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Unease, Inaction and Time for Reckoning

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The video of police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd joins a heartbreaking library of footage of the abuse and death of Black Americans at the hands of those charged with protecting them under the law. It is an archive vast enough — and growing amid the very protests against such systemic violence — to test one's capacity to feel the suffering afresh each time, to still be shocked.

There's a contemptuous look in Chauvin's eyes, perhaps not surprising for someone who had 17 complaints filed against him and had been involved in three shootings before he became a household name and was charged with Floyd's murder. It's rife with entitlement and privilege — the look of someone untouchable, someone protected by a badge and a gun and a thin blue line.

And there they are, his fellow officers standing guard as Floyd's pleas get more frantic and the distress rises in onlooker's voices. Not one of them pulls their fellow officer off a dying man. Not one of them steps in to stop a murder in progress. They're familiar, too, in their unease and inaction.

Police like Chauvin don't exist in a vacuum. They thrive under the protection of fellow officers who choose to protect each other above all else. But they're not the only ones. Non-black people shield officers like these every day with a similar unease and inaction, shrugging off "a few bad apples," choosing to protect the system that gives them comfort instead of human life. After all, how many of these videos have we seen now?

There is no way through and beyond a tradition of injustice without admitting to it and laying claim to every contribution, every time non-black citizens have accepted their abuse and killing, including sins of omission. The Asian officer in the video has brought into the fore discussions of Asian anti-blackness and sparked conversations long overdue in Asian American communities and families. Like any conversations about racism, these can be hard and contentious, but not having them is to stand idle while people like George Floyd can't breathe.

Law enforcement is not the only profession that needs a reckoning. Watching and reading news coverage of police brutality and the protests and rioting it has spawned is to watch some of the same tropes that paved the way here recycled. We see more attention given to busted windows and injured white people than the deaths of people of color. Stories lean on easy photo ops with police rather than concrete changes in training and protocol. And not nearly enough black reporters are assigned to cover law enforcement, criminal justice and the recent protests — our own paper included.

And as we watch the president of the United States call protesters "thugs" and tweet "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" — borrowing segregation-era language that prompted Twitter to take the unprecedented step of saying the president had violated rules against "glorifying violence" — those who voted him into office must own that, too. His supporters, die-hard or not, must reckon with what we saw on June 1, as National Guard troops and police attacked peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets, apparently to clear Lafayette Park so the president could pose for a photo outside a church.

As tear gas drifted through the park and peaceful protesters fled, the president promised to invoke the Insurrection Act — a more than 200-year-old law that allows him to use the U.S. military to suppress civil disorder — and deploy armed troops if state or city leaders fail to take actions "necessary to defend life and property." Easy enough to infer whose life and whose property.

As this edition of the Journal heads to press June 2, it's unclear what morning will bring. But as Americans pick through the literal and metaphorical rubble, each of us needs to look at what we own in this. What did we ignore instead of confront? What did we let slide in a conversation or a post for our own comfort? What bargain did we make to feel powerful? What did we value above decency and equity when picking our leaders? Who were we willing to sacrifice to keep peace in our own circles? Only once we have made a real accounting can the real work of correcting begins.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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