(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And it's 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, May 28. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
DAVIS: Last night in Minneapolis, thousands protested in the streets over the death of George Floyd. He was a black man who died Monday after a white police officer knelt on his neck. Police fired tear gas at the crowds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS BEING FIRED)
DAVIS: And one man was shot to death. This morning, the Justice Department announced that it would make its investigation into Floyd's death a top priority. There is pretty graphic video of Floyd's arrest, and it might be hard for some listeners to hear. But for those that haven't seen it, Ryan, could you describe what it shows?
LUCAS: It's a slightly grainy video that shows Floyd with his hands handcuffed behind his back face down on the ground with what you can see is a white police officer kneeling on Floyd's back with one of his knees on his neck. And over the course of this several-minute-long video, you can hear Floyd asking for help, asking the officers to get off of him, saying that he can't breathe. And the officer, for the course of the video, remains on his back with the knee on the neck until emergency medical services arrive.
DAVIS: What was Floyd's alleged offense?
LUCAS: The allegation in this is that the police responded because Floyd was allegedly trying to pass off basically a fake $20 bill at a local grocery store.
DAVIS: And this has provoked a pretty intense response, I would say, not just from the people of Minneapolis, but there's been protests in some cities all over the country. But what did we see coming out of Minneapolis in the past couple of days?
LUCAS: This has tapped into basically a vein of frustration among particularly the African American community in Minneapolis but, as you referenced, also elsewhere in the country about police violence toward African Americans.
RASCOE: And, Ryan, this is really - I mean, this is a pattern - right? - that we have seen over and over again in this country for decades - more than decades. But this issue of police brutality and the African American community and then the response to it and, you know, when you have black men and women dying and then the communities calling for some sort of justice - right? - some sort of action response to what is happening and then you have protest, then you have - you know, this - you know, the tear gas - this is something that happens over and over again, right?
LUCAS: And that's another aspect of this is we have seen time and again after incidents like this police respond with what many in the African American community and across the country view as potentially heavy-handed tactics - police coming out with tear gas, rubber bullets, dressed in essentially tactical gear that appears more in line with what you would see on a battlefield than you would on American streets. And that only seems to exacerbate these tensions between the community and the police.
DAVIS: The four officers who were involved in Floyd's arrest have all been fired. And we should note that the mayor of Minneapolis is calling for the one who knelt on his neck to be arrested. This has escalated up to the Justice Department. Ryan, what exactly did they say this morning?
LUCAS: Well, the Justice Department said in a statement that they are conducting, along with the FBI, a robust criminal investigation is what they said at this point in time into the circumstances around Floyd's death. They say that this is a top priority. There are experienced prosecutors and folks with the FBI who are dealing with the matter. And what they're going to do is take a look at, you know, whether the actions of the police officers in this case violated federal law. You have the state and local authorities who can look at certain aspects of this. What the federal government would be looking at would be whether the police violated federal law by basically depriving Floyd of any of his protected constitutional rights.
RASCOE: And, Ryan, but part of the frustration that often comes out here is that often it is very - first on that local level, it's very hard to or - and rarely happens that police officers are convicted for using force on the job. Like, that rarely happens. And then at the federal level, how often are, like, charges actually brought, like, those civil rights charges that you're talking about?
LUCAS: Well, it kind of taps into the same issue at both the state and federal level. At the state level, as you said, often juries give a great amount of deference to police officers who are acting in the line of duty in what may be difficult circumstances. A lot of deference is given to them by juries. At the federal level, with cases in - that would be a federal civil rights issue, it's a very high standard that prosecutors have to meet. Basically, they have to show that the officers were willfully trying to violate the person's rights. And that's really hard to do. This is something that was an issue in the case of Eric Garner, remember, another African American six years ago, a man who basically died after he was taken to the ground by a police officer in New York - became a huge issue nationally. He's the one who actually first said I can't breathe. And that became kind of a hashtag part of the movement.
There was a long-running debate within the Justice Department about bringing a case against the officer involved in that. And what you often have at the federal level is you have prosecutors who are very wary of losing a case. They don't want to indict a police officer involved in something like this because it's so difficult to win a case because of the high standard that I mentioned earlier. But the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department wanted to bring an indictment, and there are people who thought that even if the Justice Department lost a case in the case of Garner, it would be symbolically very valuable to bring it anyways.
RASCOE: But it didn't happen. They didn't bring the indictment.
LUCAS: For five years, they went back and forth on it. And then recently, Attorney General William Barr actually decided - he made the call that the department would not seek an indictment in that case.
DAVIS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about the politics around this crisis.
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DAVIS: And we're back. And both President Trump and Joe Biden have weighed in on the death of George Floyd.
