Commentary: We cannot continue to ignore uncomfortable truths about our society
I saw the video of George Floyd’s lifeless body on that concrete, knee still to his neck, and like many others, I felt rage boil up in my chest. When that police officer — Derek Chauvin — pressed his knee harder into George Floyd’s neck, I heard my black brother Byron saying, “I can’t breathe.” As Floyd took his last breath in that video, I saw my black father James taking his last breath. In Floyd’s last moments, as he cried out for his mother and children, I felt myself under that knee, calling out for my mother Rebecca and my little cousins. Yet the killing of George Floyd was no surprise to me, and for that reason, neither are the uprisings in Minneapolis and so many other cities.
I imagine it is the same rage that we are seeing in these protesters. The same rage we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The same rage we saw in Los Angeles in 1992. The same rage we see in cities across America time and time again. When Martin Luther King Jr. was asked about the uprisings happening in 1966, he responded by saying, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear?”
I believe it’s not only what America has failed to hear, but what we have chosen to ignore: the conditions that got us here.
We cannot continue to ignore uncomfortable truths about our society. There have been moments in history where the truth was revealed, and a window of opportunity was provided to remedy injustices, but we never took action and the consequences are haunting us now.
For example, in the mid-to-late 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration investigated the root causes of black rebellions through the Kerner Commission. After years of deep investigation, the commission revealed that bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, inadequate housing, high unemployment and other forms of institutional racism converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African American neighborhoods. Adding fuel to the fire, the state militarized its response to these deadly conditions with police officer violence and National Guard occupation.
The root causes and state violence revealed in the report in 1968 are still with us. We can draw a straight line from black rebellions of the past to what we are seeing today in Minneapolis and elsewhere. We failed in the 1960s to take action to rectify the inequities that caused black rebellions. We can choose a different path today. We can cast judgments about the protesters aside, and replace it with genuine concern for the institutional legacy that led to this deprivation, pain, and anger. We must transform the circumstances, or we will be damned by them.
The decisions we make today will shape the future for the next generation — our kids, nephews, students, and godchildren. I do not want a future where my child might have a knee to his neck because he is black like his daddy.
Now is the time to reimagine our institutions and build a more equitable society where these root causes do not exist, starting with policing. The American Public Health Association’s statement on police violence makes clear that the structural system of law enforcement worsens health outcomes.
The statement also provides context to the history of policing and the challenges of police reform: “Policing was historically deployed for the social control of communities deemed socially marginal. … [I]t evolved from ruling-class efforts to control the immigrant working class in the North and slave patrols in the South. Policies and practices continue to implement and sustain this historical intent.”
Too often, the only response available for people in need of support is the police, which can escalate a crisis and increase the risk of harm for everyone.
The alternative is to fund and support community-based approaches for community safety. Every day, community-based organizations across California are successfully responding to all types of emergency situations. During this current COVID-19 public health crisis, we have seen community-based organizations and communities in general stepping up to ensure vulnerable people are safe and healthy and meeting their emerging needs.
One of our most powerful tools for transforming society is legislation, and there is currently a bill — Assembly Bill 2054 — that will establish the C.R.I.S.E.S. Act pilot grant program, promoting community-based responses. These are the type of solutions we can support that will transform our public health responses and save money and lives.
The tragedy we have witnessed is merely a small glimpse of the terror many Americans are facing every day. Pains that suppress the airways and voices that cry out for humanity and dignity. Pains that have conditioned us to turn our eyes away from computer screens and phones as they have been transformed into places of trauma and memorial services. Pains that make me desperate for a desire to create a world I can raise a black child in, without living in constant fear. Racism has been deeply embedded in our minds and the design of our institutions, causing a disproportionate impact on black, Latinx and indigenous people.
If we are to move forward, we cannot ignore these uncomfortable truths. It is time to learn from them and work diligently to replace the old and build new ways of thinking and new equitable systems, and institutions that value everyone.
Morrison-SmithRead more reactions to George Floyd’s killing: works for the Alliance of Boys and Men of Color at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equality. He lives in Oakland and Spring Valley.
Originally published at https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com on May 31, 2020.