In Ferguson, Missouri, Mike Brown’s body lay lifeless on the street for four hours after he was shot dead by a white officer. Witnesses described him holding his hands up in surrender before he was killed.
In New York City, Eric Garner told a white officer who placed him in a banned chokehold that he could not breathe before he died. He repeated the phrase 11 times.
In Cleveland, Ohio, 14-year-old Tamir Rice played on a snowy winter morning with a toy gun before he was shot dead by a white officer.
That these horrific deaths of unarmed black men and boys all occurred within four months of each other back in 2014 is no aberration. It is a cycle of American state brutality that has repeated itself year upon year, generation upon generation.
In 2015 it would be Tony Robinson, then Eric Harris, then Walter Scott, then Freddie Gray, then William Chapman, then Samuel DuBose. That some of those names have perhaps already faded from national memory is indicative of the crisis.
In 2016, I sat with Samaria Rice, mother of young Tamir, at a park bench near the site of her son’s death as she lamented: “When I see any of these murders it’s like the government is throwing more salt on an open wound and I’m not having a chance to heal.”
Then, she was referring to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both shot dead by police within a day of each other earlier that month.
Now, in 2020, it is George Floyd, the 46-year-old loving father and staunch community advocate, placed in a knee-to-neck restraint for almost nine minutes by a white officer in Minneapolis. He died in the same metro area as Philando Castile. He uttered the same final pleas as Eric Garner.
The nationwide unrest that follows Floyd’s death is undoubtedly more intense than in 2014; the leadership from the White House immeasurably more reckless, insensitive and life threatening.
And yet, here the country is again.
Violence against black men and women at the hands of white authority is foundational to the United States, and continues to influence its policing culture to this day.
Precursors to modern-day American police departments include violent slave patrols utilized in southern states before the civil war, then the legal enforcement of racist Black Codes, followed by Jim Crow laws. Early municipal departments in growing US cities were overwhelmingly white, and brutalized vulnerable communities routinely. Thousands of lynchings of black Americans by white vigilantes went unpunished by the judicial system. And during the civil rights era and well beyond, peaceful protest has been harshly suppressed by officers sworn to protect and serve.
Just days after I sat with Samaria Rice on that bench in Cleveland, Donald Trump accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president a few miles down the road.
Trump presented himself as the “law and order” candidate during a dark acceptance speech. The former Milwaukee sheriff, David Clarke, led the arena in a chilling round of applause for the Baltimore police officer Brian Rice, who that day had been acquitted on charges related to the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was almost severed during his 2014 arrest. Trump thrust the issue of race and policing firmly into the culture wars he was fomenting.
Trump’s response to police violence was a marked departure from the Obama administration’s. Since Michael Brown’s death, which began a nationwide reckoning and rejuvenated the Black Lives Matter movement, Obama had used his authority to target problematic police departments, including those in Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore, with justice department investigations.
He issued an executive order to curtail local departments’ procurement of certain military-grade equipment. He commissioned a taskforce on 21st-century policing, which memorably urged American law enforcement to move from a “warrior” to a “guardian” culture.
Although America has a sprawling, decentralized system of policing – the country has roughly 18,000 police departments each with their own use of force policy, hiring practices and oversight mechanisms making universal reform near impossible – there were at least signs of tentative progress.
And then Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.
Not only did he fight a PR war against those who knelt during the national anthem to pay tribute to black lives lost and stand against the structural racism underpinning it all. Now a man who called for the death penalty against five black and brown teenagers wrongfully convicted of a rape in Central Park in 1989, had the ability, with a stroke of a pen or a nod to his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to undo any of the progress made.
The administration acted quickly. Within two months of assuming office, Sessions forced a sweeping review of court-enforceable reform packages – known as consent decrees – imposed on numerous problematic police departments. He revoked a directive, issued by the Obama administration, to end the US government’s use of private prisons – a marker of the first black president’s attempt to end the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown men.
Eight months in and Trump freed up local police to once again procure military-grade equipment, and Sessions had effectively cancelled the US government’s flagship community police program.
But beyond the culture wars and quiet policy rollbacks, the most insidious effect of the Trump presidency on the battle for equal justice and fair policing was its partial suffocation of the story itself. Young men continued to die, but in the mania of the Russia inquiry, impeachment and the scandals upon scandal,the movement for black lives received less and less media oxygen.
In 2018, 21-year-0ld EJ Bradford was shot three times from behind by an officer in Hoover, Alabama. The incident barely made the news.
In 2019 Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old rapper, was shot at 55 times by officers in Vallejo, California, as he lay sleeping in his car. His death failed to capture prolonged attention.
In 2020 bloody rioting across Mississippi’s prison system led to more than a dozen deaths. Trump said nothing.
Last year, after a five-year struggle for justice for her son Eric Garner, I sat with Gwen Carr outside NYPD headquarters as she suffered the indignities of an administrative trial that ultimately led to the officer who suffocated her son losing his job – the highest punishment he faced.
“There is no justice at all for Eric,” she said, sitting in the shade during a scorching New York summer day. “They murdered him and if there was going to be justice, it would have been at the point when he said, ‘I can’t breathe’.”
A few weeks later, after years of investigation, the US justice department, now helmed by William Barr, announced that the federal government would not criminally prosecute the officer involved in Garner’s death. The decision was reportedly made by Barr personally. Trump said nothing.
It is local and state leadership that has shaped any positive steps on police reform in recent years.
The Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, intervened in the George Floyd case to elevate former officer Derek Chauvin’s murder charge. In recent years many departments have enforced restrictions on chokeholds and neck restraints.
Earlier this week, Ferguson, which is 70% African American, elected its first black mayor, Ella Jones. “It’s just my time to do right by the people,” she said.
But for many, incremental change is not enough. The words Samaria Rice said in 2016 have resonated with me throughout this period of unrest.
“We need to dismantle the whole system and really rebuild it again.”