June 23, 2020
Will the George Floyd Killing be the Final Straw?
A Summary of What I’ve Been Following and Some Thoughts
By Leonard Chan
So much has already been reported, written, and editorialized on the George Floyd killing that I’m not sure if there is more that I could add to this topic. But as a member of a nonprofit organization whose mission includes fighting racial injustices, I thought it is important that I do try to contribute something to this national and world discussion.
First of all, I’d like to give my support for those that are protesting for justice in the Black Lives Matter movement and for those that are marginalized around the world. I wish I could be doing more than just writing this article.
At California’s governor Gavin Newsom June 5th press conference, he used the following quote (wrongly ascribed to Dante; it was really a spiritual philosopher named Henry Powell Spring who wrote the following), “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Former officer Tou Thao, the Asian American police officer involved in the George Floyd killing, is perhaps emblematic of all of those that stand by without taking action. Are all of us that are not taking an active role in making positive changes also feeling the heat?
Some Background on the George Floyd Incident
If you haven’t been following the news closely, I invite you to read and watch at least these two web pages for background information on this topic.
What were the officers thinking? Was this an act of racism? How could Derek Chauvin callously ignore George Floyd’s cries for help as he lay on the ground gasping for air for over eight minutes? Was there something in Chauvin’s life experience that made him see Floyd as being less than human? The dehumanizing of others often makes it easier to commit violent acts against them.
These are some of the questions that may get addressed in the courts now that the officers have been charged. In the court of public opinion, this is being discussed and will be for many years to come. Here are some of the details for your own review and discussions.
James Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane were rookie police officers that assisted Derek Chauvin by holding down George Floyd. They were the first police officers that arrived on the scene. From the time line of the New York Times’ reconstruction of what happened that day, it appears that Kueng and Lane were having trouble getting Floyd in the back of their patrol car.
When Tou Thao and Chauvin arrived on the scene, Chauvin proceeded to pull Floyd out of the patrol car and pin Floyd to the ground. Was the move by Chauvin meant to demonstrate to the rookies a neck restraint procedure that Chauvin had used in the past to suppress non-behaving suspects? Had Thao seen his partner use that procedure before? Thao’s body language seemed to suggest that he didn’t want to get involved in Chauvin’s demonstration.
There are some interesting articles on whether or not the Minneapolis police department condoned neck restraint procedures for subduing suspects. Although chokeholds that constrict air from getting to the lungs is pretty much considered unacceptable by most police departments across the country, strangleholds (which includes a knee to a neck) that restrict blood flow to the brain is still considered usable by many departments. The Minneapolis police was one of those departments.
CNN reported that the Minneapolis police had used neck restraints procedures 428 times since 2012, two-thirds of these restrained people were black, and four were even Asian American.
Most police analyst weighing in on the Floyd case believed that Chauvin was not following correct guidelines for neck restraint procedures and was also causing positional asphyxia (suffocation; CNN, Washington Post, USA Today, and NBC News).
Derek Chauvin was a police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department for nearly 19 years. He had 18 prior complaints against him. In one complaint, he received an oral reprimand for using derogatory language, a demeaning tone, and other language that merited discipline.
Interestingly enough, Chauvin worked off duty as a security guard for 17 years at the same club, the El Nuevo Rodeo, that Floyd had worked at. The club owner stated that “I wouldn’t characterize them as knowing each other,” but she added, “We all worked together certain nights and they would have crossed paths.”
The day of Chauvin’s arrest, Chauvin’s wife files for divorce. Another interesting note, Chauvin’s wife is Laotian Hmong and competed in the Mrs. Minnesota pageant.
Could Chauvin’s failing marriage have played a part in his mental disposition on the day Floyd’s killing?
Nothing in CNN’s reporting would seem to indicate that the rookie officers Kueng and Lane were racist. James Alexander Kueng earned a sociology degree from the University of Minnesota and could speak, read, and write Russian. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Courier Daily, Kueng’s lawyer stated that Kueng self identifies as being black and even participated in a campaign to build a school in Haiti.
