Less than two years ago, I released a book with a wild, fictional premise. Nightfall told the story of controversial shootings of black citizens by Minneapolis police, unleashing racial violence. In an outlandish twist, Nightfall posited the existence of groups intentionally inciting and exploiting the violence for their own political and criminal purposes. Farfetched, some of my readers said at the time. My character, Pen Wilkinson, watches the mayhem on TV, appalled, grieved, and outraged by what she sees. Just like all of us, in other words, here in the Twin Cities of 2020, reacting to a real situation that turned out not to be so farfetched after all.
I don’t do political posts. My views are ably expressed by any number of people on the Internet. But having written on this subject, I can hardly avoid wading into the minefield once more.
I’m afraid I am not surprised by the Floyd case. When I wrote Nightfall, I also wrote a blog post in which I stressed the need to look beyond individual cases and talk about systemic reform to prevent deadly encounters between police and citizens, especially citizens of color. But the reform never happened, and what we saw in the case of George Floyd is the culmination of festering problems that have not been addressed. What we saw was a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black citizen in an act of appalling symbolism as well as horrifying violence.
What struck me was the officer’s casual attitude as he committed this heinous act, fully aware of being recorded but utterly unconcerned about consequences. If George Floyd had not died, that attitude might have been completely justified. Following the usual pattern, there might have been protests, drawn-out investigations, firings followed by reinstatements, fierce, politically polarized public debate, and finally a settlement paid to Mr. Floyd, but funded by taxpayers, not the officers.
There is no question that police officers have an incredibly difficult job, one that requires exceptional wisdom and humility as well as courage and quick decision-making. A compelling case can be made for a significant level of job security for these officers, which ordinary private sector employees don’t have. But everyone needs to be accountable. Everyone. You, me, police, politicians, citizens, protesters. And in the case of people authorized to use deadly force, the need is critical. It seems clear that the system designed to hold police accountable is seriously broken.
What should we do to restore accountability and root out racism? This, I think, is the question we ought to be discussing, rather than being sidetracked by pointless, polarized debates. Can we all just agree that violence is wrong, whether committed by police, rioters, or anyone else? Can we agree that we can support the police while insisting they be held accountable? Or that we can support the right to protest without condoning looting and destruction? To me, this doesn’t seem like rocket science. All it takes is discussing an issue on its own merits, without saying “Yes, but what about . . .”
Now, presented with a no-doubt, unambiguous, caught-on-video act that absolutely everybody can agree was wrong, is this the moment we need? All we have to do, it seems to me, is stick to the subject.