The pain is so intense. The fear is so strong. The rage is so great. I am nearing 78 years of age, moving toward 80. I am a father. I am a grandfather. I am a husband. I am a lawyer. I am a former State Senator with 35 years of service. But I feel the intense pain, the strong fear, and the great rage in my bones. I feel it for others. I feel it for myself.
The murder was so brutal. It was on film and on television and on the internet and God knows where else. It was everywhere, grabbing millions by the gut, grabbing me in the essence of my being. I can’t shut it out. I close my eyes, but I still see it. I go to sleep, and it is still there. I wake up, and it is still there. I close my ears, but I still hear.
I see a black man lying on the pavement face down. I now know he was handcuffed behind his back. I see a white policeman with one knee on his neck. I see one hand of the white policeman that appears to be in his pocket. He is pressing down with the knee on the black man’s neck. The killing is so cold, so determined, so chilling. The black man was George Floyd. The white policeman is Derek Chauvin.
I not only see but I hear. The black man is begging for his life. He is saying, “I can’t breathe.” He is begging for air and water, the two most basic substances of life. He is even begging for help from his dead mother who died two years ago. But he gets no response from the white policeman pressing down so hard. All he gets is more determined force on his neck.
I could not see it on the video, initially, but two other white policemen were holding other parts of Floyd’s body. One held his legs. The other held his back. A fourth white policeman was standing there. He looked away with total disinterest. His expression reflected no pain, no fear, no rage, no caring, no concern. He was just so cold as the warm life of a black man was being crushed on the pavement. He did not touch the dying man, but he was very much a part of the terrible killing, a modern-day lynching on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
There were other black people there. Some filmed the terrible moment. We can hear some of those present on the video challenging the policemen who were crushing the life out of this black man. The policeman who was not touching the body of the black man only showed a semblance of reaction when others tried to help. He acted to keep them from helping save the black man’s life. He was determined to keep away any who wanted to help.
There are many terrible things about this killing. It really was a 21st-century lynching. The black man was in handcuffs with his hands behind his back, lying face down on the pavement. However, one thing stands out above all the other terrible things. When the black man on the pavement stopped breathing, the white policeman kept pushing his knee down on his neck for 30 seconds, then 60 seconds, then 120 seconds, then 183 seconds – more than three minutes. In my mind, the white policeman was hell bent on crushing the last bit of life out of the black man and then some. He kept crushing the neck after the black man stopped begging, after he stopped moving, after he stopped breathing, after there was no longer a pulse. And he did not stop during these nine minutes of dying a terrible death. The black man is dead, lynched in the 21st century.
The mayor of Minneapolis or someone fired the four policemen the next day. That was very unusual but very much needed. He said the policemen should be charged and arrested. He said that if it were him or others on video killing someone, they would already be in jail. It was a powerful plea from a mayor. Most of the time mayors back the policemen no matter how heinous the actions, the crimes.
This apparently started over a counterfeit $20 bill. Many shoppers could end up with counterfeit $20 bills. They don’t even know the bills are counterfeit. A white man went to the same store with a $20 bill that turned out to be counterfeit but the policemen were not called. But they were called on George Floyd, the black man, and he ended up dead. The real counterfeit was by the store owner and the policemen.
The video is so clear, but no immediate actions were taken by the District Attorney. He said there were unknown circumstances that might indicate the policemen were innocent. That poured salt into grieving wounds. I was not the only one who felt such intense pain, strong fear, and great rage. Demonstrations burst forth in city after city in the U.S. and in various cities in Europe and other countries around the world. People were moved by pain and fear and rage to join together to cry out in collective voices.
With the demonstrations growing, the District Attorney moved somewhat. He announced third-degree murder charges against one officer: Derek Chauvin. He did not announce any charges against the other three policemen. However, it was too little, too late. So many felt that a first-degree murder charge was more than merited, and that all three policemen should be charged. The demonstrations intensified and grew broader and deeper and more far flung. As I write this, they are still growing, now in more than 100 cities.
I am in pain for George Floyd and his family and others who loved him. I am in pain for every black boy and black man because the same thing can happen to them. The pain is intense and personal because it could happen to me or worse yet to my sons or grandsons or your sons or grandsons.
I am in strong fear because my sons or grandsons could be next. In fact, I could be next in spite of my old age, my education, my status, my position, and my service. No black male is really safe. I am in rage because this kind of cold-blooded lynching of black men has happened far too many times. And almost no one has been held accountable. It seems that nothing matters to such police officers except the deadly combination of two things: being black and being male. I am both. I was born both. I will die both. But for this moment, let me have my pain, my fear, my rage.
The original American policemen sprung from slave catchers. They were dedicated to enforcing and maintaining white supremacy. That culture of enforcing and maintaining white supremacy is still embedded in too many police forces today. Therefore, they serve and protect white communities while protecting and maintaining white supremacy in black communities. The black man is nearly always viewed as a threat and therefore must be crushed at every opportunity. We must stand. We must challenge. We must protest. Or our rage will kill us.
Henry “Hank” Sanders was a Democratic member of the Alabama senate for 35 years.
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