Thomas Lane earned a degree in criminology from the University of Minnesota and had worked as a juvenile corrections and assistant probation officer. He also had various jobs as a waiter and bartender at restaurants. Lane also volunteered to help Somali youths with their homework and tutored them in science and math activities. Lane’s lawyer stated that Lane had jumped into the ambulance with Floyd and gave Floyd CPR.
Tou Thao, a Hmong American, served on the Minneapolis Police Department for approximately nine years. He had six complaints filed against him as a police officer. One case involved excessive use of force during an arrest. He dropped out of community college and had various jobs before joining the police force. Not much else is known about him, except that he has a wife and kids and lives in the Minneapolis area.
George Perry Floyd Jr. was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but was raised by his divorced mother in a poor crime ridden public housing community in Houston, Texas, called Cunney Homes. The locals called it the Bricks.
His friends and relatives called him Perry, but many also knew him as Big Floyd. He was over six feet tall by the time he reached middle school, but his nickname also fit his big personality and great sense of humor.
In high school Floyd would go on to excel in football and basketball. His prowess on the court helped him earn a scholarship to play basketball at South Florida State College. He would later transfer to Texas A&M in Kingsville, but ended up dropping out and returning to the Bricks.
For a time, he tried his hand as a rapper, but when that didn’t work out his life turned for the worse – drugs, petty crimes, and then finally a convictions for aggravated robbery that would land him in jail for four years.
After getting out of prison, Floyd returned to the Bricks and began to turn his life around at the age of 39. He was active in his local church and nonprofit organizations, and also cared for his mother after she had a stroke. The pastor of his church even described Floyd as a father figure for kids in the community.
His involvement with the church would lead him to a program that helped him relocate to Minnesota, which was thought to be a safer community and a fresh start. There he found various jobs, working as a truck driver, guard, and bouncer.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Floyd suffered another setback when he lost his job and even caught the virus. Upon recovering from the virus, he would have his final stroke of bad fortune when he went to get some cigarettes that one fateful evening of May 25th.
The Difficulties in Getting Justice in the Courts
A radio program called Radiolab had an interesting story about the case that set the legal precedence being used over and over in police excessive use of force cases. The case that is being used by the accused police officers’ lawyers is the Graham v. Connor case. Graham v. Connor essentially set the standard that if the police acted in a reasonable manner, based on how the officers thought in the moment of the incident, then they could not be found guilty. Based on this standard, an officer could come up with any reasonable explanation and get off the hook.
How this applies to the Floyd case is also discussed at the end of the Radiolab program. The lawyer expert on the program concluded that Chauvin would probably not be using the reasonable use of force defense but that the other three officers might.
We should not be surprised if convictions are not made against at least some of the police officers in the Floyd killing. Until there is a case that challenges or reinterprets the Graham v. Connor ruling is won in the court system, it looks unlikely that there will be many convictions in police excessive force trials.
What Else Can We Do
This leaves it to the people and law makers to make changes. Just what should those changes be? There’s lots of media reporting and discussion on this topic. The two avenues most spoken about are reforms and defunding (dismantling and transforming).
After listening to and reading some of these reports, it reminded me of a short article I wrote back in May of 2004 on “Why do Good People do Bad Things.” The article was a quick summary of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s paper on the topic (since then, he wrote a book on the same subject called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil).
The conclusion of this article is that situations can turn good people into evil doers – anyone of us has the potential to do bad things under the right circumstances. Institutions and systems where there is an imbalance of power such as with prison guards and prisoners, police and disadvantaged individuals tend to bring out the worse in people.
Sometimes when a system is so broken, it’s beyond reform and best to start over. This was the conclusion that Minneapolis city council member Steve Fletcher has articulated in interviews and discussions on several radio programs (The Takeaway 32:47 and 1A 18:12). According to Fletcher, Minneapolis’ police department has tried reform measures, many of the measures that some are suggesting now.
