Like all black parents, I believe that talking to my children about the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd also involves contextualizing the current struggle against police brutality within the generations-long struggle for equal rights. I need my sons to know that the fight they see on television is part of a larger struggle that started long before they were born and that they must take up after I am gone.
This week I told my older son, a sensitive 7-year-old, that his grandmother participated in protests when she was not much older than he is now. I told him that she, too, faced police brutality and that one day it would be his turn to fight this battle.
But my kid is just a kid. He listened to my family history lesson, yet when thinking about his role in this story, he was optimistic as only a child can be. He told me cheerfully, “Maybe this time will be the last time.”
This time will not be the last time. This will not be the last time the police brutally murder an unarmed black civilian. This will not be the last time that murder is captured on camera. It will not be the last time that black people take to the streets to demand justice or that cops respond to those demands with even more violence and brutality. It will not be the last time that mayors and other local officials make excuses for police violence.
The past few weeks have opened some eyes to the systemic brutality faced by black people. But for things to get better for my kids, people will have to maintain their energy and their demands for police reform over the next few weeks. And months. And years. The system of white supremacy enforced and protected by the American police was not built in a day, and it will not be dismantled in a day. What will people be prepared to do two weeks from now to make the world safer for black people than it was two weeks ago? What will they be prepared to do in two months? In two years?
Already, the infrastructure is in place for this country to ignore police brutality the moment everybody stops shouting about it. Despite the general unrest, politicians from both parties have offered a steady stream of excuses for the police brutality being inflicted, ironically, on people demonstrating against police brutality. There is not enough space to list all the atrocities we’ve seen on video in just the past few weeks, but they include cops driving cars into people, cops beating nonviolent protesters with sticks, cops firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters at point-blank range, military units galloping at unarmed civilians so the president can do a photo op, and cops pushing an elderly man to the ground and stepping past his body as he bled from his skull.
The media, too, is laying the groundwork to ignore police brutality as soon as possible. Despite video evidence that directly contradicts police reports, the media still presents the official justifications for police violence in order to offer “both sides” of the story. News anchors still manage to generate more outrage over property destruction than they do over the teargassing and arrest of journalists. And publications still print op-eds calling for the armed forces to be deployed against US citizens.
The current scrutiny has produced some accountability. The cops in Buffalo who assaulted the elderly man have been charged. The editor who headed the section and defended the op-ed threatening Americans with military violence has resigned. When everybody is watching, some people can do the right thing.
But 57 other cops in Buffalo resigned from that special unit (though not from the police force) to protest those two officers being held to account. And while one editor lost his job, many, many more remain committed to the idea that white supremacist logic should be given equal time and legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas.
A few weeks from now, those officers and that editor will have melted back into the establishment. Will a cop think twice about killing an unarmed black man in the future? Will a reporter think twice before uncritically quoting a police report about that murder? The protests have raised awareness, but will new allies maintain the vigilance needed to see systemic change come to fruition?
Or will people get distracted? After all, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, with unemployment approaching Great Depression levels, while being led by a racist authoritarian liar in an election year. In a few weeks, those issues will be back at the forefront of American consciousness.
Until the next time an unarmed black person is killed by police on camera. And the time after that. And the time after that. Eventually, it will be my sons’ turn to protest the fact that this problem everybody is aware of still hasn’t been solved.
All I can hope is that when it’s my sons’ turn to take to the streets and demand justice for a victim of police brutality, the name that they’re chanting isn’t mine.