George Floyd, Racism and Law Enforcement
Use this ADL Table Talk to discuss the death of George Floyd with family members and your community and find ways to to take action.
Trigger warning: Some users may find this content disturbing.
The Death of George Floyd and American Inequality
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, died while being arrested by the police. A bystander video recording of the incident showed that a white police officer pinned Floyd to the ground while he was handcuffed. The police officer’s knee pressed into the back of Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, even after Floyd lost consciousness. On the video, Floyd was heard saying, "Please, I can't breathe. My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts. … (I need) water or something. Please. Please. I can't breathe, officer. … I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe." In a statement, the Minneapolis Police Department said that officers had responded to a call about a man suspected of forgery.
"Since 2014, some high-profile deaths include Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Laquan McDonald (2014), John Crawford (2014) Freddie Gray (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castile (2016), Terence Crutcher (2016), Antwon Rose (2018) and others."
The incident was shared widely on social media. This led to community and national outrage, an F.B.I. civil rights investigation and the firing of the officer, Derek Chauvin and three other officers who were also at the scene. On May 29, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. Prosecutors said the investigation into the three other officers is ongoing. On June 3, the charges against Chauvin were upgraded to second-degree murder and the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Since the death of George Floyd, there have been protests across the country, including in Minneapolis, New York City, Atlanta, Denver, Memphis, Phoenix, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles and other cities. Some of these protests have lasted for days. Several members of Congress have introduced a resolution to condemn police brutality, racial profiling and the excessive use of force.
There is a larger context and history of African American men and boys who were killed at the hands of the police, many of whom, like George Floyd, were unarmed. Since 2014, some high-profile deaths include Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Laquan McDonald (2014), John Crawford (2014) Freddie Gray (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castile (2016), Terence Crutcher (2016), Antwon Rose (2018) and others. Despite having video recordings of many of these deaths, it is very rare for police officers to get arrested, prosecuted or convicted for excessive use of force. This perceived lack of accountability has led to a public outcry for justice.
Black Lives Matter is an activist movement which began as a hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) when in July 2013, white civilian George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager killed in Florida. The Black Lives Matter movement became more widely acknowledged and highlighted after two 2014 high-profile deaths of unarmed African American men (Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO). Neither of the police officers involved in their deaths were indicted (i.e., formally charge with a crime).
Racism is defined as: “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.” Racism shows up in all aspects of our lives and society: in interpersonal communication, through discriminatory policies and practices, in biased language, and in our laws and institutions (e.g., education, media, employment, government and the criminal justice system).
Many see Floyd’s death as an example of systemic racism, referring to the way race disadvantages people of color in the criminal justice system. African American and Latinx men are disproportionately represented in all levels of the criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing to death row. Moreover, research shows that African American people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
After the death of George Floyd, another incident occurred in Central Park in New York City that same day. Christian Cooper, an African American man, was birdwatching when he encountered an unleashed dog. He asked the dog’s owner, Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, to put the dog on a leash as the park rules require. When she did not, he began to film her. In response, Amy Cooper said she would call the police, stating “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life” while pulling out her cellphone and calling 911.
While these two events appear to be unrelated, they both demonstrate a very important concept: when left unchecked, hate and bias can escalate and lead to dire outcomes.
The Pyramid of Hate illustrates how the levels of biased attitudes and behaviors grow in complexity from the bottom to top. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are supported by the lower levels and it becomes increasingly difficult to challenge and dismantle as behaviors escalate. Bias at each level negatively impacts individuals, institutions and society. When bias goes unchecked, it becomes “normalized” and contributes to a pattern of accepting discrimination, hate and injustice in society.
Amy Cooper’s anger and bias led her to threaten Christian Cooper with the bias she assumed the police would have when she described the man who was threatening her as African American. This is a situation that could have easily escalated if the police arrived on the scene and engaged in a confrontation, or worse, with Christian Cooper. All too quickly and pervasively, the escalation of bias and hate has led to violence and the deaths of George Floyd and many others.
(See the More Information section for articles and information that address these questions.)
Ask: What can we do to help? What actions might make a difference?
Teaching about Racism, Violence, Inequity and the Criminal Justice System (Collection of resources)
When Perception and Reality Collide: Implicit Bias and Race (ADL Lesson Plan)
The Hate U Give (Book of the Month discussion guides)
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