Our Debt to George Floyd

When the first Africans arrived on these shores in 1619, their bodies were brutalized by white supremacists. For the past 400 years, Black people and their allies have tried to stop this. “Don’t punish me with brutality,” sang Marvin Gaye.

One year ago today, the country could no longer ignore this grim reality as police officer Derek Chauvin murdered 46-year-old George Floyd, a man whom his cousin Tera Brown said was “everyone’s favorite everything.”

Chauvin pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, said Chauvin’s prosecutors. It was yet another execution of an unarmed Black man. Mr. Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” over and over, as his murder was witnessed by millions around the world because Darnella Frazier, then 17 years old, had the courage and presence of mind to film the murder and share it on social media.

“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, my brothers, my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black,” Frazier said during Chauvin’s murder trial. “I look at how that could have been one of them.”

The murder of Mr. Floyd broadened the Movement for Black Lives to a global reckoning, another cycle of history repeating itself over more than 400 years. In February 1965, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson was part of a protest in Marion, Alabama, against the arrest of a local civil rights activist. An Alabama state trooper shot Jackson, who was shielding his mother from attacks. The killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson was the spark that led to the march from Selma to Montgomery, said the late Congressman John Lewis.

Like Jimmie Lee Jackson, George Floyd forever changed the world. His sacrifice transformed our nation’s – and the world’s – consciousness on race.

On the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, we must work to ensure that we never have another George Floyd, another Jimmie Lee Jackson, another Emmett Till. We are sickened by the senseless killings of Black people. History has shown repeatedly that this country does not value the lives of Black people. We must stop the endless cycle of police killing Black people, protests, firings, trials, lawsuits, more protests, attempted or cosmetic “fixes” via police officer trainings, and on and on and on. We must keep working, even though murders by police officers go on and on. Duante Wright was murdered a few miles from where Derek Chauvin was being tried.

More people than ever before now see and believe that many issues or incidents arising in a community do not warrant the armed, often militarized, police response that has become the norm, and that the bloated police budgets of too many of our cities simply make no sense considering this truth.

We, like everyone, want to feel safe in our homes and communities, but not at the price of an unarmed loved one, neighbor, or even a fellow community member we do not know being shot and killed or seriously harmed.

The broken system disproportionately harms and kills so many: Black, Latinx and Native people, transgender people, and people with disabilities. Most of us have at least one family member, friend, or someone we care about who belongs to at least one of these groups or another group historically harmed or unprotected by the current system.

These truths weigh more heavily when we consider that those who protest in support of justice and safety and against police brutality are regularly arrested and charged for assembling. We have seen hundreds and hundreds of protestors arrested over this past year, while too many who commit murder in police uniform (and who attack the U.S. Capitol) walk free.

The Equal Justice Society renews its support for deep transformative change to our public safety system. It is imperative that the current national reckoning on race in response to the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people at the hands of the police and White assailants results in real change.

The necessary deep and transformative changes will not be easy to achieve. But we cannot let difficulties, setbacks, distortions, mislabeling, detractors, villifiers, or incrementalists deter us. These challenges and barriers are and always have been present in movements for fundamental change.

We owe it to George Floyd and the countless others who have been tragically lost to press on in the fight for a system and future that will bring honor to their memory.


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