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JOE BIDEN: George Floyd's life mattered. It mattered as much as mine. It matters as much as anyone's in this country and - at least it should have. Watching his life be taken in the same manner, echoing nearly the same words of Eric Garner more than five years ago - I can't breathe - is a tragic reminder that this was a - not an isolated incident but a part of an ingrained systemic cycle of injustice that still exists in this country.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A very sad event - a very, very, sad, sad event.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Should the police officers be prosecuted, sir?
TRUMP: We're going to look at it, and we're going to get a report tomorrow when we get back. And we're going to get a very full report - but a very sad day.
DAVIS: And the president there saying that it was very sad and they want to look into it - but what's interesting here, Ayesha, is that the president sounds a lot like Joe Biden. It's a weird part in our politics when it feels like two competing politicians have sort of the same takeaway from one incident.
RASCOE: Well, I mean, they're both saying it's sad. So it is interesting - especially for President Trump, that is showing a shift. I will say what he is not saying and what is not clear to me is whether this is going to be, in this case with the video, he is concerned. Or is this a larger systematic issue, which is what Joe Biden seemed to be alluding to, this idea that there needs to be systematic change because the Trump administration, on multiple occasions, has rolled back kind of whatever reforms that the Obama administration tried to make on this issue, including, like, the use of these consent agreements, which are usually like an agreement between a police department and the federal government, where the police department agrees to certain reforms.
LUCAS: On a kind of step-back level for the administration more broadly, both former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and current Attorney General Bill Barr had been very explicit about publicly backing the police, frequently saying, we back the blue because of the sort of pushback against police brutality that we saw during the Obama administration. This administration struck a different course. They wanted to make clear that they were stepping away from the sort of consent decrees, for example, that Ayesha mentioned earlier. This is going to be an interesting test case to see whether this is really just about a rhetorical shift from Trump in this one instance or whether there's actually more substance to it beyond the tweets.
DAVIS: But the interesting thing to me now is it's not just the president. Right? There's also other prominent voices in the Republican Party now calling for the officers to be arrested and swiftly calling for their arrest, including Tim Scott - he's the South Carolina Republican senator; he's the only African American Republican in Congress - and Kevin McCarthy, who is the top Republican in the House.
And that kind of - I don't know - like, swift call for arrests of police officers is generally just not something we have seen from Republican leaders. It's frankly not unusual to hear more from Democrats who have been calling for more systemic racial justice changes in the criminal justice system. But there does seem to be something just different about this moment, and I'm not entirely sure why. But it is - you can feel it, and you can hear it from the leaders that are - the way they're talking about it.
LUCAS: Do either one of you have an idea as to what you might attribute that to?
DAVIS: You know, the cynical part of me would say, you know, the clear thing here is there's a timing factor. Right? I mean, we are six months out from not only a presidential election but elections across the board. And you know, the president has been trying to make inroads with black voters. They are a base of the Democratic Party. They're certainly a base for Joe Biden. And these are really sort of high-profile horrific incidents. And looking cavalier or callous about them would be really politically tone deaf in this moment.
RASCOE: And something that, you know, our colleague Asma Khalid has reported on is this idea that white people - white voters are much more sensitive to racial discrimination and oppression than they have been in the past. It's much more of a concern for them. It's not just for, you know, black people or black and brown people who are affected by this.
LUCAS: One thing that I would say, though, is that, you know, we have not talked a lot about these sorts of incidents in the past two, three, four years - really not since these were basically the front-page stories for a good stretch of time towards the tail end of the Obama administration. It's not like this issue stopped, though. It's not like there stopped being African Americans killed by the police, and yet we didn't talk about it for a long stretch of time.
DAVIS: Yeah. And to that, I think, they're not related. But if you think about it, sometimes these things just happen in rapid succession. If you look at other recent news stories, the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man - now, that was not a police shooting, but it was also captured on video. And he was shot by white men, and there's a racial element to that. And then there was the video out of Central Park of a black birder and a white woman calling the police on him and saying that I'm being threatened by an African American male. And the video is really compelling and really hard to deny.
And I think just it's happening all very quickly in this moment where, you know, I would also wonder if this moment in the pandemic has people more focused on it. Right? Like, people are at home. They're consuming media. They're consuming tons of social media. And we're seeing these videos, and they're just kind of hard to deny.
RASCOE: You know, this didn't stop over the past four years. And what the question is - like, how do you actually address these issues? For the people that have to deal with this. I mean, in my neighborhood, police stops are very common. And it's an issue. And it has affected people in my family and my husband. For the people they have to live with this day-to-day, it can be overwhelming. And then when it starts getting on the news cycles, then it feels like everyone else can almost get a taste of what other people are dealing with every single day.
DAVIS: Yeah. All right. Well, that's a wrap for today. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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