On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives voted to pass the George Floyd Act, named after the Black man killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last summer. Among many reforms, the act seeks to ban racial profiling, overhaul qualified immunity for police, and ban the use of chokeholds. While these seem like good measures, they are woefully insufficient to stop police violence. These reforms could not have even saved George Floyd’s life.
To be clear, Floyd did not die from a chokehold. A police officer put his knee to Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. A medical examiner’s autopsy reported “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression”. Floyd also had blunt force trauma to his head, face and shoulders. Banning chokeholds is important, as we should reduce the number of tactics that the police can employ to be dangerous. However, the problem with policing is precisely that – they can kill people using a diverse number of tactics. Shooting, kneeling, punching, suffocating, Tasing. Congress banned one practice, and not even the one responsible for the homicide.
Floyd was also probably not racially profiled. He did not have to be if he was breaking the law. Reportedly, Floyd tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store. The clerk called the police because using counterfeit money is illegal. The definition of racial profiling is when police uses someone’s race to suspect that they have committed a crime. Here, Floyd’s act may have constituted a crime and the police showed up to fix it. What’s more criminal than counterfeit cash is the society where people live off of these transactions in corner stores in the first place. The police cannot solve this problem. They can show up and attempt to stop the crime, but they can’t stop the underlying conditions that give rise to it: class exploitation and poverty. Floyd appeared to need cash, not the police.
Congress has had several opportunities to give people what they actually need under the pandemic: money. George Floyd had tested positive for Covid-19 in April. By the time of his death, lawmakers had only distributed $1,200 to the public, and not everyone received this stimulus check. I wonder if Floyd would have used a counterfeit $20 if Congress would have issued $2,000 a month to the public as several activists and progressive legislators have been demanding. George Floyd’s blood is on their hands.
But instead, Congress does what it always does when the police kill people: give cops more money. The George Floyd Act, named after someone who died because he didn’t have money to cover cigarettes, gives millions of dollars to police in grants. And lawmakers gave the police more money right after they failed to secure a $15 federal minimum wage and failed to deliver on the $2,000 checks they promised to voters who put Democrats in office. But, Congress made sure to include $750m in the George Floyd Act to investigate the deadly use of force by law enforcement. Protesters have been demanding to defund the police to keep us safe; not spend millions of dollars to investigate how we die. We know how we die – the police.
The Democratic party has repeatedly said “Black Lives Matter” since the Ferguson uprising in 2014. The Democratic national convention featured images and families involved in racial justice protests. Yet the party has mostly downright ignored the largest network of Black-led organizations, the Movement for Black Lives, who have been demanding that lawmakers pass the Breathe Act, the most comprehensive criminal legal package in the history of the United States. Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib announced the legislation last summer. The Breathe Act invests resources in all communities to alleviate police violence by building sustainable neighborhoods and reducing contact with law enforcement. The Act calls for investments in gainful employment, quality housing, and pilots for universal basic income. But Congress would rather pay for police than give resources to the masses of people suffering police violence.
And under the George Floyd Act, police will still kill more than 1,000 people every year. The victims will be overwhelmingly poor, Black, and disabled.
I completely understand that the political climate might require some compromises on the bill text. Top Democrats will hide behind these arguments to suggest that they will not find support for more progressive legislation. But political will starts with them to plant the seeds among their colleagues to make this possible. They cannot use their Republican colleagues as a shield from criticism when it is actually them, Democrats, who are not committed to more transformational policies. Vice-President Kamala Harris could have overruled the Senate parliamentarian who decided to remove the $15 minimum wage from the new Covid-19 relief package; she did not. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could have stood up and championed the Breathe Act; she kneeled for a photo opportunity wearing Kente cloth instead. And Joe Biden could have kept his promise for $2,000 checks for people facing evictions, hunger and unemployment; he and the first lady put giant hearts on the White House lawn for Valentine’s Day instead.
And we will not forget.