Too Little Has Changed in the Year Since George Floyd’s Murder
May 25 will forever be marked by the murder of George Floyd, but the tragedy left a mark on this nation much deeper and consequential than any one day can contain.
As people around the country, and the world, watched the video and witnessed Floyd’s excruciating last breaths, we were forced to reckon with who we are as moral beings and what we’d allowed ourselves to turn blind to. The footage stirred a harsh reality we’d buried and challenged claims of progress.
We watched as Derek Chauvin killed Floyd in the stark light of day with pleading bystanders just feet away. While most people were already fully aware that some police brutalize and needlessly kill citizens, especially men of color, the audaciousness of those minutes in Minneapolis were impossible to escape or brush aside.
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The result was a period of civic unrest and political activism unseen in decades. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets day after day, and in contrast to select footage looped on right-wing media outlets, the vast majority of protests, marches and rallies were peaceful events bent on not letting people forget that George Floyd was a man, a father, a son and a friend whose life was callously taken without just cause, that his life was stolen by a man with a badge who had sworn an oath to protect and serve.
Police reform surfaced as the topic of the time, but what in the course of this year has actually changed?
In the wake of Floyd’s death, several cities pledged to reduce police budgets and refocus resources on community programs, though not all cities followed through. Notably, the Minneapolis Police Department saw a budget increase of $6.4 million aimed at recruiting additional officers.
Some cities here in the Bay Area responded with reforms that reduce the need for police response. San Francisco’s new Street Crisis Response Teams are one such example — the teams, consisting of behavioral health professionals and paramedics, are employed to respond to nonviolent mental health and substance abuse crises. Removing police from the equation in nonviolent situations has proven effective, keeping most interactions from escalation tipping points. Oakland is looking to launch a similar crisis response pilot program in the fall, which would reroute 911 calls that don’t require police force. Berkeley city leaders are attempting to remove police from most low-level traffic stops by way of a new transportation department, though they’ve encountered challenges with state law and pushback from the police union.
But the changes have been slow and anemic, and a spike in crime has fueled resistance to reform, giving police unions the red meat they crave. While crime commonly increases in economic downturns, like what we’ve seen in pandemic life, police unions unfairly point to “defund” efforts as the catalyst for surges. It has become abundantly clear over the course of the past year that reform may have to begin with the level of power police unions wield if we are ever to realize significant change in how officers respond.
We see too often that police over-respond to mental health crises and low-level crimes, that interactions for nonviolent offenses too easily become violent at the hands of police. What George Floyd was accused of — passing a $20 counterfeit bill — hardly necessitated his being detained. He could have simply been cited and scheduled for a court date, and he would have lived to see another day.
Since his death, nearly another thousand citizens have been killed by police. Some of those fatal instances were genuinely born of self-defense or protection of others, but many were not. The need for every crime to end in arrest, for every fleeing suspect to be chased or shot down, is the root of the problem exacerbated by racial bias embedded in our justice system.
Floyd’s murder forged an impetus for change, but real reform depends on the will of the people to not forget and lose interest. Patting our own backs for finally noticing the problem has not resolved the issue.
When we assess what has changed in this year, the answer is honestly not enough.