which we saw the cop snuffing out a man’s life for no reason, for allegedly passing a forged $20 bill. It’s the lack of expression, the utter lack of empathy, the — to use the modern term — privilege on Derek Chauvin’s, the Minneapolis cop’s, face that does me in.
A nation erupts, and pieces fall into place, as they will, as protests become, in some cases, late-night riots, and police become, even without the late-night violence, violent enforcers, and sides are taken. But in a matter of days, it’s the violence from the police, not from late-night protests, that becomes headline material. As the police begin to pull back under pressure, the protests somehow become ever more peaceful. And in a just released Washington Post/Schar School poll, 74% of Americans approve of the protests and an amazing 69% agree that change is needed in police forces. Forty-seven percent of Republicans say Floyd’s killing suggests there are “broader problems” with the police, as opposed to 19% after Ferguson.
Suddenly Black Lives Matter is not seen as some radical group, but as those who tell us, and keep telling us, that, yes, black lives matter and — note to chastened John Hickenlooper — who can say no?
This is stunning. Even a small majority of Republicans, despite Donald Trump, support the protests. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, of course. They don’t happen without the names of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor on our lips, and maybe not without the white woman in New York who called 911 to say an “African-American” birder was threatening her when, as the video clearly showed, he was not. And not without all the other names, over all the years. I just read a book called “The Blood of Emmett Till” about the lynching of the 14-year-old Chicago boy in Mississippi that helped change the world. The author, Timothy B. Tyson, writes that in the era of Black Lives Matter, “America is still killing Emmett Till, often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s.”
And so as George Floyd, 46 years old, lay dead, even as Donald Trump retweeted a tweet saying Floyd should not be considered a martyr, tens of thousands still take to the streets, with no real signs of abating.
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And Trump, of course, responded by calling for U.S. troops to be sent in to police Americans. And a police state, martial law, was suddenly on the table. And, just as suddenly, retired four-star generals sided with the protesters and screamed no. They might as well have screamed no justice, no peace. And one, retired Marine four-star general John Allen, wrote in Foreign Policy of Trump’s threat to call in the troops: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
The end of the American experiment. Yes, this is a moment. If we allow ourselves to believe — and I admit, after all these years, after so many moments, it gets harder — that this is a time, a certain time, and if we do, then we can see it.
There’s a bill in the House on policing. There’s a bill in the Senate. They’re not radical bills, but they do speak to actual police reform, and for those who are tired of reform and want greater change, that’s out there, too.
The protests are still running and spreading, not just in Minneapolis and St. Paul, not just in Denver and New York, not just in Seattle and LA, but seemingly everywhere. It is the clouds of tear gas, the pepper balls, the chain-saw attacks, the cars driven into crowds of protesters that galvanize us. It is the fact that Bill Barr lies when he says that no chemicals were used as federal police cleared out peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park so Trump could have his ill-fated, mission-accomplished, Bible-toting, silent majority photo-op that prompts D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to rename a street across from the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in big bold letters.
And so Mitt Romney remarkably tweets that Black Lives Matter, and he marches.
And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league was wrong to punish those football players who presciently took a knee. (You can be skeptical of Goodell’s intentions, as I am, but his words tell us what movements do; they capture the conscience of a nation.)
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And the Colorado state Senate overwhelmingly voted to move forward a bill that has surprising teeth to it, saying cops must face an imminent threat before shooting. Cops must not only be able to explain why they stop someone, they must prevent another cop from using excessive force. And even more surprising, the cops themselves could be held personally liable for damages. There’s more.
Meanwhile a judge excoriated Denver policing in a ruling for unnecessary force and the use of tear gas in the face of peaceful protests.
And in Minneapolis, the city council is expected to vote to defund police. This is not as radical as it sounds. The idea is to restructure the police after years of reform that has changed so little, to demilitarize the police, to spread the overwhelming amounts of money spent on so-called law and order and use it instead on schooling, on pre-schooling, on housing, on a wide range of community projects. This comes as cities and states need to make severe cuts in all spending. Police will not and should not be exempt.
Yes, this could be such a moment. But even on Tuesday, on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, we woke up to this tweet from Trump on the 75-year-old Buffalo protester who was pushed by two policemen to the street, blood flowing from his ears as cops walked by:
A set-up? Fake blood? Antifa? OAN?
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump is missing the moment. This is the same Trump who called for the death penalty for the wrongly convicted Central Park Five, the same Trump whose political moment was written in his tweets on racist birtherism, who announced his candidacy while calling Mexicans rapists, who separated small brown children from their parents at the border and locked them in cages, who sends out the helicopters to buzz D.C. protesters, who somehow thinks a 75-year-old man was an Antifa provocateur.
An election is coming. And, yes, as Gen. Allen wrote, the American experiment is on the line. And as I write this, I’m drowning out Trump’s words with the old Sam Cooke civil rights song:
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
And as I listen, I hope, maybe, this is the moment he’s finally right.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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