Column: White people will contort themselves to justify the police killing of Black people
Something has clearly shifted in this country.
Lately, each time an unarmed Black person dies or is maimed by police — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake — the righteous outrage boils up, and it crosses all racial lines.
Especially in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, which was chronicled in excruciating detail by a teenager with a smartphone, many white people, seemingly for the first time, came to understand that a callous disregard for the lives of Black Americans is not just a bug of the American policing system, but a feature.
And that Black people alone cannot fix it.
After Floyd was killed in May, white support for the Black Lives Matter movement surged, not just in polls, but also in peaceful protests on the streets of our cities, and even around the world. It was refreshing, inspiring and filled me with hope.
And now, a few months have passed, and a backlash has set in.
Media coverage of peaceful protests has ebbed, and instead we see near-constant coverage of acts of violence that have disturbed the peace in a few cities like Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore. Self-appointed white militias, comprising men bent on enacting unfulfilled hero fantasies, turn out to “defend” businesses and property. President Trump turns a blind eye, because the white militias are part of his base, and his reelection strategy depends on continuing violence that he can claim is the fault of Democrats.
Of course, arson and vandalism are wrong, illegal and counterproductive, and despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, his Democratic opponent Joe Biden has condemned it.
But you can’t help but see in these erratic incidents of property destruction a rough street version of what is happening legally to poor people every day in this country. People’s lives are going up in metaphorical flames. They are losing their health, their jobs, their homes, and they are ignored by a president whose party has sent billions in free money to corporations but does not see the value of extending a $600 weekly benefit to individual Americans to keep them afloat through this unprecedented crisis.
Maybe I have become entirely too cynical, but it seems to me that some white Americans are starting to tire of Black Lives Matter.
The stunning leap in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd was killed is starting to wane, according to some polls. For some white people, support for Black Lives Matter appears to have been a fad. Black support, of course, has remained steady because, for Black people, the movement is an existential fact.
Along with the drop in white support for Black Lives Matter, I’m seeing a desire to explain away horrific police behavior.
I hear from people who say they are not Trump supporters but recite a long list of Floyd’s preexisting medical conditions and drug use to explain that he was not actually killed by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
I hear frequently that the shooting of Blake was justified because police found a knife in his car, as if that justified the barrage of bullets in his back as his children looked on. Some police defenders say Taylor’s death was tragic but unavoidable, since police came to her home with a legal no-knock warrant, and when they busted in her door, her boyfriend fired the first shot.
But step back for a moment. Think of the bigger picture.
And look at it this way: No one should have put a knee on Floyd’s neck in the first place. No one should have shot Blake in the back. No one should have barged into Taylor’s home unannounced.
And, by the way, how is it OK for a 17-year-old white kid to freely roam the streets of Kenosha with an AR-15-style rifle — that he later uses to kill two people while police look on — but a Black man with a knife in his car is considered a threat to a cop standing behind him?
In the past few months, I have often found myself thinking about Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager who was killed by neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012.
Trayvon was a 17-year-old high school junior, walking home from a convenience store with a package of Skittles, when Zimmerman drove by him, decided he looked suspicious and called police.
“This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told police. Using a vulgar word for “punks,” he said, “They always get away.”
Zimmerman followed Trayvon, who began running. The police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the teen. Zimmerman not only disregarded that request and followed Trayvon, but also got out of his car. A confrontation ensued.
They fought, Zimmerman pulled his gun and shot Trayvon, claiming he feared for his life.
A jury bought Zimmerman’s self-defense story and acquitted him of murder. Zimmerman, all by himself, created a conflict where none existed, killed a Black teenager, claimed self-defense and walked free.
This is a narrative that repeats itself with depressing regularity in America. It will only change once white people fully and permanently commit themselves to the idea that Black lives matter.
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