Ben Crump | Opinion contributor
This year will be remembered as the year of the pandemics, both the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1619 pandemic — the plague of racism that began when the first slave ship carrying Africans in bondage reached our shores. It’s a plague that continues today as Black men and women are killed before our eyes as though their lives had no value.
It’s been about six months since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Americans live, and nearly four months since George Floyd’s heart-rending death awakened the world to the long, continuing shadow cast by systemic racism.
Last week in Minneapolis, we heard the expected defense of those who would exonerate the officers who killed Floyd — the “blame the victim” defense. They claimed that Floyd died of a drug overdose rather than from the asphyxiation the whole world observed as Derek Chauvin dug his knee a little deeper into Floyd’s neck, and other officers pressed their knees into Floyd’s back. Defense counsel asks us to disbelieve our own eyes and ignore the independent autopsy that ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation.
The only overdose that killed Floyd was an overdose of excessive force and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department. Floyd was lucid and cooperative, obeyed commands, and had situational awareness when he died. Aware that he was being killed, Floyd told officers that he couldn’t breathe and pleaded for his life, but the officers leaned in harder rather than checking his condition and rendering assistance.
It was the knee of the entire Minneapolis Police Department that extinguished his life, with its failure to properly recruit and train officers and hold them accountable.
Now, in classic police playbook fashion, Floyd is being killed a second time, as the official story line seeks to destroy his character and again render his life not worth saving.
Floyd’s death served as a national wake-up call to the pervasive racism that threatens so many Black lives, but the evidence both preceded and postdates Floyd in an exhausting, unending march to the morgue.
Since Floyd’s death, more than 300 people have been killed at the hands of police, according to data from Mapping Police Violence, which has, as of the publication of this column, tracked deaths through Sept. 6. Of the deaths recorded from May 26 through Aug. 31, 20% were Black, even though Black people make up just 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to data cited in a CBS News report.
During that time, the racial disparity in police killings got even worse. Black people are now 3.3 times more likely than white people to be killed by police — a 10% increase just since Floyd was killed.
We don’t know the names of all the Black people who became statistics in 2020’s pandemic of racism, but we do know some: Breonna Taylor, killed by Louisville police as she was sleeping while Black. Ahmaud Arbery, killed by neighborhood vigilantes in Brunswick, Ga., for jogging while Black. Jacob Blake, killed by police in Kenosha, Wis., despite being unarmed and posing no threat as he tried to get his children out of a volatile situation while Black. Dijon Kizzee, killed by Los Angeles police as he was bicycling while Black. And Daniel Prude, hooded and suffocated by Rochester, N.Y., police while having a mental health crisis while Black.
This pandemic of racism and genocide is not new. The pattern is well known to Black people in America. Every day, Black people train their children to avoid encounters and behaviors that could increase their already excessive risk of becoming a statistic. This results in understandably high rates of anxiety and depression in the Black community.
But 2020 may well be remembered as the year that America’s eyes were finally opened to the pandemic of racism and its deadly consequences. The lingering question is, do we have the will to cure it?
Will we root out the implicit biases that cause Black people to be viewed as dangerous, criminal, guilty and less than other citizens?
Will we change the relationship between the police and the communities they serve —evolving police from a paramilitary force to one whose mission is to build relationships and promote peace in our communities?
Will we rethink the War on Drugs and the devastating effects it’s had on Black communities, resulting in pervasive over-policing, excessive searching and over-incarceration that has ruined Black lives and Black families and left generations of Black children parentless?
Will we finally insist on police accountability and demand that deadly force be used only in the most extreme situations, when an officer’s life is in imminent danger?
Will we ensure that all police wear functional body cameras, recognizing that video evidence is essential to knowing the truth — and that it will not only convict the guilty but exonerate the innocent?
We have the power to make sure the victims of the lingering 1619 pandemic did not die in vain. We have the power and the responsibility to say their names until we change how Black people are policed in cities across America.
The reforms just announced by the City of Louisville as part of the settlement in the civil case in the death of Taylor point the way toward more meaningful police reforms.
Building on Breonna’s Law, which outlaws no-knock warrants, the reforms have the potential to build stronger relationships between police and the community by incentivizing officers to live where they patrol and to volunteer with community organizations. The Louisville reforms demonstrate the power that can come from saying a name — in this case, Breonna — over and over until we get change.
That’s how we live up to our American ideals, build a more perfect union, and cure the pandemic that has claimed even more Black lives than COVID-19 — the 1619 pandemic that has perpetuated 400 years of racism and death.
Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney and founder of the national law firm Ben Crump Law, based in Tallahassee, Fla. Crump represents the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.