What can I do?
What can I say?
How can I help?
How can I have an impact?
Questions you might hear as the country erupts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. I said a few years back after a couple high profile police killings of black men that white people need to speak up. That’s the bare minimum now.
Writing this in Boise, Idaho I’ve felt myself itching to support a peaceful protest physically. Not many options on that score here. If I was still in New Orleans I’d damn straight be on the march. With vigor. Protests thus far in that city have been delightfully peaceful because city leadership understands how to work with protesters safely. If I was in a city with more risk, like Minneapolis or New York City, I’d gladly march in the face of potential tear gas and rubber bullets. Hell, put me in front. That’d reduce the risk of bad cops opening fire.
But whether a peaceful protest ends well or not, that’s a short-term answer to what George Floyd’s death unleashed. The long-term matters much more.
And the long-term is not simply about accountability for George Floyd’s murder. The long-term is about ongoing, systemic reform of law enforcement and the criminal justice system to address the inequality of living while black in America.
I confess that’s a tough issue for many of us white Americans to come to grips with. My “It’s Time for White People to Speak Up” post covers some of my own journey from right-of-center, middle class white guy to someone who looks very differently at these issues. Living in one of the blackest cities in America (New Orleans), in one the blackest neighborhoods in America (Treme), since added more perspective. Indeed, it radicalized me on this issue, because peeling back the layers of racial injustice in the criminal justice system in Louisiana (and the rest of the Deep South) will turn a pacifist violent with rage.
And you know what? I still don’t know what’s like to be black in America; to live daily in a world where I have to adapt because of the color of my skin.
I don’t have a clue. Because I haven’t lived it.
To put it in different terms, if you live somewhere in America outside the Gulf Coast you hear about bad weather during hurricane season when bad shit happens like Hurricanes Katrina or Harvey. You don’t hear about most of the other severe weather, let alone the near-daily thunder storms during every hurricane season. Well, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott…those were just the hurricanes.
Now imagine what the rest of it is like.
Virtually every black American can share personal stories of injustice and inequality in daily life if you listen and if you have even an ounce of empathy. Don’t know where to hear some? I’ve got a some for you:
- Former King County Executive Ron Sims tale of driving while black in Seattle
- Democratic political operative Addisu Demissie’s recent reflections on little steps he has taken in his daily life to minimize the risk of being a black man in America
- Columnist Mary C. Curtis talking to right-of-center commentator Matt Lewis in a recent episode of his podcast, where much of the discussion is on the reality of being black in America, even as successful, upper-middle class citizens
- Harvard Public Health professor David Williams on an episode of the Ezra Klein Show, similarly spending time talking about the reality of daily life of being a black American and how that affects black people and their health
Perhaps you didn’t need those examples, perhaps you did. Either way, what next to affect long-term change? Let’s talk levels of government:
At the local level:
- Ask candidates for mayor what kind of police chiefs they would hire if the opportunity arises and what kind of policies on use of force and community policing (vs. nonsense strategies like stop & frisk) they support
- Ask candidates for mayor & city council how they propose to improve accountability for bad cops, including taking on the police unions that so often fight for contracts that help keep bad cops on the job and contribute to the culture in law enforcement that so desperately needs to be reformed in some cities
- Ask candidates for prosecutor their views on reducing incarceration for non-violent crimes (especially drugs offenses) in favor of other options. Ask them how their office will hold bad cops accountable
At the state level:
- Ask candidates their views on how to move from a system that favors incarceration to one that favors rehabilitation (since the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated rejoin society at some point)
- Ask candidates their views on reforming sentencing guidelines that sounded good in the tough on crime days of the 80s & 90s but increasingly don’t make sense today
- Ask candidates their views on how to treat non-violent offenders and those guilty of drug offenses (and if the state hasn’t decriminalized marijuana yet ask them while they hell not!)
At the federal level:
- Ask candidates if they support the sentencing and related reforms of the recently implemented First Step Act. Ask them what they think a Second Step Act should look like.
- Ask candidates if they support reforms to eliminate qualified immunity, the flawed legal doctrine that creates perverse incentives for cops to get away with behaving badly because they frequently avoid civil liability for obvious fuck ups
- Ask candidates if they support judges whose jurisprudence errs on the side of civil liberties rather than defers to the power of the state, be that on the left (such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor) or the right (such as Justice Neil Gorsuch)
These are bipartisan issues. The First Step Act passed Congress with bipartisan majorities, and states both red and blue have been passing significant criminal justice reforms in recent years. Current office holders and prospective candidates across the aisle should be held to account on these issues if you care about the death of George Floyd. And if you start asking those questions at virtually any level, you’ll discover very quickly which candidates have cogent thoughts on these issues.
Candidly, that’s the tip of the iceberg on criminal justice reform issues and improving police accountability, so there are less George Floyds and more of this, the police in Camden, NJ walking with protesters, with the chief helping hold the banner:
To truly get to improving the experience of black Americans everyday in America we need more than just criminal justice reform, we need reform of housing policy, education policy, health care policy, and more.
One step at a time.
I can tell you whatever the policy prescription is, to address this issue, we all need to show more empathy. More empathy for our black brothers and sisters. More empathy for people in pain, dealing with experiences we can hardly begin to imagine. Empathy like the words my friend Don wrote with the picture he kindly allowed me to use at the start of this post.
Let us listen to those in pain and who are upset.
And let us respond in the spirit of Genesee County (MI) Sheriff Chris Swanson who took his helmet off, set down his baton, met protesters face-to-face to hear them out…then walked with them when they asked:
And then hero dude followed it up with some raw and real words for the crowd at the end:
That’s the kind of leadership we need.
And as we move forward, maybe you want some better sources of information on criminal justice reform issues. Here are some I value, across the political spectrum (with links to their Twitter handles):
- CNN commentator and activist, Van Jones
- Washington Post journalist and author, Radley Balko
- Vox reporter, Jane Coaston
- Senior Editor at the Dispatch, David French
- Cato Institue VP, Clark Neily
Speaking of French, he wrote a great piece recently (but before the horrible death of George Floyd) talking about the slow change of hearts and minds that needs to happen to address the unjust killing of black people by police.
Changing hearts and minds takes time. I’ve seen first hand how some Constitutional Amendments in the 1860s and federal laws in the 1960s haven’t fixed all racial problems in New Orleans today. Far from it. Undoing the wrongs of hundreds of years and the hearts and minds of society takes time.
For now, let’s act.
I may be living in Boise, but in addition to exhorting others to act, I took action too. I just donated to Eliza Orlins for Manhattan District Attorney, because NYC may be deep blue but its law enforcement establishment is as status quo as they come. I also donated to Jason Williams for District Attorney of Orleans Parrish. The incumbent, Leon Cannizzaro, Jr. is a bad person. His policies are even worse. He’s a poster child for massive incarceration, railroading of the accused, and a general sense of injustice that pervades the worst parts of our criminal justice system. He has been a major contributor to the system that led to my aforementioned radicalization on the issue of criminal justice reform. He can go now.
Which leads me to some of the most important words that have been said in recent days, from Killer Mike. Trust me, they are so very worth your time if you have not listened to them already:
“Plot, plan, strategize and organize and mobilize in an effective way.”
Maybe it’s taking a public stand like my friend Don Rohacek. Maybe it’s contributing to candidates like I just did and speaking out on this as I will continue to do. Maybe it’s engaging with candidates for office and elected officials to demand change. Maybe it’s even getting involved in political campaigns because these are things worth fighting for.
Because George Floyd couldn’t breathe, and that’s not fucking right.