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George Floyd – A Reader on Police Violence and Racism in the US

By SJ Cooper-Knock

On 25 May, George Floyd – a handcuffed and unarmed Black man – was killed by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck. His death was yet more devastating evidence of the racism that continues to structure lethal police violence in the United States. In the wake of his death and amidst the protests that have followed, there have been a series of powerful commentaries that put this violence in context, highlighting the systemic nature of lethal police and civilian violence against Black people. Here, we highlight a few of these resources. They serve as a reminder that, in order to understand policing in lockdown, we have to understand the structure of society and practice of policing in which it is embedded.

Police Violence in the United States

On 29 May, Donald Trump sent a tweet that used racist language before stating ‘when the looting starts the shooting starts’. This is just one of many ways in which Trump has ‘enabled police violence against Black Americans’. In response, Taryn Finley writes that ‘The Shooting of Black Americans Started Long Before the Looting’, speaking to the history of police violence and protest in the country. As she notes, ‘Black people’s lives have long been threatened by white people with more privilege and power who still manage to see us as a threat… Civil unrest is happening because Black people in this country are fed up with being killed.’ Finley’s piece resonates with a broad and deep literature on the racism of America’s criminal justice system, which has been clearly demonstrated by a long line of activists and scholars. An article by Kadijatou Diallo and John Shattuck usefully highlights key research on racist policing. It is important to note that Black women and Black LGBTIQ+ people are also systematically targeted by police violence.

Reflecting on life in Minneapolis and the long-running concerns over racist policing and politics in the city, Jeff Guo reflects that ‘Minneapolis and Ferguson are more similar than you think’. Whilst many think of Minneapolis as America’s ‘most liveable city’, Nekima Levy-Pounds, the Minneapolis NAACP president, argues that this verdict only holds for the city’s white people. Elizabeth Hinton sets the ‘Minneapolis Uprisings in Context’ by laying out the history of Black urban uprisings in America and what they tell us about political resistance as well as the rise of militarised policing and mass incarceration. Moving beyond Minneapolis, JSTOR have collated a syllabus on institutionalised racism across the US, past and present.

In the context of the protests triggered by George Floyd’s killing, Matthew Dessem has documented the ways in which the police ‘escalated the national unrest’. Whilst this resource demonstrates the ways in which the police provoke rather than just respond to civil unrest, it does contain videos of police aggression. We are cognisant of Kemi Alemoru’s important piece written in gal-dem about the traumatic impact of sharing videos of police brutality and the problematic politics that they can feed, so we include it here with caution of its content.

Analysing the criminalisation and condemnation of those engaged in looting during the protest, Ashley Reese reflects on the politics of what we value. ‘Property is inanimate. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t have hopes, dreams, or mouths to feed’, she writes, and yet ‘… For far too many Americans, it is easier to mourn the destruction of a series of chain stores, owned and operated by millionaires, than the death of a Black American. A stolen lamp is worthy of a kind of empathy that a black person could only dream of.’

Michael Barbaro leads a discussion exploring how the police remain systematically protected against redress for racist violence in the United States. Taking the killing of George Floyd as yet more evidence that accountability over the police is not functional in the United States, and that their expanded presence in American life does more to harm than protect those on the margins, Melissa Gira Grant has called for moves to defund the police. This speaks to a far wider and deeper literature on the need to roll back policing and pursue prison abolition in the United States.

Intersectionality and COVID-19

Currently, the crisis of police violence is colliding with the COVID-19 crisis. The policing of lockdown as well as policing in lockdown has demonstrated the ways in which the criminal justice system in America is consistently targeting Black communities.

This adds to news that the burden of COVID-19 has disproportionately fallen on Black communities and other communities of colour. Hence, Harvard epidemiologist Maimuna Majumder has described both police violence and COVID-19 as public health crises, both of which are driven by ‘systematic racism’.

Exploring the ‘intersectional failures that COVID lays bare’, the African American Policy Forum in collaboration with Intersectionality Matters have launched an insightful series of videos convened by Kimberlé Crenshaw entitled ‘Under The Backlight’. The Black Lives Matter’s Global Network has also published a response to the COVID-19 ethnicity data.

Responses: Anti-racism in action

The problem of racist policing is not limited to the United States. Nor is the issue of racism limited to the police. Racism is a global scourge that shapes our institutions, our behaviour and our thinking.

As Ibram X Kendi has long argued, it is not possible to be ‘non-racist’ in a racist world. Why? Because when racism runs deep into the structures of our society it doesn’t need our explicit support to reproduce itself. It just needs our complicity. Unless we consciously work to name, identify and resist racism we will play a part in reproducing it. And that is how we enable acts of cruelty and violence that we might personally disagree with. What does this all mean? It means that if we want to stop racism, we need to be anti-racist.

Those wanting to find out more about the meaning and practice of anti-racism can take a look at Kendi’s reading list; the Lighthouse Bookshop’s anti-racist book collection; this useful explainer on white privilege; and Janna Jesson’s list of books to ‘check your white privilege’.

There have also been useful calls to action in the US, including Mireille Cassandra Harper’s Guide to non-optical allyship; Corinne Shutack’s list of 75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice; and this Twitter list of opportunities for action beyond donations.

Those seeking to find out more about racism and police violence in the UK can visit the Institute of Race Relations, watch Akala’s talk on the racist framing of crime, which supports racist policing in the UK, read Wail Qasim’s article on the history of racism and policing in the UK, and learn from Aamna Mohdin and Vikram Dodd’s article on policing during lockdown.

SJ Cooper-Knock is Lecturer in International Development at the University of Edinburgh.

(Photo by munshots on Unsplash)

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