George Floyd's Death At The Hands Of Police Is A Terrible Echo Of The Past : Code Switch The last few weeks have been filled with devastating news — stories about the police killing black people. At this point, these calamities feel familiar — so familiar, in fact, that their details have begun to echo each other.
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A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

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A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Just a heads up, this episode contains language and content that may be disturbing to some listeners. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The family of a Kentucky woman shot and killed by police is demanding answers.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The former cop and his son, both white, are accused of killing the unarmed black man.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: We begin with the breaking news from Minneapolis. Violent protests raged for a second straight night following the death of George Floyd after being arrested by a Minneapolis police officer. Last night, protesters turned their attention to the city's third police precinct.

MERAJI: The last few weeks have been filled with devastating news, stories about police killing black people. And what is sick is that these stories have become the kind of news that we in the business call evergreen. They're stories that are always relevant and always in season.

DEMBY: These calamities are so familiar at this point that their details have begun to echo each other. In July 2014, a cellphone video captured some of Eric Garner's final words as New York City police officers sat on his head and pinned him to the ground on a city sidewalk. I can't breathe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: On May 25 of this year, those same words were spoken by George Floyd just before he died. He pleaded for release as an officer kneeled on his neck and pinned him to the ground on a Minneapolis city street. So we're at the point where the verbiage people use to plead for their lives can be repurposed as shorthand for completely different stories.

MERAJI: And part of our job here at CODE SWITCH is to contextualize and make sense of news like this. But, Gene, it's hard to come up with something new to say, you know, things we haven't already said or things we haven't already recorded protesters saying when we were both in Ferguson in August of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed by the police or when we were in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death. I spent the day with junior high school kids in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray was from on the first day they let kids return to school after all the protests. And I will never forget the eighth-grade boy who raised his hand to ask, why have white people been killing us since slavery, and they're still killing us? He said that on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.

DEMBY: Since it's so hard to come up with any fresh insights about this phenomenon, we thought we would look back to another time when the nation turned its collective attention to this perpetual problem.

JAMIL SMITH: I'm Jamil Smith, senior writer for Rolling Stone magazine. And when I was at The New Republic, I wrote an article entitled "What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do For You?" It was published on April 13, 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) We get to see black men tortured or killed by police a lot more often these days. So it's worth recalling why a generation ago it mattered so much to see what happened to Rodney King.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Now the story that might never have surfaced if someone hadn't picked up his home video camera. We've all seen the pictures.

SMITH: (Reading) We had certainly seen the black-and-white photographs and videos depicting police abuse of African Americans. And we'd seen the grainy images of lynchings past. But the conventional ignorance was that this wasn't the America we lived in now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Police officers beating a man they had just pulled over.

SMITH: (Reading) This was the early '90s, after all. This was an America that viewed law enforcement in the context of the popular reality show "Cops" and where Morton Downey Jr.'s tabloid television style made uncensored aggression a form of entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

SMITH: (Reading) But when George Holliday's video surfaced...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DARYL GATES: Struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times.

SMITH: (Reading) ...It signaled to a lot of citizens just how bad police violence visited upon marginalized communities actually was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GATES: Six kicks and one officer, one kick.

SMITH: (Reading) People either didn't know what was happening or were willfully ignorant of it. They needed to wake up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The Los Angeles Police Department has a history of brutality and misconduct that goes back a quarter of a century.

JOSE DE SOSA: Today, we are not sure that the police is there to protect us.

SMITH: (Reading) The fear of becoming the next Rodney King is still here. But what has changed is how often we are viewing that fear being realized.

DEMBY: Jamil goes on to write that the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and dashboard cameras means this uncensored horror has become available on demand.

MERAJI: He says he watched 22-year-old Oscar Grant get shot and killed by a police officer on YouTube before it made it to broadcast news. That happened in Oakland in 2009 on New Year's Day. And it really marked the beginning of this grim genre...

