By Ben Jealous
George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer just over two years ago. His killing sparked a movement to end unjustified police killings and racist law enforcement practices. Sadly, the killings have not stopped. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was blocked by Senate Republicans last year. The struggle continues in communities large and small.
During racial justice protests that sprung up after video of Floyd’s murder spread around the world, millions of people spoke his name as they demanded accountability and justice. Now, a remarkable book examines Floyd’s life and death in the context of our history and what one of the authors calls the “complex, tangled web” created by racism in this country.
“His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice” was written by Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa. It draws on the reporting of their colleagues and on intimate interviews with Floyd’s family, romantic partners, and circle of friends.
At a time when politicians are making it illegal for educators to acknowledge that systemic racism exists, Samuels and Olorunnipa document in painful detail the ways in which racially discriminatory policies on housing, education, health care, addiction, policing and more contributed to “a life in which Floyd repeatedly found his dreams diminished, deferred, and derailed—in no small part because of the color of his skin.”
“For example,” Samuels says, “you could not disentangle police departments’ disproportionate use of force against African Americans from the junk science that is still taught about Black people being more resistant to pain. We could not ignore that those same instincts led to the inadequate mental health treatment in George Floyd’s life, nor could we separate that society both encouraged George Floyd to bulk up to pursue his athletic dreams and then stereotyped him as dangerous when he was off the field.”
The book doesn’t try to make Floyd a saint. It doesn’t have to. He was a human being. He did nothing to deserve being murdered on the street by an abusive police officer who shouldn’t have been wearing a badge.
“His Name Is George Floyd” is worth reading for many reasons. It gives us a fuller picture of the person George Floyd was. It introduces us to many people who loved him and sought a measure of justice for his murder. And it points to some important facts about policing in this country.
One is the need for accountability. Chauvin had a record of violent behavior. When abusive cops are not held accountable, more people will be subjected to their violence.
Another point is that policing is a local issue requiring local solutions. National policies, like those in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, can help. But holding violent cops accountable, getting them off the streets, or better yet, preventing them from getting hired in the first place, all require change at the local level.
People For the American Way spent the two years since Floyd’s murder developing a road map for transforming public safety. We looked at the research. We talked to criminologists, public officials, clergy and other community activists, and members of law enforcement. “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety” is a guide for public officials and community activists seeking to make their communities safer.
Among the essential steps to make policing more just and more effective at the same time: improving recruiting to weed out potentially dangerous cops, holding violent officers accountable, and getting unfit officers off the force. Also, importantly, restructuring public safety systems to reduce the unnecessary involvement of armed officers in situations where they are not needed and for which they are not trained is good for cops as well as communities.
The authors of “His Name Is George Floyd” describe optimism in the face of our history as both a defense mechanism and a means of survival. I am optimistic that we can end unjust police killings. I am optimistic that we can build the uncomfortably large coalitions it will take.
“Our book makes the argument that if we can demonstrate step-by-step how this country’s history with racism continues to shape people today, then we can continue the good work of dismantling systemic racism,” Samuels told me in an e-mail. “We have to connect the theory with the practice.”
That job belongs to all of us. We know what kind of changes will make our communities safer. Let’s organize, city by city and town by town, to make it happen.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022.
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