George Floyd: A Transitional Justice Martyr

Image by Eric Kim

On the evening of Memorial Day, May 25th, of this year, Minneapolis Police Department officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane responded to a call reporting the use of a counterfeit $20 bill and possible intoxication. They encountered George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, and placed him under arrest. Once handcuffed and taken to the squad car, Floyd seemed distressed, expressed that he suffered from claustrophobia (the fear of being kept in closed, narrow, or confined spaces) and that he could not breathe. Nine minutes after he was handcuffed, at 8:17 PM, Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao, also of the city’s police department, arrived on the scene. Chauvin struggled to get Floyd into the backseat of the car and ultimately decided to lay him onto the road face down.

What followed was Chauvin, Kueng, and Lane applying force with their knees to their captive’s neck, back, and legs, respectively. Floyd stated once again that he could not breathe, adding a “please” to the man literally bearing down on his neck. The police called for non-emergency and then emergency medical assistance, but Chauvin remained on Floyd’s neck. Floyd states, again, that he cannot breathe and begged the officer to remove his knee from his neck. Chauvin replied by yelling “Get up, get in the car” – an order the pinned man obviously could not follow. Floyd answered that he would comply, but the officer continued to yell his order while crushing his neck. Floyd stated that he could not move. Chauvin yelled his order again. Floyd let out a pained cry and called for his late mother. Yet again, Floyd stated that he could not get up and comply with the demands of the officer who continued to pin him. Floyd reportedly said some version of “I can’t breathe” sixteen times in less than five minutes.

At 8:25 PM, Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, yet Chauvin remained on top of him. When bystanders demanded he get off, the officer unholstered what is believed to be mace while Thao stood between his partner and the citizenry – his back to the unresponsive yet still restrained man. Allegedly Lane asked twice if Floyd should be rolled over and was refused by Chauvin – the officer only got up when it was requested by a medic who arrived with an ambulance twenty minutes after the initial arrest. Floyd was loaded into an ambulance and EMS requested support from the fire department. When the firefighters arrived, they allegedly received no help from the officers, delaying their ability to help the unconscious man. Floyd went into full cardiac arrest and was officially pronounced dead just one hour later, at 9:25 PM. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, an unarmed man whose crime was allegedly paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit bill was tortured to the point of death by sworn officers of the City of Minneapolis.1

The night of May 26th, protests demanding justice for Floyd erupted across the city. On May 27th, solidarity protests began in Los Angeles, California as well as Memphis, Tennessee. Protesters in Louisville, Kentucky, Brunswick, Georgia and Phoenix, Arizona joined shortly thereafter, following the brutal police killings of Breonna Taylor and Dion Johnson and the murder (by civilians Travis and Gregory McMichael) of Ahmaud Arbery. On May 28th, protests began in New York City and on May 29th they began in Atlanta, Georgia. Protesters continued to show their support, with new protests beginning everyday across the country. On June 2nd, a week after protests began, almost 60,000 people took part in a protest march in Houston, Texas – the city where George Floyd was born.

An incident of police brutality that occurred on the streets of a major American city became the flash point for an inferno that would soon go global.

The tragedy of Floyd’s death sent a spark that ignited a miasma of social justice-related fumes around the world. First, the United States creeps closer to the end of an election year that will determine if the most divisive and belligerent president in our history is reelected. Additionally, there is the continued advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement that has been active since the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman.

In Australia, May 26th was National Sorry Day, a day of remembrance for the indigenous peoples abused by settler colonialism. By June 6th, a protest movement that opposed racial profiling, police brutality, and the hundreds of indigenous deaths in police custody since the early 1990s began across the country. June is also LGBTQ Pride Month—a month dedicated to commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. Meanwhike, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that had been ongoing since March of 2019 then aligned in solidarity with those occurring in the United States.

As protests—specifically those that spun out of the tragedy in Minneapolis—moved through cities across the country and world, they gained what could be considered a “transitional power.” According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, “Transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.” The term has academic roots in the early 1990s related to how post-Cold War former Soviet republics dealt with the end of totalitarianism.3 In 2017, the Center’s President, David Tolbert, referred to the removal of New Orleans’s Confederate monuments as “an important moment of moral clarity and civil courage” at a time when many in positions of power would rather ignore, dodge, or even deny aspects of our country’s racist history.

The removal of these monuments waged a war on white supremacy. Hundreds of racist, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and their assorted allies descended on Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee, a man who betrayed his oath to the United States to fight for the traitorous Confederacy. He eventually became the Confederacy’s General-In-Chief, which fought for a proto-nation seeking to continue to hold black and brown human beings as chattel slaves. To face these individuals head on, removing statues of white supremacists such as those of Lee are important steps toward addressing our nation’s festering wounds.

