But you might not have considered how this age of cellphone cameras and security cameras on every corner have altered the discussion. How the prevalence of video evidence leaves us no room to plead ignorance and continue to pretend that black lives are not treated by some as expendable. How moral outrage is the only possible reaction from all Americans to the death of George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor.
All of those took place in the past three months, and each of them victimized innocent African Americans at the hands of officers or vigilantes. Pretending that the victims’ race did not play a role is to ignore our obligation to speak out and speak up and demand accountability.
There are those whose natural inclination is to side with police. To side with authority in all cases. To view the resulting riots as an example of what happens when lawlessness reigns, rather than questioning the conditions that lead to anger that inevitably bubbles over.
But it is not a binary equation. It is quite possible — necessary even — to support police and be grateful for their role while still demanding accountability from the few officers who are evil.
As a friend of mine, a small-town police officer, wrote on Facebook: “I am sick and disgusted in the manner that Mr. Floyd was treated and it should have never ever happened! He was clearly murdered and the officers involved should be held accountable to the fullest extent possible. To have such little regard for a human life is repulsive. … It’s horrible situations like this that create distrust and hatred of police. We clearly understand that and accept the anger of the very few poor actors.”
It is possible to have empathy for police officers who nobly serve their communities and are tainted by the horrific actions of others while also having empathy for those who are victimized. It is necessary to point out the racist actions of a few officers in order to protect the reputations of the others; a lack of accountability for those who require it only casts doubt upon all.
There is nothing new about any of this. After race riots torched several American cities during the summer of 1967, a commission formed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded, “Our nation is moving towards two societies: one white, one black — separate and unequal.” It is easy to see, more than 50 years later, how incidents of police violence against African Americans are exacerbating those divisions. And it is easy to see how exposing such incidents to the light of day is the only way to bridge that cavern.
George Floyd died while restrained by a Minneapolis police officer who now has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, and he died in front of cameras that have illuminated that violence. As painful as it is to watch, we are better as a society for that exposure.
Because now we have no option but to speak out and demand accountability. After all, ignorance might be bliss, but knowledge is power.