Photo by Joe Brusky

by George Martin

George Floyd’s daughter Gigi, 6, shouted “Daddy changed the world!” after her dad’s arrest-death. The country and the world saw George Floyd’s life squeezed out of him by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. Since his death on May 25, 2020, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement mobilized over seven million people marching to end police violence and racism in big cities and small towns across the US along with millions around the world. The BLM grew in two weeks as much as it had in two years.

As comedian Dave Chappell says, “The young people are driving the car and I’m enjoying riding in the back seat.” Here and across the country, the decentralized BLM has spawned articulate, passionate, and nonviolent young leaders leading marches throughout many communities. They are earning media exposure, educating people, and working for transformative change. I applaud them and drive my car in their marches to support them and to maintain safe distance in this COVID-19 Pandemic.

Yes, some violence has occurred, but the vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, with relatively few exceptions such as people taking criminal advantage or outsiders destroying property and perpetrating violence with the police under the cover of the demonstrations. I am so glad to see young leaders, especially locally, standing up against violence and staying true to their message.

Movements include culture and art. The murals on Holton & North and the street art on Locust & MLK are powerful and well done, reflecting the BLM movement. Much appreciation to the artists for their contributions to the movement and our community.

With the problem of racism and police brutality existing all my life and back to the end of slavery, why is this explosion of public sentiment happening now?

Why was the death of George Floyd so impactful? 

Much credit is due to citizens’ cell phone video documentation and to others that captured the many other instances of injustice and police misconduct. We and the world saw George Floyd dying in front of our eyes for a lengthy eight minutes and forty-six seconds. We heard George Floyd narrate his own death, declaring, “I can’t breathe” and calling out for his mother. For the first time we saw the faces of both the victim and murderer in the same frame. We knew, then, the offending officers name, Derek Chauvin. We all saw the look of impunity on Chauvin’s face staring into the camera with his hands in his pockets, knowing that he was killing Floyd.

We have heard the story about a bad apple in the barrel; but if that bad apple has been able to survive, to thrive; there is something seriously wrong with that barrel. Chauvin had sixteen complaints of brutality against him and only one reprimand. The barrel has other bad apples; the Minneapolis Police Department had forty-four incidents of knee on the neck strangulation during recent years. The barrel contains district attorneys who do not charge the police with misconduct yet work alongside police to arrest “other” criminals. The barrel also contains the grand jury system which is secretive and designed to protect defendants who have serious charges. Prosecutors have great influence on grand juries while they determine probable cause for criminal charges.

And the barrel contains racially biased judges who make the ultimate decisions.

While researching this article, it came to light that 80% of coroners were influenced by their supervisors to change their autopsies in favor of the police (per CBS). Remember in 2011, Milwaukee’s Derek Williams saying, “I can’t breathe” while dying neglected in the back of a police squad car? The coroner initially blamed his death on sickle cell disease, a blood disorder found in some African Americans which medically has nothing to do with breathing (RW Currents Article, November 2012).

Some say training is the answer, especially implicit bias training whose design did not include standards for evaluation, and therefore its effectiveness has not realistically been evaluated, and at the same time some officers admit and even brag about ignoring it.

Many, and especially the BLM, say that defunding the police is the answer. Defunding is not dismantling the police. Those who want to maintain the status quo promote the fear of lawlessness in equating defunding to dismantling. Defunding is a process of re-imagining policing and reallocating budgets to better serve the community.

A policeman’s job entails dealing with criminals — enough in itself — but also with domestic violence, schools, minor drug violations, the mentally ill and the homeless. In re-structuring policing duties, much can be assigned social workers, counselors, psychologists, and mental health workers, allowing the police to focus on crime. Hence, defunding is really re-allocating part of the police budget to other professionals in human services such as mental health, education, drug abuse and other social services like housing. This allows for a better focus and better policing.

Locally, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) ended their nearly half-million-dollar contract with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD). The contract covered the cost of six police officers trained to respond to incidents and special events at schools. MPS decided to invest those funds in students and support social services.

