“I can’t move
I can’t breathe officer
Don’t kill me
They gonna kill me
I can’t breathe”
These were some of the last words of 46-year-old George Floyd. “They gonna kill me,” a choking Mr. Floyd managed to eke out, and he was dead right.
Of the thousands of social media posts circulating around Mr. Floyd’s death on Monday in Minneapolis, none packed the punch of this Instagram of Derek Chauvin, the police officer, left hand in pocket, kneeling on Floyd’s neck juxtaposed with a picture of former NFL star, Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Above the image of Chauvin is the word “This” and floating over Kaepernick are the words “Is Why.” For what it’s worth, this image finally delivered the full brunt of Kaepernick’s career-ending protest.
Later the former 49er quarterback and warrior for justice tweeted:
“The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back. Rest in Power George Floyd.”
Tragically, Mr. Floyd is not resting at all, be it in peace or power. He’s dead.
Even from the distraught Floyd family, the cries for peace mixed with the demand for justice rained down, but as Kaepernick predicted, it fell on deaf ears, at least initially. Having watched the harrowing nine-minute video, Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, did not take the usual step of waiting for an investigation. He immediately fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s death and called for their arrest.
Kaepernick’s “right to fight back” continues to be exercised by an enraged and racially mixed throng of thousands even a week later. Minneapolis and St. Paul were engulfed in flames, dozens of businesses were burned and looted. A virus of anger, similar demonstrations spread throughout the country to cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and Tampa.
On the first night of “Burn Baby Burn,” a debate raged about the parameters of legitimate protest even as wanton destruction was taking place first in the Twin Cities. Ironically enough, many peaceful protesters used the language of the ‘60s, blaming the fires on “outside agitators” in the form of white supremacists, while President Donald Trump pointed his finger at Antifa.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
On Thursday night, I took to Twitter to express outrage at Mr. Floyd’s killing. In my fusillades of 280 characters, I also remarked that trashing businesses in Floyd’s community was neither an effective nor moral means of fighting for justice.
Another white Instagram activist posted photos of bombed-out stores, instructing viewers to remain silent, to refrain from commenting on the pictures of Auto Zone, Cub Foods and many other businesses reduced to cinders.
I was criticized on account of my Tweet and my raised brow about the violence.
And yet, African-American leaders entreated the protesters to keep it non-violent. In fact, two black men of some celebrity went on Instagram, raged about the four cops, all but demanding that they be delivered to a firing squad—but then went on to condemn locals for reducing the likes of Auto Zone to rubble. They asked, “How is burning down businesses going to change things or help anyone? Where are you going to get parts for your broken down cars?” Go figure. Judging from comments, no one took these concerned men to task for their anti-violence stance.
We, or at least I, should know by now that the very same words carry different connotations depending on the complexion of the person uttering them. If that is not an echo of our division, I don’t know what is. And yet, it makes sense to suppose that you can’t understand someone unless you have walked in their shoes and in the shadows of their history.
Still, it feels strange. It seems unjust to stay mum when hardworking individuals, many of whom are themselves people of color and who are innocent of committing any injustice, are being torched out of their businesses by protesters demanding justice. One of the captains of Black Lives Matter pointed out, you can replace windows and stores but not lives. True. But how about the people who worked in those stores and those who shopped there? And what about transforming the demand for justice into a spectacle?
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe justice does take an inferno. After all, it was the tall leaping flames and billowing smoke that seemed to change the mind of the Hennepin County District Attorney to charge Chauvin with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
But it was too little too late. Even a week after Mr. Floyd’s death, a deep-seated volcano of frustration and fury is spewing protests nationwide with 25 cities under curfew.
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library there and author of “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide.”