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They Can’t Breathe: Notes on the Murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Protests

“I can’t breathe.” That’s what Eric Garner warned New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo eleven times before Pantaleo choked Garner to death in 2015. Nearly five years later, George Floyd issued the same warning to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin before Chauvin killed Floyd.

For the past week, the murder of George Floyd has provoked protests across the country, including right here in Nevada. Instead of just wishing all these protests just “go away”, we need to address the underlying causes for all this unrest.

Yes, this has been happening here.
Photo by Andrew Davey

When protests erupted over the execution of an unarmed young man in Ferguson, then again over the executions of unarmed people in New York City and the Houston suburbs, we preferred to believe that “it couldn’t happen here”. When fascist-led “protests” turned violent in Charlottesville and Portland, we continued to insist that “it couldn’t happen here”. When neo-Nazi terrorists attacked various targets in Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Poway (near San Diego), and El Paso, we continued to claim that “it couldn’t happen here”.

Even when it has happened here, such as police officers attacking the communities they are supposed to “protect and serve”, as well as fascist extremists attacking police officers to launch their “revolution”, far too many of us have continued to live in denial. “Oh, it can’t happen here.” “Well, at least it was stopped before it got out of hand.” “No, racism isn’t really a problem any more.”

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has essentially forced the entire country to drop the cutesy delusions and face reality. Institutionalized racism is a terrifyingly American tradition. Perhaps the difference now is that President Donald Trump’s unabashed embrace of fascism and celebration of racism have forced us to stop pretending that this isn’t happening.

No, this is nothing new.
Photo by Andrew Davey

I can hear it already: “What about the riots? Why must they riot?” I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, we need to understand why these protests are happening.

Even before Sandra Bland mysteriously died in a Waller County jail cell following her mysterious arrest at the hands of a Texas state trooper, before Mike Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, and before Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were executed for being spotted outside while black, this problem traces all the way back to the arrival of European colonizers in the Americas, and it only metastasized with state-sanctioned slavery, “Jim Crow” racial segregation laws, “redlining” to further enforce housing segregation, and police militarization that disproportionately strikes against communities of color.

As we can see above, institutionalized racism has lashed out against American communities of color for just over five centuries. The institutions enforcing this racism have changed over the years, but it’s ultimately the same strain of bigotry infecting us all and inflicting the “American Carnage” of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing societal unrest. 

Yes, this is about way more than just Donald Trump.

 

While President Donald Trump is undoubtedly dousing a motherlode of gasoline to fuel this fire, we can’t afford to pretend this wasn’t a crisis before Trump took office. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and others were all killed before 2016. Trump simply used this crisis to further his neo-Nixonian “law and order” campaign theme, and Trump has since used this theme to cover up his own breaking of the law and his own love for disorder and destruction.

Again, Trump has definitely played a role in worsening this crisis, but state and local authorities haven’t always provided much “resistance”. Despite ample evidence of who the Trump administration has been targeting with its deportation regime, Las Vegas Metro Police and other Nevada law enforcement agencies continued cooperating with ICE. And despite Metro’s and other law enforcement agencies’ promises to “do better”, they’ve continued to exert disproportionate force against Nevada’s communities of color.

This right here explains why some voters of color are skeptical when “well meaning white liberals” (and, for that matter, certain African-American elected officials) assure them that if they just vote this fall to repeal and replace Donald Trump, everything will be better. The murder of George Floyd was just one of multiple officer-involved shootings to occur last month, and these shootings have occurred in both “red states” and “blue states”. It’s really not as simple as pretending this is all because of Trump.

No, a “War on Antifa” will NOT make this “go away”.

Now that we got through all of that, we can discuss the protests, and yes – the riots, that have erupted since George Floyd’s death. First off, notice how here in Nevada and throughout the country, Black Lives Matter movement leaders have called for nonviolent resistance rather than the looting, the arson, and the other destructive actions that have resulted from white “allies” taking the “revolution” into their own hands.

Of course, we don’t have enough evidence (yet?) to know for sure how much of the violence has been caused by white neo-Nazi agitators, white Antifa activists, and/or other white folks who have used the George Floyd protests as an excuse to get violent. It’s just that we have enough evidence of outside elements fomenting this unrest that it’s simply irresponsible for the usual “well meaning white liberals” to lecture communities of color on violence that they’re not responsible for.

 

It’s incredibly ironic that the Trump administration’s rush to threaten a criminal crackdown on Antifa networks speaks to Antifa activists’ very claim that they must act to fight the fascists. But really, we can’t just pretend that this will all just “go away” once Antifa is gone. The police shouldn’t blame their own acts of violence on Antifa, and we should stop pretending that Trump and other right-wing politicians are making any valid points when they deflect blame onto Antifa and/or the black and brown activists who are trying to make their point while avoiding further harm.

As someone who probably qualifies as “well meaning white liberal”, I feel incredibly uncomfortable addressing this crisis from my own place of privilege. Still, I went ahead and wrote this anyway because we can’t keep pretending that “it couldn’t happen here”. It has happened here. It has happened to George Floyd and to many more people of color. And unless and until we actually address the root cause, it will continue to happen here and elsewhere.

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