The killing of an unarmed black man by police is nothing new. Neither are protests erupting in the aftermath of such incidents.
The scale of the current goings-on in the U.S. is unique, however. Add in the COVID-19 crisis, an already frustrated populace and an incendiary occupant of the White House, and we get the images appearing on our TV screens, which are horrific even from this vantage point (protests and marches in support of the cause are occurring around the world, including right here in Waterloo Region).
The current crisis began with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody, and the subsequent firing of the four officers involved. One has already been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Two autopsies have labelled the victim’s death a homicide.
Floyd’s death and the recent killing by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. have something of a déjà vu quality to them. Police kill an average of 1,000 people every year in the U.S., a disproportionate number of them black – African Americans make up less than 13 per cent of the population, but are killed at more than twice the rate of white people, who make up about half of those killed by police.
While police-involved shootings are relatively uncommon in Canada, in the U.S. police seem to be involved in controversial shootings as a matter of course – about three incidents a day that are fatal, and perhaps twice as many again involving people injured by police. That’s most evident where racial minorities are involved, and the country seems more uneasy with that reality. The racial element of the latest killings only heighten the tension in a climate where the killing by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York in 2014 sparked nationwide protests.
In the U.S., there are hundreds of officer-involved shootings each year. The situation gets even murkier when trying to track how many of those shootings might have had a racial component – some statistics put the likelihood of a young, black male being shot by police at 20 times greater than a young, white male in similar circumstances.
We are now seeing protests, including the peaceful shutdown of highways, fanning out across the U.S. in even greater numbers thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That some people are using the protests to burn and loot – whether as criminal opportunists or agentes provocateur – should not overshadow the very warranted outrage at systemic racism.
The deaths at police hands of yet more black people ramped up the tension that never seems to be too far below the surface. There are very real reasons for these tensions, particularly for African-Americans who come into far greater contact with police forces that are increasingly militarized and a penal system that appears to be intent on disenfranchising people of colour while turning billions of dollars from public coffers into private profits.
Some critics have likened the police and judicial systems’ handling of minorities to internal colonization. The numbers bolster that case. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country – some 2.3 million people according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, plus another five million on probation or parole. The U.S. is home to
655 prisoners per 100,000 residents, followed in second place by that noted bastion of freedom, Turkey, at 344 per 100,000. (Canada’s rate is 107.)
The tough-on-crime spree that began in the 1980s has sent million of nonviolent criminals to jail, many on petty charges, with spending on prisons growing three times the rate of public education over that time.
Changing the country’s underlying culture is the end game, starting with police and the judicial system.