Weekend Update: A riot is the language of the unheard

“As my father explained during his lifetime, a riot is the language of the unheard.” —Martin Luther King III, @OfficialMLK3

Martin Luther King III
@OfficialMLK3

My typical Weekend Update post features stories that either didn’t make the cut for this week’s Friday Five, or that broke after I completed the Friday Five post, or update a news story/event that I have linked to and/or commented upon in an earlier post. Today I’m focused almost entirely one one story, which was one of yesterday’s “Stories of the Week” and deserves more than just being linked to.

Officer Kept Knee on George Floyd’s Neck for Nearly 3 Minutes After He Was Non-Responsive. Here’s what we know: a clerk at a store called police to report that a black man had tried to pay for his purchase with a counterfeit bill. Minneapolis police arrive, find the black man, George Floyd, sitting in his car in the parking lot. They pull him out, handcuff him, force him to the ground, and then one officer placed his knee and his full weight on Floyd’s neck. Floyds last words were, “I can’t breathe.” Many minutes later the officer in question finally lets up on the neck.

That’s murder. Sorry, not alleged, it’s straight-up murder.

The officer who killed Floyd was fired the next day, as were the other three officers on the scene. The other three were fired because after many previous cases of police brutality, the city had instituted a policy that officers who witness another officer using excess force but fail to intervene will be terminated.

But it took four days before prosecutors decided to charge the cop with murder. And I firmly believe the only reason that murder charges were filed at all was because of the protests that have been raging all week.

Arrest report for officer charged with George Floyd’s murder has a damning new piece of evidence. The additional detail is that there was a point, caught on video, where one of the other officers notes that Floyd had stopped struggling minutes ago, and maybe they should roll him onto his side. The killer cop doesn’t let up on the neck, but does feel for a pulse, and says clearly that he can’t find a pulse. And yet he still keeps his weight on Floyd’s neck for a few more minutes until the EMTs arrive.

When you can’t find a pulse, you can’t claim that you fear for your life.

Wife of Minneapolis cop who killed an unarmed black man is filing for divorce, report says. I just want to point out that multiple studies have found that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence. Cops are 4 times as likely as typical people to abuse their significant other and/or children, and other statistics show that when it’s reported, a cop is half as likely to face prosecution for it. Can’t say whether this is a factor in her decision, but…

Protests are happening not just in Minneapolis, and are quickly labeled as riots, despite the fact that we have more than one confirmed case of white men clearly not aligned with protesters damaging buildings and such. In more than one of those cases, we have video of the protestors trying to stop the guy. Riot or resistance? The way the media frames the unrest in Minneapolis will shape the public’s view of protest – Research finds that protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights receives the least legitimizing coverage.

“Riots and looting are a legitimate and profound form of protest against a system that values goods and services over human life.”

Listen to Sponge Bob…

All of that said… peaceful protest is not all it’s cracked up to be. In the last few week, small bands of white people armed to the teeth stormed state capitals, governor’s mansions, and the like. Cops didn’t arrest anyone. Cops didn’t even show up in riot gear. Despite the clear threat the guns implied (along with more than one incident of the so-called protestors hanging in effigy one of their perceived opponents or another), far too many pundits and so-called news agencies called those peaceful protests. When the first protest march of George Floyd happened earlier this week, protestors (mostly black) showed up in street clothes and without weapons. Cops rolled out in full riot gear from the get-go. The violence was brought by the police, not the protestors.

Some people will try to say that I’m simply arguing about who hit first, but it is much more profound than that. At the top of this post I have a picture and link to a tweet from Martin Luthor King III, alluding to a comment his father once made. Here’s Dr. King’s original:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these occurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America”

Society as a whole hit first. Police like to say that they are here to protect and serve the public, but overwhelming they oppress and control the most vulnerable and marginalized. Oh, they’ll protect the property of white well-to-do people and will serve the interests of the ruling class, but that inherently means keeping everyone else in their place. All of that is important context from the next couple of headlines:

Protesters charge Brooklyn police precinct in day of demonstrations over police killing of black man in Minneapolis.

LMPD officer fires pepper balls at WAVE 3 News reporter, photographer during Louisville protest.

‘Reporting While Black’: Minnesota Police Arrest CNN Journalist During Live Broadcast.

Gunfire Erupts During Live Broadcast of Breonna Taylor Protest in Louisville.

‘Brutal and unacceptable’: Calls for arrest of NYPD cop who put woman in the ER during protests.

