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OPINION

A protest ‘is the language of the unheard’

Is this the greatest public service we can offer? To help people understand something so self-evident as an execution, on video, in broad daylight?

A makeshift memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis, Thursday, May 28, near where Floyd was taken into police custody. A wave of protests erupted across South Minneapolis overnight and into Thursday, with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets as people set buildings on fire and looted stores days after Floyd, a Black man, died in police custody.
A makeshift memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis, Thursday, May 28, near where Floyd was taken into police custody. A wave of protests erupted across South Minneapolis overnight and into Thursday, with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets as people set buildings on fire and looted stores days after Floyd, a Black man, died in police custody.Jenn Ackerman/NYT

“I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else.” Poet Audre Lorde penned these words as she came to grips with the cancer that eventually took her life. Confronted with her own mortality, she kept working, desperately. She moved forward. “I need to travel light and fast,” she continued, “and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.”

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, all Black, are dead and America is burning. A Black-Latino CNN reporter and his crew are arrested for filming police, and police lie about the arrest. The president is dog-whistling the only tune he knows, typing barely coded racial epithets in ALL CAPS and threatening violence against the citizenry. Twitter, that bastion of civility and morality, offers stronger rebukes than most of the US government sworn to check the executive. The coronavirus has been redirected to attack people who are poor, brown, and Black. And there is more.

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Absurd though it may be, somehow I feel folks like me are expected to catalog and translate all this fear and death with testimony and teaching. Or to document, again, the so-called hypocrisy in the measuring and condemnation of Black and white violence. Is this the greatest public service we can offer? To help people understand something so self-evident as an execution, on video, in broad daylight? This is our public history, available at every library and through every search engine. Are we supposed to make it more elegant? More personal? By crying poetry on the page, and on television, and appealing to white parents’ dreams for their children and anything else we think might generate empathy? In this way we stumble aimlessly among the ruins, lamenting the charred remains of the promises this country made.

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Like Lorde, I won’t linger, and I won’t describe the carnage. I need to get out of here. No more weighty nostalgia for broken places and promises. Just the old facts, and then new directions. The old facts: Police do not protect and serve the people. Prisons do not keep us safe. America is not a functioning democracy. Our health care system is immoral. White supremacy is a political system, not just an incorrect idea.

Who among us travels fast, past fear, to somewhere new? Omar Jimenez, the Black Latino CNN reporter who was arrested in Minneapolis on Friday for no reason, got out of jail and went right back to work. He saw firsthand that the Constitution did not protect him, as a Black person or a reporter, from the whims of police. He could have wallowed in the terrifying paradox that the First Amendment doesn’t actually exist unless we practice it, and that practice is a deadly risk for Black and brown people. He could have bent to the baggage of the arrest, packed his things, and gone home. Nobody would blame him for taking a leave of absence. But he abandoned whatever assumptions he had before the protests and continues to follow the truth, wherever it leads.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig crossed “the thin blue line,” the customary code of silence and solidarity among police, when he spoke out about the Floyd killing. “Based on what I saw on that video, there’s no question I would have directed an arrest,” he said. “This was murder.” Craig’s statement was amplified by a joint statement from law enforcement unions in the San Francisco Bay area. “We cannot see any law enforcement or self-defense rationale for what occurred,” they wrote. Do not underestimate the power of breaking silence in this way, before any arrests or charges. Such condemnation is “nearly unprecedented,” according to Phillip Goff, one of the foremost authorities on policing and equity in the United States.

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Joan Gabel moved swiftly. The president of the University of Minnesota severed many of the school’s ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. She found the courage for her public statement and actions thanks to the vision and persistence of her students, led by student body president Jael Kerandi. The letter Kerandi submitted to Gabel demanding the change reads, “We no longer wish to have a meeting or come to an agreement. There is no middle ground." Importantly, the university has not completely ended its relationship with the police department, but Kerandi knows this is a long journey. “It’s one step. It’s a beginning step. It’s not the ultimate end of all of this,” she told NPR.

Kerandi’s ultimate goal is a complete reorganization of her campus’s public safety system. I don’t know if she has a master plan for what the new arrangement will be. She certainly doesn’t have a master plan for wherever we’re traveling toward, and I don’t know if the protesters, the bravest among us, do either. But they travel light. They’ve gone on ahead, and they will see glimpses of the new world before the rest.

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Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”