Mitch Albom: George Floyd’s breath was taken, but his words should haunt us all
Updated: May 31, 2020
Shared to our Opinions page from Mitch Albom, originally published by The Detroit Free Press
We were already heading into a long, hot summer of death.
Then a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on the neck of an unarmed black man and left it there until the man expired. And suddenly, a nation afraid to gather in the daylight began rushing en masse into the night.
One life. History has long shown that a single death can spark a revolution. In the case of George Floyd, however, a 46-year-old black man who had lost his job as a security guard because of layoffs in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more than just his death. It was the way he died, in front of our eyes, on video everywhere, pleading for his life, that had angry people spilling into the streets of cities across this country.
At a time when it is dangerous to gather, when it is still against the law in many states to gather, when our very health could be compromised if we gather — by a virus that has already taken more than 100,000 American souls — a single American life was bigger than all of that.
So people gathered. From Minneapolis to Detroit to New York to Atlanta, from L.A. to Kansas City to Las Vegas and other cities. And yes, in some places those gatherings turned violent and in some places there was shooting and in some places stores were burned and windows were smashed and merchandise was stolen. And while all of that is awful and wrong, to focus on it is to be howling at that wrong moon.
Because this is about one life, but for black people in this country, it’s never just one life.
It’s one life after another.
To the streets
These are some of the words George Floyd can be heard saying, pleading as he lay dying beneath the knee of a white police officer for nearly nine minutes:
“I can’t breathe” ...
“Please, the knee in my neck” ...
“My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts” ...
“Don’t kill me” ...
Ask yourself if you could hear all that and be indifferent for all that time. To an unarmed man. To a man already in handcuffs. To a man who, by all video and eyewitness accounts, did not resist arrest. To a man whose suspected “crime” was not threatening anyone, not shooting anyone, not committing any act of violence against anyone — but possibly using a phony $20 bill at a convenience store.
A phony $20 bill? And the man is dead? It’s beyond comprehension. Beyond explanation. But this is the pattern, the maddening pattern, that so many of us who are not African-American can empathize with but never truly absorb.
Because death by police, for black people in this country, is too often over nothing. A $20 bill. Someone selling illegal cigarettes. A cellphone or bottle of pills assumed to be a gun.
Unarmed, yet shot.
Unarmed, yet strangled.
Unarmed, yet dead.
George Floyd is not the first black man to die from a white cop’s indifference. He’s not even the first to die from a chokehold. When something unforgivable happens over and over again, what are people to do? Where does the grief and the anger go?
You see where it goes. It goes to the streets. And the sight of screaming protesters clashing with police in downtown Detroit Friday night sent shivers through our collective memories, and the summer 53 years ago when police brutality and African-American patience exploded.
And the city burned.
Again and again
That was 1967. Yet here we are in 2020, grappling with this same issue. You can pick a year, it just keeps repeating. In 2009, a black man named Oscar Grant was, like George Floyd, pinned down, this time by an Oakland, California, police officer, who kneed him in the head. Another officer shot him in the back.
Grant, like Floyd, was unarmed. Grant, like Floyd, died from the encounter. Once again, there were protests in the streets.
Eleven years ago. What has changed?
The officer who killed Grant got a two-year prison sentence. Other cops charged with killing suspects have gotten similar slaps on the wrist.
So while Derek Chauvin, the now-fired Minneapolis officer, has finally been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — which together carry a maximum of 35 years in prison — few in the black community, I imagine, hold out hopes for justice.
One life after another. What can be done? Yes, there are preventative steps. Eliminate chokeholds and neck restraints from police force techniques. Train more officers in recognizing mental illness. Fire cops with multiple charges of abuse. Change laws on qualified immunity that make it near-impossible to hold officers accountable for obvious misuses of power.
But how do you eliminate indifference? The image of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring his pain, ignoring pleas from bystanders to let him up, to put him in the car, to look at him and see his suffering — quite frankly, to even acknowledge Floyd as a human being — you can’t legislate that out of someone.
That’s in the heart. And in a nation where our hearts are being pulled further away from anyone who is not exactly like us — in race, religion or political views — we can only pray for a force strong enough to counter that.
I would say it is love, but that would invoke only laughter from a cynical nation and leaders who show no comprehension of the word. Love? Kindness? They are closer to weaknesses now than strengths, in the minds of so many who influence us.
You might have thought a common enemy, COVID-19, would pull us all together, make us sensitive to the fragility of life, lead us to treat one another with more compassion. But one cop’s knee on another man’s neck, and all that talk about loving our first responder police force is blown away.
The hot summer is upon us. Anger is simmering. Sometimes the ending of one person’s life grabs as much attention as losing 100,000 others, because cruelty is more shocking than arbitrary death.
The sad truth for black Americans is that there is often so little difference.