We were whipsawed this week by two images of police officers: one, a Minneapolis cop with his knee pressed on the neck of a handcuffed man lying on the concrete; the other, a Grand Forks officer who responded to gunfire in a south-end apartment.
George Floyd, the man on the ground in Minneapolis, died. The officer refused to ease the deadly pressure on his neck, despite Floyd’s repeated appeals captured on video – “I can’t breathe!” – and the pleading of horrified bystanders. He and three other officers who stood by and failed to intervene have been fired. Charges are likely.
In Grand Forks, Officer Cody Holte died after coming to the aid of deputies attempting to serve eviction papers. A woman in the apartment also was killed by gunfire. Two others, including the man alleged to have initiated the gunfire and a Grand Forks County deputy sheriff, suffered gunshot injuries. The deputy sheriff was released from the hospital Thursday evening.
In one city, the community has rightfully rallied to the fallen officer and to all men and women in blue, lighting the night sky with homage in blue, offering support and thanks for doing a difficult and often dangerous job.
In the other city, anger led to looting, vandalism and the setting of fires, which will complicate efforts to bring about justice and a better world.
The violence in Minneapolis is wrong. It will harden the attitudes of people inclined to believe that police are justified in the use of overwhelming force and paramilitary power. It will provide cover to people who have no interest in dealing with the long-festering, underlying reasons for anger.
But hear the truth in words spoken more than 50 years ago by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
And hear the plaintive words of Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis: “Being black in America should not be a death sentence. For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes.”
George Floyd may have committed a crime. He may have committed many crimes. He may have initially resisted the officer. He may have had serious medical issues that contributed to his death.
It doesn’t matter. He should not have stopped breathing because a police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he lay, handcuffed, on the street.
Do you know these names?
Eric Garner, New York.
Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo.
Black people know those names and many others. They know how those men died.
We have to accept that some police-involved shootings are justifiable, lawful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand transparency, compassion and justice when they are not.
Whenever I hear about a black man who dies in an interaction with police, I think of a friend, Jerry Holt, who was a colleague at the Star Tribune. He is a talented photographer, whether reporting from South Africa when Nelson Mandela was elected president, from Uganda during the AIDS epidemic, or from Twin Cities playgrounds where people helped disabled kids play baseball.
He is many other things. He is a retired Marine. He is a father. He practices martial arts.
And he is black.
Many years ago, Jerry was chasing a breaking story in the suburbs of Minneapolis, where police were hunting for a suspect who had been identified as a black man. As Jerry approached several officers, cameras hanging from his neck, they drew their guns.
This week, I asked him if the memory of that encounter returns at times like these.
“You never forget when someone points a gun in your face,” he said.
Investigations continue in both Minneapolis and Grand Forks, and more details may help us understand what happened.
But this much we know:
George Floyd should be alive today.
Cody Holte should be alive today.
And we know that things must change. We have to deal with insane income inequality. We have to deal with guns. We have to insist on better police training. We have to acknowledge and deal with the links between poverty, injustice, systemic racism, the militarization of urban police forces and crime.
On Minnesota Public Radio last year, as he approached his 30th year at the newspaper, Jerry Holt was asked, “What’s your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?”
He said he was optimistic, hopeful, “if we could figure out a way to … [improve] relationships with police officers, so it's safer for police officers and for citizens of all races — but, in particular, African-American men.
“I worry a lot about things that are currently going on with that situation, but I am hopeful and very, very optimistic that those things will improve with education and lack of fear of people.”
But once again, hope and optimism are strained.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.