June 25, 2020
On May 25th, while in custody, a Black man by the name of George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. George Floyd was not the first to suffer such a fate, but it seems that his death was a real turning point for many people, Black or otherwise, as protests soon erupted the day after his death. These protests were about a multitude of different things. Many called out for police reform, for defunding the organizations, for the reinvestment of money into other areas such as education and other methods of safety, and calls to abolish the police as we know them are being taken up by many stakeholders. While Floyd’s death may have been the spark to light the fuse, the powder keg did not simply materialize there.
While they began in Minneapolis, the demonstrations quickly spread throughout the United States, even after the firing of all four officers involved in Floyd’s death. While the protests sparked the activation of the national guard in Minnesota, it is perhaps no coincidence that Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter, and the former of those charges was later upgraded to murder of the second degree. Chauvin was not alone at the scene of the crime, and the three other officers with him were also charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder, though two of them, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, were later released.
The protests appeared to be predominantly peaceful, though vandalism, shootings, and other acts of violence still occurred, termed as “domestic terrorism in our region” by the mayor of Minneapolis. Instances of the removal or vandalism of statues of people connected to topics such as racism and slavery, such as Confederate General Robert E. Lee, were widespread – though controversial. In connection to the demonstrations, George Floyd’s brother, Terrence, spoke at a Brooklyn demonstration, stating that “at the end of the day, my brother’s gone, but the Floyd name still lives on.” Terrence, however, denounced the violence that was occurring due to his brother’s killing, saying “I’m proud of the protests, but I’m not proud of the destruction. My brother wasn’t about that.” Later, Floyd also spoke directly to the United Nations, asking for them to help Black Americans by investigating the deaths of Black people under the custody of police.
Police responses to protests centred around the use of excessive force have been characterized, ironically, by the use of excessive force against protestors – namely tear gas. And while it may be considered a better alternative to some obviously lethal solutions like real ammunition, it can still kill or seriously injure, as exemplified in the case of Balin Brake, pictured above, who had his eye put out by a tear gas container. According to The New York Times, he eloquently put the situation in the following words: “I’m angry that I was protesting police brutality and fell victim to police brutality”. Still, the police response in some cases has indicated that tear gas was the best option for a bad situation, with a Minnesota police department claiming that “It was only after careful consideration and counsel with the commanders at the scene did the use of gas get approved, which quickly and successfully was instrumental in dispersing an increasingly escalating, dangerous and illegal assembly.”
People from all walks of life have been seen at the protests or supporting them, figures ranging from hip hop musicians like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, all the way to former Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, the city of Toronto’s Chief of Police, and our own Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Politicians and decision makers are not simply sticking their heads in the sand, though, letting the waves of protest pass over them. Minneapolis’ city council had recently vowed to dismantle the existing police system in the city and to replace it with a system that will have input from those that suffered under the current one, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz seems to have a desire to make sweeping reforms as well. On a higher level, both houses of Congress, the Democrat dominated House of Representatives and the Republican ruled Senate, are both proposing bills that would make big changes to American policing. Though the bills include some similarities, such as additional training for those in law enforcement and making lynching (essentially extrajudicial killings) a federal crime, they differ on issues such as no knock warrants and the standards for police misconduct. Time will soon tell what will happen to both bills and all the ideas they contain.
Though the United States is the epicentre of everything regarding these issues, Canada also has its own connection to the protests and to the issue of systemic racism as a whole. Protests have occurred in big cities such as Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto regarding not only George Floyd, but racism in general. Canada by no means has a clean slate when it comes to racism either. Slavery existed in the country for decades, being abolished in 1834, after around 200 years of the practice existing, not to mention the injustice of the Chinese Head Tax and the horrors indigenous people have faced at the hands of Canadians, specifically the residential school system and poor treatment to this day.
This piece is intended to begin a dialogue around issues of systemic racism in North America, and we need to begin this dialogue soon.