As President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”4 In cities across the United States and around the world, people live alongside and in the shadow of monuments glorifying racist and colonialist historical figures and events that did not deserve reverence in their own time – let alone the present. People move through the official channels of power to remove such structures and are commonly denied. Therefore, rituals of civil disobedience—such as the annual painting of Christopher Columbus in faux blood to strip away the hagiographic veneer—aim to redress the government’s bigoted inefficacy. As the protests moved through American cities and went overseas, the protestors became racially and ethnically diverse forces that took the opportunity to remove the structures from their places of prominence. Setting aside the question of criminal vandalism and the larger question of destroying communities in protest, the removal of the monuments continues the war on white supremacism Tolbert described in New Orleans. At time of writing, the protests that started in Minneapolis have triggered a movement that has claimed many white supremacist monuments in its wake.

On May 31st, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Alexandria, Virginia removed their statue Appomattox from an intersection and the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama removed a statue to Confederate soldiers and sailors in defiance of state law. On June 5th,, the Fredericksburg, Virginia city council voted to remove a historic slave auction block from the roadside and intern it in a museum as the mayor of Mobile, Alabama ordered a statue of Confederate Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes to be removed. Later, protestors in Birmingham, Alabama toppled a statue of Confederate Naval Captain Charlies Linn. On June 6th, protestors in Richmond, Virginia toppled a statue of Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham. On June 8th, protestors in Bristol, England dumped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbor and across the pond the city of Louisville, Kentucky relocated their statue of Confederate Major and later United States Brigadier General John B. Cattleman. On June 9th, a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed by local authorities in London, England and in Antwerp, Belgium a statue of King Leopold II, the monarch who presided over the Rubber Terror in the Congo, was removed after being vandalized. In the United States, the city of Jacksonville, Florida removed its Confederate monument overnight while in Richmond, Virginia, protestors dumped a statue of Christopher Columbus in a lake. A judge temporarily halted Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s plans to remove Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, and protest movements in Australia appear to be taking aim at statues from their settler-colonial past. All the while, it appears the global outcry infused new life into the Rhodes Must Fall campaign targeting reverence of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. Additionally, on June 5th, the U.S. Marine Corps banned the Confederate Battle Flag on bases in all forms and four days later, the U.S. Navy and Army followed suit.

While not a complete list and one that does not address announced or planned removals, the list shows what had already been done by the citizenry and, as a direct result, those with the power to legally remove/relocate these monuments. Throughout June there have been many more cases of removed statues, even unfortunate cases of statues that deserve to stand as well as cultural shifts such as name and logo changes. Aunt Jemima is in not as serious in addressing the wounds of the nation as Robert E. Lee, but the conversation that has been taking place in the public square has had extensive reach nationally and internationally.

Amid the chaos, there is hope and transformation. If those with the power to identify, contextualize, and remove/relocate shrines to white supremacy, slavery, and the massacre of indigenous people act there will be no need for outside actors to take it upon themselves to topple them in protest. Things can improve as we move towards a better society. Case in point: Forsyth County, Georgia. In 1912, Forsyth County used racial terrorism to violently drive approximately 1,100 African Americans over the county line. In 1987, Oprah Winfrey met a vocal and unapologetic force of white supremacists when she visited the county for her program. But on June 6, 2020, over nine-hundred protestors of all backgrounds held signs, chanted, and honked car horns in the county seat of Cumming. A rumored white supremacist counter protest, the specter of the Georgia Upcountry’s sins, never appeared.5

The brutal murder of George Floyd was avoidable. And in the wake of this tragedy a grieving city transformed his preventable death into a global movement. Buried in the city of Houston, alongside the mother he cried out to, is a man that has become a martyr for, among other things, transitioning from a society that pretended to be blind to the damage caused by worshiping racists as heroes to one finally addressing its most flawed cultural norms. While we lack the ability to reverse what occurred in Minneapolis or to reverse any of the historic injustices committed by many figures who still have statues raised globally, we can continue the work that began in one American city and make the public square one that is not a reminder of the crimes that we collectively decided to ignore. We can choose to transition into a better society.

Michael E. Carter is an adjunct professor of history at Kean University. In his research, he focuses on colonial genocide in the Western Hemisphere, primarily the destruction of Native Americans. You can follow him on Twitter at @DeckofCarter.

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References

[1] Evan Hill, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis and Robin Stein, “8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” New York Times, June 9, 2020.

[2] Derrick Bryson Taylor, “George Floyd Protests: A Timeline,” New York Times, June 9, 2020.

[3] “What is Transitional Justice?”, International Center for Transitional Justice, accessed June 10, 2020 and David Tolbert, “Addressing Our Tortured History, One Monument at a Time,” International Center for Transitional Justice, June 22, 2017. Tolbert’s article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

[4] Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Speech Files. Address on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962. Page 37.

[5] Terry Gross, “The ‘Racial Cleansing’ That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Forsyth County, Ga.,” National Public Radio, September 15, 2016; OWN, “Oprah Visits a County Where No Black Person Had Lived for 75 Years | The Oprah Winfrey Show | OWN,” 4:36, Jan 2, 2015; Michael King, “Hundreds Turn Out at Forsyth County Civil Rights Protest,” 11Alive WXIA, June 6, 2020.

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