The Minneapolis police department uses body cameras, but it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference. They had extensive implicit bias training (watch or read an interesting PBS News Hour story on implicit bias training) where Fletcher observed officers resisting learning. “You can’t force a culture that really doesn’t want to learn to learn,” said Fletcher. Attempts to fire aggressive officers didn’t work because arbitrators would often be too lenient – Chauvin was a prime example of this. They attempted to improve recruitment standards, yet new recruits like Lane and Kueng failed to use their better judgement to stop what was happening. Suggestions of a residency requirement where officers would need to live in Minneapolis were preempted by state law from doing that. They had different ideas about properly doing community policing. Fletcher believed that there was not enough trust building and too much things like pretext stops that destroyed trust.
After two and a half years of attempting reforms, Fletcher said that he learned “a lot about the deep structural problems that are really not within our power to overcome.”
Fernandez states that “For too long, the focus on police reform has been dominated by reforms that try to reduce the harms of policing rather than rethink the overall role of police in society.
“Fundamentally, what defunding means is a shift of power and resources away from punitive and harmful institutions like policing and into community based supportive services. So really what we’re talking about is cutting the astronomical amount of money that our government spends on law enforcement and giving that money to more helpful services like job training, counseling, and violence prevention programs.”
What many of the people that are advocating for defunding of the police support is not the abolition of the police, but what Fernandez’s position calls for – reallocation of funds to other services that could better support communities and make crime less likely to begin with. In addition, much of the tasks that the police now do could be taken over by social and community workers that would take a less confrontational approach.
For example, in the case of George Floyd, perhaps a drug or medical specialist could have been called to help Floyd instead. The caller from Cup Food (the store that Floyd had bought cigarettes from) to 911 seemed to be more concerned that Floyd was drunk, than whether or not he used a fake $20 bill. They seemed willing to forgive his use of the fake bill if he had just returned the cigarettes. Perhaps a specialist would have been able to persuade Floyd to return the cigarettes and get him home safely.
Change is Not Easy – Arming Ourselves With Knowledge
There are many studies, articles, and even historical analysis of racial disparities as it relates to policing. This topic is much more complex than I can cover in this article.
Even without fully researching and understanding these studies and articles, it is clear that people are dying needlessly at the hands of our police and minorities are disproportionately the ones being killed.
Understanding why it’s happening and figuring out what to do may be beyond most of us to figure out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand real change. Everyone can do better – the government and ourselves.
As we advocate for change, it is important that we stay involved, keep informed and educated, and keep an open mind to sweeping transformation.
Change, particularly when it involves people’s livelihoods and investment in a set system, is extremely difficult. Some politicians in government are already lining up to resist any change, failing to keep an open mind, and demonizing their political opponents as radicals.
Perhaps because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting extra time it may be giving us, we currently have more attention and focus on this movement. We live in a distraction filled world and the next crisis may knock the George Floyd story from our view. So that is why we should not squander this opportunity and do whatever we can to make meaningful changes now.
Florence (Hongo), the head of our organization, always saw AACP’s role as arming the change makers with knowledge.
Keep reading and learning. Don’t forget to challenge your own assumptions and become aware of your own hidden biases.
Further Reading and Viewing
Here are some additional interesting articles and videos that I came across during the course of writing this article.
Learning About Racism
Former teacher and activist Jane Elliott’s eye-opening 1968 racism experiment with her third grade class -PBS Frontline: A Class Divided
Jane Elliott on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes demonstration in Britain
National Geographic’s article from the race issue: For Black Motorists, a Never-Ending Fear of Being Stopped
Problems with Our System
Principles of Policing and Ideas on Reforms
Why Asian Americans Need to Get Involved
Author Jeff Yang’s CNN op-ed: It's time for Asian Americans to unite in solidarity with black Americans
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