The Changing History of Police Brutality in the United States

The Tipping Point: George Floyd’s Death

Police Brutality in the United States: Death of George Floyd

“I can’t breathe.”

Sixteen times were these words uttered on the evening of May 25, 2020, near a corner store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These words had nothing to do with Covid-19 symptoms but a Black man being suffocated – brutally, needlessly, and intentionally as eyewitness video would later prove – while being detained by white police officers on suspicion of a non-violent crime.

The man was George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American confronted and arrested by the Minneapolis police. Minutes earlier, a store clerk at the corner store Cup Foods called the authorities over Floyd buying a cigarette pack with an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill. The responding officers believed they were dealing with someone drunk and out of control.

What followed were scenes so horrifying they sparked violent protests, rioting, and mass looting across the United States, even the world. As Sky News puts it, Floyd’s life was no different from that of many Americans, “but the nature of his death changed the course of history.”

The Scenes that Followed

Watch: The New York Times conducts a visual investigation of the events that led to George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Anti-Police Brutality Protests Spread Across the Country

As the world witnessed Floyd’s last moments, anti-police brutality protests emerged in the United States.

Hundreds of Minneapolis citizens started mobilizing on May 26, Tuesday. The earliest demonstrators – a collective of African-Americans, Latinos, and whites – demanded that the four police officers involved be arrested and charged. Derek Chauvin and his accomplices were fired that day.

Former Police Officers Involved in Floyd’s Deadly Arrest

    • Derek Chauvin: The most senior officer in the group, with almost 19 years spent in the MPD (Minneapolis Police Department), pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes;
    • J. Alexander Kueng: Kueng, who helped Chauvin and Thomas Lane restrain Floyd, was only on his third shift as a police officer. He joined the MPD as a cadet in February 2019, training under Chauvin.
    • Thomas Lane: On his fourth day as an officer, Lane helped restrain Floyd while the latter was lying on the ground. 
    • Tou Thao: Thao had been with the MPD since 2012. He stood nearby as the other officers restrained Floyd. 

By Thursday, however, arson, riots, and widespread looting had spread across the city. Mayor Jacob Frey declared a state of emergency, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz activated the National Guard.

Amid the growing unrest, Chauvin faced charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday. Second-degree murder would be added to the charges a few days later.

Fury began sweeping other states and cities as these events unfolded. Marches were held in major areas like Los Angeles, Louisville, and Memphis. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Floyd’s birthplace, people turned up in a peaceful gathering on May 30.

At least 140 cities had participated in the public outcry, according to May 31 data collected by the New York Times.

People took to the streets in response to Floyd’s killing. But the rallying cause touched on a deeply entrenched social problem: the link between police violence and racism, particularly by white police against members of Black communities.

The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, reaching coast to coast. In the last decade, the crowds coming together in its rallies were mostly composed of African-Americans. But more diverse groups, particularly a significant presence of whites, have participated in recent demonstrations.

Aside from George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, people have been urged to remember the names of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, GA, and Tony McDade in Tallahassee, FL.

Parallels have been drawn between Floyd and Eric Garner, who also died after an officer put him in a chokehold during an attempted arrest.

From Minneapolis to Washington:

Fury Over Floyd’s Death Spread Across the Country

Yet, the riots that have simultaneously occurred with the peaceful, focused protests since May have made things more difficult. Activation of the National Guard has also occurred in other states: 21 in total by May 31.

The descent to chaos has been harrowing. On the second day of the demand for justice over Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, groups of young men set fire to precincts and private establishments. Looters ransacked a Target store and liquor shops. A curfew was imposed at the end of that fateful month.

Curfews & punishment for breaking them:

    • Minneapolis, Minnesota: 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m.; punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail
    • Washington DC: a two-day curfew starting at 7 p.m.; 10 days in jail or a $300 fine
    • Chicago: 9:00 p.m to 6:00 a.m; punishable by a $500 fine
    • New York: 8:00 p.m to 5:00 a.m.; up to 90 days in jail
    • Los Angeles: 6:00 p.m to 6:00 a.m; up to six months in jail, $1,000 fine, or both
    • Philadelphia: 6:00 p.m to 6:00 a.mm; up to $500 in fines
    • Atlanta: 9:00 p.m to sunrise; warnings and arrest

Other cities and states with curfews:

    • Birmingham, Alabama
    • Arizona (whole state)
    • Denver, Colorado
    • Miami and Orlando, Florida
    • Scott County, Iowa
    • Indianapolis, Indiana
    • Detroit, Michigan
    • Atlantic City, New Jersey
    • Raleigh, North Carolina
    • Cincinnati, Ohio
    • Nashville, Tennessee
    • Fort Worth, Texas
    • Richmond, Virginia
    • Madison, Wisconsin

Police Response

The title of a New York Times piece on the police response to the protests is telling: Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force.