I’m not black. I am a pasty-white blue-eyed guy, and my usual approach to topics regarding racial injustice is to listen to members of those communities and when I can, amplify their voices. But I think it’s also important that I try to find ways to use my white privilege to help them do more than be heard. And I all white people in our society have a certain amount of privilege, regardless of our economic status or other factors. Following up on the George Floyd story reminded me of a very specific example of how that privilege plays out:

Many years ago, when I was in my late twenties, I had stopped at a fast food place to get some food. I handed to guy behind the counter a $10 bill from my wallet. He peered at it, rubbed it with his fingers, and did a few other things. After a moment he handed it back to me and asked if I had another bill. I asked if he thought it was counterfeit. He explained that his employer was requiring them to reject bills if they were suspicious or it would be taken out of their pay. I looked at the bill and said that I didn’t remember where I got it. Then I pulled out my wallet, looked through my bills and pulled out one of the 20s.

While he was looking that bill over, I folded the 10 and stuck it in a different pocket of the wallet. After a minute the guy says, “This is fine,” and handed me my change and my food. Sometime later I took the 10 to my bank, explained what happened, and asked if they could tell me whether it was a counterfeit. The bank teller only took a few moments to examine it. Then she explained that there had been a lot of recent counterfeit 20s in the area, and she figured a lot of businesses had gotten a bit over zealous explaining how to look for them. She also said she that 10-dollar bills weren’t very cost effective to counterfeit. “Let’s just go ahead and deposit this one in your account.”

That was the end of it. The guy at the fast food place didn’t call the cops on me. He didn’t leap to the conclusion that I was intentionally trying to pass the bill.

We don’t know for cure at this point whether the bill Floyd tried to pay with that night was a counterfeit. Even if it was, we have no way to know whether he knew it was counterfeit. It could have been a bad 20 he got from someone else who also didn’t know it was fake, because they’re gotten it from someone else, who had gotten it from someone else, et cetera.

But in Floyd’s case, the moment a clerk saw what he thought was a counterfeit bill, he made the decision to call the cops. And the cops assumed that the bill was counterfeit, that Floyd knew it was counterfeit, and that Floyd was trying to commit a crime. Even if all those things were true, the penalty for passing a single (usually charged as fraud or forgery, depending) is never death.

I also point out that initial official reports on the incident said that Floyd had tried to pass a forged check, which is a different crime. That might just a minor mistatement if in Minnesota the usual practice is to charge a person who intentionally tries to pay with a counterfeit bill with forgery. It might, however, also have been an intentional decision by someone in the department to make it sound like a more serious crime.

Sticker on the base of a light pole reads, “Stonewall wasn't about Marriage Equality, it was about police violence.”

The Stonewall Riots, usually cited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, was a reaction to police brutality and harassment.

Finally, I’d like to point out that the event which kicked off the modern gay rights movement as series of riots. It started as a violent resistance to yet another police raid (including beatings) on a gay bar. There are conflicting stories about who threw the first brick or shot glass at a cop (that’s right, we can’t even agree whether the first projectile was a brick!), but all of the contenders were either black or lantinx street queens/trans women. Whatever that first projectile was, it was not thrown at some random window (as a certain film showed) and it wasn’t thrown by a clean cut white guy from the midwest. It was thrown at the cops by a queer person of color. And for good reason. I’ve many times repeated the fact that the very first Gay Pride was a riot. In this country we have an LGBTQ+ pride parade in late June because it is the anniversary of those riots. Eventually the movement got around to things like job discrimination and marriage equality, but before we could even broach those topics, we had to get laws, policies, and attitudes changed so that cops were not free to harass us, beat us, arrest us, and sometimes kill us merely because we were queer.

That’s what protests like the ones underway now for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other recent victims of police brutality.

Now I want to pivot to another story that I don’t want to get lost: Rev. Lou Sheldon, Who Founded ‘Traditional Values Coalition’ in 1980 to Warn Americans of ‘Gay Threat,’ Dead at 85. Sheldon was an evil, lying man who repeatedly tried to make the law even more anti-gay that it was when he founded the so-called Traditional Values Coalition. The Coalition was designated a hated group long ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center for use of “known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and repeated, groundless name-calling.”

Sheldon was at the forefront of trying to have AIDS patients rounded up into concentration camps, among many other things. While most people will focus on the Traditional Values Coalition’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, it is important to note that the Coalition has long been opposed to immigration reform, and frequently repeats racist and anti-semitic dog whistles in their many, many press releases and calls to action.

Lou Sheldon is dead. Good.

Enough about him. Let’s close with a video.

Jimmy Kimmel on George Floyd, Riots in Minneapolis & Trump’s Violent Stupidity:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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