I tried to avoid it as much as possible. The trial, I mean. I didn’t want to hear experts testify about how George Floyd died, see the video, hear about his ill health and addiction to drugs. I didn’t want to see blame for his cruel death shifted to his human failings.
But it was impossible to avoid. That the world was watching, was a constant refrain. Indeed, from CNN to MSNBC to BBC, there seemed to be no escape. And like almost everyone, when word came that the jury had reached a verdict, which soon would be announced, I was on tenterhooks.
Yet, when the guilty verdict came on all three charges, my emotions were difficult to sort out. I was relieved to see justice prevail for Mr. Floyd’s family, for the dignity and worth of every Black person and for allies everywhere.
But I cringed at the word “celebrate.” There was no cause for jubilation. A man was dead and another was being handcuffed and hauled away to prison.
At the risk of riling up Facebook browbeaters, I couldn’t help but feel fleeting compassion for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer responsible for Mr. Floyd’s death, as he was led away in handcuffs to possibly spend the rest of his life in prison. While I’m at it, let me say that I also felt a twinge of sadness for the female police officer said to have accidentally drawn her pistol instead of her Taser when she killed 20-year-old Duante Wright a few days ago.
That doesn’t mean I’m not enraged that Chauvin callously knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds and caused his death and that his lawyer drew on the loathsome stereotype of a big, fearsome, angry Black man as part of his defense. And, like others, I also wonder how a veteran police officer, even under stress, could mistake a pistol for a Taser. And I question why Duante Wright needed to be killed because of a traffic stop and why four fatal shots had to be fired at 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Police say she was wielding a knife.
Must Black parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and friends be terrified each time one of their own leaves the safety of their home? Should they be afraid to call for help when there’s a mental health problem, or to report a crime, lest they be doubly victimized?
Tuesday, when news broke about the pending verdict in the Chauvin trial, the Rev. J. C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, put out a call on Facebook for a gathering at St. Petersburg’s recently erected Lynching Memorial at Second Avenue S and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. It’s where John Evans, a Black laborer, was lynched on Nov. 12, 1914.
“It was more valuable than going to the Pier, than going to Beach Drive, or to City Hall. It felt very different being in that space. It was very powerful,” said Pritchett, adding that the civil rights and social justice organization didn’t want to wait to take a stand. “We embraced the moment.”
About a dozen members of the clergy gathered – St. Petersburg pastors and a rabbi, as well as the executive director of Equality Florida, representatives from the ACLU, mayoral candidate Ken Welch and several others.
“I’m a history buff and I know how Black and brown people have been treated in this city, so for me, it was important for us to be there to hear the verdict,” Pritchett said.
“You don’t need a gun to murder Black and brown bodies. You can use a rope in the case of Mr. Evans, and in the case of Mr. Floyd, a law enforcement knee. History will remember us planting our feet in that space. That’s something that is going to be replicated, that we turned that wicked, evil space into a space of victory and power.”
Statista, a global data research firm, notes that fatal police shootings in the U.S. are increasing, “with a total 213 civilians having been shot, 30 of whom were Black, in the first three months of 2021.”
The research firm pointed to a Washington Post analysis, which found that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by police violence.
“Since the start of 2015, 4,927 people across the country have died in police shootings and approximately half – 2,499 – were white. Out of the remainder, 1,301 were black, 907 were Hispanic and 220 were from other racial groups,” the research firm said.
“The data looks different as a share of the population, however. Black Americans account for less than 13 percent of the population, but they are shot and killed by the police at a rate that’s over twice as high as for white Americans.”
Of note is the Dylann Roof case. Roof, 21, and white, killed nine members of the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., after being welcomed into their place of worship. Despite his heinous crime, he was apprehended without force by police, who even went to buy Roof a hamburger from Burger King. It’s said he hadn’t eaten in a couple of days.
Unfortunately, the assumption in many quarters is that Blacks and other people of color are criminals. I remember being told by someone close to me how startled she was when a white friend pulled her close to protect her as a Black man approached. All she could think of, she told me, was that it could have been her husband or one of her sons being stigmatized.
It’s easy to do the same to all law enforcement officers. For some of us, they are family, even our kind and reliable neighbors. In St. Petersburg, a unit is dedicated to helping the homeless. The department has a diversity training program. The Rev. Kenny Irby, pastor of Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the director of the department’s community intervention and juvenile outreach program. He also teaches a four-part Foundational Cultural Competency course for new recruits that includes a walk through St. Petersburg’s historic Black community.
That’s all good, of course, but nationwide, many officers live far from the cities in which they work, which can mean they are disconnected from the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. In St. Petersburg, 173 sworn personnel live within city limits, Police Department spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said. Another 378 live outside the city.
No doubt some officers across the country chafe at diversity training. The Tampa Bay Times reported that in 2017, former St. Petersburg Police Officer Matthew Enhoffer was disciplined for telling the instructor of a training session, “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust,” that it was “a f–king waste of time.”
I bring this up because a few years earlier, that same officer was awarded the Medal of Valor for his response during a shootout with 18-year-old Austin Lee Goodner, who had a history of mental illness. Enhoffer ended up shooting and killing Goodner, who had shot at him and another officer. Goodner was white.
The decorated police officer was later arrested for child pornography and sentenced to eight years and one month in federal prison last fall. Obviously, he’s neither representative of his former department nor law enforcement officers in general.
Until recently, I’ve thought of the call to “defund the police” as more hyperbole than reasoned. I’ve since learned that the demand can be quite nuanced. Regardless, comprehensive reform to policing is key. For Black people, especially, it’s simply a matter of survival.