“Videos showed police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders, and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked. The footage, which has been shared widely online, highlighted the very complaints over police behavior that have drawn protests in at least 75 cities across the United States.”

Shaila Dewan and Mike Baker, The New York Times

Similar reports have poured in from many parts of the country, most of them caught on video.

Police officers stopped two college students in a car in downtown Atlanta, firing Tasers at them and forcing them out of the vehicle. Other video footage shows two New York Police Department SUVs ramming into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn. An officer in full riot gear pushed down an older man with a cane in Salt Lake City.

Back in Minneapolis, officers appeared on video yelling at people on their porches to get inside and throwing paint canisters at them.

Such displays of aggression by law enforcement have been met with resistance. As the clashes continue, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, asks an important question:

“When the police respond by escalating force – wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters – it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. But if we know that (and have known that for decades), why are police still doing it?”

Maggie Koerth and Jamiles Lartey, The Marshall Project

In general, the police have used weapons, tear gas, mass arrests, and other tools to enforce order among demonstrators. This has not been effective. In fact, a Kerner Commission report found that this approach had been pivotal to starting half of the urban riots studied. It recommended the elimination of these “abrasive policing tactics”.

But do de-escalation strategies have a place in policing protests? In the case of the Berlin Police Department, as studied by Sociology Professor Anne Nassauer, transparent communication can decrease tensions between the police and protesters.

With both sides being given a chance to state their intent, the atmosphere can become less threatening. Clear and extensive messaging starts with the authorities, who may have the appropriate technology to address the crowd (e.g. loudspeaker vans).

Officers wearing yellow vests with the label “Communication Team” instead of full riot gear with the police department’s name in full view can also increase approachability.

However, de-escalation efforts do not guarantee to work in every demonstration, according to former law enforcement officials. Good policing can be more complicated, according to Scott Thomson, the former chief of police in Camden, New Jersey.

When an unpredictable thing happens, the police may also face challenges in determining the right amount of force to apply. Police tactics may vary depending on the dynamics at work in each situation.

Protest Against Police Brutality & Violence

Maintaining law and order in rallies is no longer as straightforward as in days past. Before, police would meet with protesters and lay down the ground rules for the latter to successfully do what they had the right to do. This negotiated management, however, fell apart during the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.

Protesters violated the negotiated terms when they broke windows and blocked streets. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, says law enforcement took away the wrong lessons from it.

“What a lot of people took from that in policing is, we can’t trust these people. We need to be smarter and overwhelm them to nip these things in the bud. We sort of went backwards,” Maguire adds.

The Madison Model

One of the de-escalation methods that have lasted for over two decades is the Madison Model. Initiated by the former police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, David C. Couper, this approach promoted the theory that police officers are social workers in blue.

Couper was known for sending officers in blazers and shorts to march peacefully alongside anti-Vietnam protesters at the University of Wisconsin. He told rookie officers that it was okay to avoid confrontation, to de-escalate, “to find better alternatives; you don’t have to be so quick to use deadly force.”

A softer way of policing protests, the Madison Model involves showing up in their uniform, being present, talking to people, and listening to their grievances. “You listen, you relate” – even as you have more equipped officers waiting nearby in case something untoward occurs.

This model discourages showing up with the use of force first, ever, because “it ratchets up everyone’s expectations for violence and … generate[s] it,” Couper says in an interview.

Charges & Complaints

Whether the Madison Model would have worked had the police tried it in the latest uprisings is still up for debate. What we know is that, in the aftermath of some confrontations between police and civilians, both sides have started filing charges against one another.

On one end, the civilians maintained that they had only been exercising their constitutional right to protest. In the  Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, 371 complaints were made against officers who had used excessive force (56%) and improperly searched the protesters (25%), leading to a violation of their 4th Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, protesters also found themselves arrested or on the receiving end of complaints. In Portland, Oregon, seven protesters were accused of defacing a federal courthouse and assaulting federal officers during protests.

Some types of situations fell in between:

In a peaceful protest in Tampa, 67 people were arrested because of violence or vandalism. They would not be charged over their unlawful conduct.

In Washington, hundreds of protesters were arrested from May 30 to June 15. Majority of them were taken in custody because of curfew violations. Many of the cases will not be heard until fall.

Meanwhile, LA has decided not to seek criminal charges or fines against protesters involved in mass arrests.

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