DEMBY: In which the slain become memorialized as hashtags, hashtag #JusticeforOscarGrant. And remember Walter Scott and Eric Harris? Jamil writes that the videos of them being killed became public almost back to back in 2015.

SMITH: (Reading) Both men were running away when the shots were fired. Walter Scott, 50, was trying to escape North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, who shot him eight times in the back...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SMITH: (Reading) ...Before planting evidence near his body to support a false account of the incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

SMITH: (Reading) Eric Harris was running from a team of Tulsa County deputies when elderly insurance executive Robert Bates, whose donations to the sheriff's office in modicum of training earned him the title of reserve deputy, shot him dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) Scott's death looks even more brazen than the inexcusable shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park last November. In fact, many of the videos carry eerie and terrible echoes of previous incidents. As in Oscar Grant III's death in 2009, Bates claimed he meant to pull his taser, not his gun, before shooting Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) Eric Garner's futile cry was evoked when the mortally wounded Harris yelled, I'm losing my breath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC HARRIS: I'm losing my breath.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DEPUTY: F*** your breath.

SMITH: (Reading) F*** your breath, Bates' fellow deputy responded. The police dashboard video of Floyd Dent's traffic stop in Inkster, Mich., three months ago brought to mind the brutal beating of Rodney King. Officer William Melendez, as the tape shows, began beating Dent savagely almost as soon as the 57-year-old motorist was pulled from his vehicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: In the video, he's seen punching Floyd Dent 16 times in just 10 seconds.

SMITH: (Reading) Melendez was suspended for five days last Friday. And a report out of Detroit's ABC affiliate says he could lose his job. Slager was fired by his department and charged with Scott's murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RACHEL MARTIN: Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

SMITH: (Reading) We see these arrests and firings as victories in the struggle for black liberation from police violence. But how much will an oversaturation of videotaped black death move our justice system and government to action? Dozens of Rodney Kings haven't been enough to move the needle significantly. The videos have helped spur civic protest, which surely have led to more media attention and perhaps legal action, but they haven't slowed the rate of killings, nor made the officers responsible more accountable. Instead, we face a continued insistence from many that we live in a properly policed America, despite video evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) That rosy-hued narrative gets a boost from current and former law enforcement professionals like Howard Safir, who came to the defense of good cops in Time magazine after Scott's death. Quote, "our citizens gain nothing from demoralized police forces that believe they do not have public support," unquote, wrote the former NYPD commissioner. Quote, "demoralized forces will not be as effective as they can be, and that would have a tremendously negative impact on public safety," unquote. Keep in mind that we just watched an unarmed man gunned down from behind, then handcuffed and framed for an assault as he lay dying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) It was later disclosed that Slager experienced an adrenaline rush from shooting. And I'm supposed to be worried about whether the cop feels like I've got his back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) We keep pouring on the visuals and re-traumatizing ourselves, hoping it will break through similarly reflexive defenses of law enforcement and inspire real reform. People like Feidin Santana, who recorded Scott's death, continue to risk their own safety to record these incidents and expose open wounds literally in the hopes that someone will do something. Corporate media outlets have grasped the importance or at least the consumer appeal of this footage. Activists, journalists and concerned citizens continue to spread these images throughout social media to alarm and inspire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let him go. What the f***?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERONIMO YANEZ: Don't pull it out.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

REYNOLDS: You just killed my boyfriend.

SMITH: (Reading) But to what end?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Reading) After Scott's death, Time magazine felt the need to declare on its cover that black lives matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

SMITH: (Reading) That statement, still inspirational to many, can seem like an awfully low floor for social advancement. Black people have been telling the white power structure that I am a man since at least the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. America has taken its sweet time in granting black victims this mild degree of humanization. But despite actually seeing the brutalization of our bodies in more vivid detail than ever before, the police and government have remained unmoved. I tremble to think, what act or accompanying footage will be required for the powers that be to finally see what is going on?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: As I revisit this piece a little bit more than five years after I wrote it, I'm astonished by how much of it I could put into a column today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: More on that after the break.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back with Jamil Smith. In 2015, he wrote "What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do For You?"

