The city of Minneapolis in the U.S. state of Minnesota has seen a third night of mass protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody there on 25th May. The protests have escalated into rioting and looting, with buildings in the city – including the 3rd Precinct of the city’s Police Department – being burned to the ground. The killing of 46-year-old Floyd by a white police officer, who suffocated the man by kneeling on his neck, was caught on video and has gone viral on social media. Protests against the killing have spread across the U.S., from Phoenix to Columbus, with the epicentre remaining in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has denounced the violence but has acknowledged the “pain and anger” felt in the city. President Donald Trump, however, has attacked the protesters and has accused Mayor Frey of a “lack of leadership.” He warned on Twitter that he would send in the National Guard if necessary, adding an inflammatory quote that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” These words echo the racist Miami police chief Walter Headley in 1967, when he used the same phrase to describe action his force would take against (black) “slum hoodlums.” As Quint Forgey of Politico reports, Trump’s apparent encouragement of the shooting of protesters in Minnesota will further inflame this escalating national debate over police racism and brutality.
Floyd’s death at the hands of four white police officers – who have been fired but not arrested or charged – is the latest in a string of high-profile killings of black people by police forces in America. Breonna Taylor of Kentucky, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot and killed by police after they raided the wrong Louisville address in March. In April – two months after the fact – it emerged that two white men had confronted and shot Ahmaud Arbery, a man who was jogging in the city of Brunswick, Georgia, claiming the rights of “citizen’s arrest.” Chillingly, it is suspected that several local officials, including District Attorneys, prevented the two men from being arrested before the case came to the attention of state officials.
Reports emerge on a near-daily basis of the discrimination faced by black Americans at the hands of their own justice and law enforcement system. As writer and journalist Barret Holmes Pitner writes, America’s racist status quo is intrinsically linked to its history of slavery and its discourse surrounding the “supposedly inherent danger…of the black body.” “Black codes,” laws similar to slave codes, were employed in the American South after the abolition of slavery to ensure whites could maintain political dominance over blacks. Due to the collapse of the Reconstruction Civil Rights Movement in 1877, these laws followed black people to all corners of America as they fled the country’s hostile southern states which still actively advocated the reinstatement of slavery in society. From caps placed on black men’s working wages to marriage, property and voting restrictions, these laws oversaw the continuation of black oppression across the United States.
The legacy of these black codes can be found in many aspects of the responses of state and civic authority officials to the current unrest in Minnesota. While Trump encouraged the repetition of historic violence carried out by police forces against civil rights protesters in the 1960s, Minnesota State Police arrested CNN reporter Omar Jimenez – who happened to be black – live on-air while leaving a nearby CNN reporter who is white untouched. Minneapolis City Council Vice-President Andrea Jenkins told CNN that it was another example of the systemic racism that is plaguing U.S. law enforcement.
Ultimately, the words of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz – that Floyd’s death must lead to “systemic change, not more death and destruction” – ring true here. Police forces across the U.S. have condemned the police officers who killed Floyd. Yet the actions of the many hardworking U.S. police officers who believe in racial equality and justice are undermined by a lack of societal reform geared towards dismantling the legacy of the black codes that pervade the U.S. justice and law enforcement system.
The pervasiveness of these codes in American discourse is reflected in the fact that a man publicly viewed as racist now occupies the White House. Trump’s hollow promises to seek any form of justice for Floyd were shattered upon his sharing of words first spoken by a white man who wished to see black protesters dead. Of course, black oppression has sadly always been America’s status quo. But as long as this systemic racism continues to be strengthened by America’s law enforcement and political officials – from police officers to the world’s most powerful head of state – that status quo will remain, and America’s black citizens will continue to pay the price for it.