The Milwaukee Common Council proposed a 10% police budget cut in the city’s 2021 budget and re-allocating those funds to services and agencies that address racism, poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and other underlying causes of criminal behavior.

As we work to change the police culture from gladiators to guardians, the police unions are the defenders of that gladiator culture. Police unions are the only labor union that negotiates impunity from prosecution. They provide funding to officers outside of government budgets through secretive police foundations such as the Fraternal Order of Police which has national impact by lobbying and blocking key presidential appointments. Police unions should adjust to a new era of policing without militarization and not be part of the problem.

The movement against systemic racism and police brutality has grown tremendously. In terms of movement building, BLM is at the Majority Stage with the arrest-death of George Floyd being the catalytic event. Next can be the Success Stage with the movement achieving one or more of its demands.

Many of us worry that, as with other such moments in the past, this one may slip away without our society really doing the deep work of facing our collective demons: the systemic racism and police violence inherent in the soul and psyche of our country. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

When asked the question, the majority respond that we have to change things. Many want immediate change. Most focus entirely on the police. Some talk of working on the root causes. Some talk of voting. Some talk of the power structure as being the problem.

We talk like the power structure is an insurmountable institution. Power is people.

Power is the people who write, vote for, sign, enforce and judge the laws. People of power are not just the elected law makers: president and congress, governors and state legislatures. Additionally, ‘down ballot’ people of power are our local elected governments: mayors and county executives, alderman and supervisors, district attorneys and judges who implement law and where deemed utilize law enforcement. All are the people of the power structure, that can affect continued racial injustice and police brutality. All of these people have impact on that rotten apple barrel that we talked about earlier. Some of these people are in that rotten barrel.

Much of the power structure consists of people who are elected to office. Because of that, many feel that voting is our best path to change. We know that many of us don’t vote due to a lack of trust, a lack of change after voting, along with apathy, cynicism, despair, voter suppression and feelings that our vote doesn’t count.

The state of our democracy and the lives of people of color are at a tipping point.  No matter our feelings about voting, if you really want transformational change, whether it be police accountability, systemic racism, health care, economic equity, climate change, military spending, etc., 2020 is the time to vote.

Some change can come soon and has in local communities, but we must continue to try, to go and bring others along to vote.

Some suggest that in remembrance of George Floyd’s last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of life:

–       We should each get 9 people to register to vote.

–       We should each get 9 people to the polls to vote.

–       We should each write down 9 things we want to change and send them to our elected officials.

Real transformative change will require us to continue to vote at all levels and to vote for elected officials and candidates who agree with our values. Let’s vote to put an end to racism and police brutality.

George Floyd’s daughter, Gigi, proclaimed that, “Daddy changed the world.” Yes, and we must make it happen by ending systemic racism and police brutality and ushering in a new era of community policing that is better focused on stopping crime and serving all of our communities justly as guardians of our people.       

To accomplish this, we must all VOTE in November for President, US Representative, even-numbered Wisconsin State Senate seats, all Wisconsin Assembly seats, and all District Attorneys to begin to replace those in the power structure who have perpetrated systemic racism and police brutality and also may be inside that rotten apple barrel. We must continue to VOTE every chance we get to gradually place candidates who share our values in the power structure, vote for resolutions and referendums to further progress and clean-out that rotten apple barrel!

P.S. BLM marchers, please get tested for the COVID-19 virus. You may not be showing symptoms, but you could be “asymptomatic,” carrying the virus and able to infect others. This pandemic is real and spreading with increasing cases and deaths among young people ages 19 to 30. It is well documented as to the disproportionate impact on the elderly and people of color. Please get tested now so that we can all live and continue to change the world.

George Martin is an activist, trainer, and lecturer, serving the MLK Justice Coalition, Peace Action, Pace Bene Campaign Nonviolence, Liberty Tree Foundation and is a former Fellow of the MU Center for Peacemaking.