DEMBY: And he says that so much of that piece can be written using the same words today five years later, especially the ending.

SMITH: America is still taking its sweet time in even recognizing our humanity in terms of its laws, in terms of its mores, in terms of its practices. And I say America in a larger sense, not simply the law enforcement folks who would spray tear gas on protesters outraged by George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, lying, screaming for his mother and his life under the knee, the literal knee, of law enforcement, these folks having tear gas shot at them during a pandemic that attacks our pulmonary system, a pandemic that's attacking black communities disproportionately.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: The power of that image, especially when juxtaposed when the armed demonstrators in Michigan threatening lawmakers in an effort to essentially want to die faster, or want the right to die faster, is a real encapsulation of where we are in this country and the fact that we have not moved an inch since these videos became so popular. So we have to understand, what is their value? When are we going to see the kind of change that this kind of shock and awe should be provoking?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: If I were allowed to change anything five years after writing this column, I realize that there are a lot of contemporary references within it. And I think that's helpful for people who are reading it at the time. However, the reference to being the next Rodney King, it almost seems antiquated at this point. I think that, yes, my generation, Generation X, was afraid of being the next Rodney King. And I think that perhaps I based it a little bit too much in my own experience. I do think that there should've been maybe a little bit more grounding in the historical nature of how our bodies have been treated as souvenirs and our deaths been treated as something to be celebrated or even traded amongst people as postcards and pictures of our lynchings traded amongst the spectators, parts of our bodies after being flayed and burned traded and sent to people and kept by the murderers. I think that when you look at these videos and you understand how little of an impact they've made on the policies required to make what's happening in those videos stop happening, those souvenirs, they don't really do much else other than traumatize us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: The title of my column from April 2015 refers specifically to black men. And at that time, we'd only seen videos of black men dying or being accosted by the police. Of course later, we saw Sandra Bland. And we've seen so many other cases of black women who have been victimized, who have been brutalized and who have been killed by police most often for no reason whatsoever, for no charge filed. Breonna Taylor in Kentucky has not received nearly the amount of press coverage or attention or even protest that George Floyd has in Minneapolis. The reasons for that may be traceable, of course, to gender. Are they also traceable to the fact that there was no video of the incident? Is this a case where video has relevance? These are things that we should be discussing. And I think we'd be foolish to dismiss gender as the primary cause of that. I think certainly we have normalized violence against women and against transgender women specifically to a point that is absurd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: You know, the death of Nina Pop from stabbing earlier this year barely got any notice. And she was about the 10th or 11th victim of transgender violence in America this year, and we're not talking about it. We're not discussing this as an epidemic in our society. Why not? I think that, you know, everybody who is listening needs to go and look up these people, look at their names, look up their stories, understand what happened to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: I will defer judgment on whether or not this is going to be the moment that finally everyone will understand exactly what's happening in the black communities around this country with regards to policing and overpolicing and militarized policing. I - after Ferguson, it's hard to hold your breath. It's hard to hold your breath when, you know, a 12-year-old kid gets gunned down with a toy gun in the city that you grew up in, as was the case for me with Tamir Rice, and the city kind of just kind of shrugs and everyone moves on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Tamir Rice would've been 18 in June. And America moves on. America moves forward. I think to a large extent white power structure waits for us as black people especially to quiet down, settle down, to get it out of our system. In terms of unrest or in terms of online protests, I'll be writing my column and that moment will happen. But whether or not it will result in any concrete change is really up to people who may be least involved with the trauma. It matters whether or not people who are not affected by this do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Jess Kung, with help from Natalie Escobar. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Shereen.

MERAJI: Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Karen Grigsby Bates, Alyssa Jeong Perry, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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