Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of clay Magazine or TPS.
Some readers might find the content herein distressing. Please read with caution.
While Americans are no strangers to discussions about the intersection of race and the American justice system, events in 2020 pushed these issues to the spotlight. Following highly-publicized instances of police violence such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a year ago, Americans questioned and debated: Is racial injustice against people of color ingrained in the USA’s police system? Is police brutality the result of a few bad policemen? How should Americans respond to police brutality? If violence against people of color is systemic, how should justice systems be reformed? These issues are highly nuanced, their origins tracing through American history all the way back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and yet understanding them is crucial to understanding American society and its problems.
One of the first incidents in 2020 that sparked widespread outcry in America and abroad was the death of twenty-six year old Breonna Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky police suspected that Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, was involved in a drug ring. Believing that Glover was using her apartment to hide narcotics, police obtained a search warrant. Just after midnight on March 13, three plainclothes police officers forced their way into Breonna Taylor’s apartment where she was sleeping with her boyfriend Kenneth Walker. Suspecting that Taylor’s ex-boyfriend had broken in, her boyfriend fired a shot from his licensed gun, hitting police officer Jonathan Mattingly on the leg. The officers, returning fire, discharged thirty-two rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor and killing her. Immediately after the incident, one officer was fired and later charged with wanton endangerment for firing into a neighbor’s apartment as well. Taylor’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit and reached a twelve-million-dollar settlement. Furthermore, Louisville police enacted several reforms, including banning no-knock search warrants and making police body cameras mandatory.
The second incident in Spring 2020 which rocked the USA was the killing of George Floyd, a forty-six year old African-American man. The incident began when Floyd bought a packet of cigarettes from a local grocery store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Following standard protocol, the teenage employee, suspecting that the twenty dollar bill that Floyd used was counterfeit, reported the fake bill to the police. Police responded several minutes later, finding Floyd in his parked car. One of the officers drew a gun and told him repeatedly to put his hands outside the window. According to court transcripts from police officer’s body cameras, Floyd was initially compliant as officers dragged him out of his car, handcuffed him, and explained why he was being arrested. The scuffle began when officers tried to force him into the police vehicle. Floyd fell to the ground, saying he was claustrophobic, and the first bystanders gathered, trying to diffuse the situation. Derek Chauvin and other officers arrived on the scene, attempting to get him into the car. Chauvin pulled Floyd away from the passengers side, causing him to fall on the ground face-first, still handcuffed. Chauvin then placed his left knee on Floyd’s neck, holding it there for over nine minutes even as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. Bystanders began filming as he said couldn’t breathe over twenty times, pleaded for his mom, and said he was going to die. Bystanders urged Chauvin to stop but he continued even after Floyd became unresponsive and another officer could find no pulse. Eventually, Chauvin removed his knee, and Floyd was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later.
Even as the US awaited Chauvin’s trial, news of a Black and Latino Army officer’s lawsuit against Virginia police spread on social media. According to body cam and cellphone video footage of the stop, after officers signalled Lt. Nazario to pull over, he put his hazards on and drove slowly for two minutes until he reached a gas station, where he pulled over. Lt. Nazario stated he wanted to reach a well-lit area before interacting with the police. When police officers approached with guns drawn, he rolled down his window and put his hands out of the window, asking officers why he was being pulled over. They didn’t answer, instead shouting Lt. Nazario was “fixin’ to ride the lighting, son” and to get out of the car. He didn’t immediately get out of the car, later saying he feared for his life if he reached down to unfasten his seatbelt. Officers then sprayed him with pepper spray, pulled him out of the car, kicked him, and put him in handcuffs, still refusing to tell him why he was being arrested. The incident report states he was pulled over for not having tags displayed in his new SUV, but body cam footage shows a paper license plate in his rear window. The officers eventually released him with no charges, telling him “If you want to, just chill, let this go, and no charges filed, I’ll take the handcuffs off, get you a bottle of water to drink on, and sit here until you feel comfortable driving.” Lt. Nazario filed a lawsuit seeking one million dollars, claiming the officer violated his rights in the first and fourth amendments, but the court has not reached a settlement yet.
Another incident, adding to the unrest, was the killing of Daunte Wright, a twenty year old African-American man in a traffic stop. According to the town’s chief of police, Tim Gannon, police pulled over Wright for an expired tag and then noticed he had an outstanding arrest warrant for fleeing from police and possessing a gun without a permit. As they tried to arrest him, he called his mother, asking officers why he was being arrested. Wright tried to get back into his car. Body cam footage shows an officer shouting “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and then Wright was shot. Wright drove off, only travelling a little ways before crashing into another car and a concrete barrier. Autopsy reports state he died of a bullet to the chest. Gannon says the incident was an accidental shooting as the officer, Kim Potter, meant to draw her taser. The incident took place just ten miles from where George Floyd was killed.
Following the death of George Floyd, thousands in cities across America took to the streets to protest. While some protesters merely demanded justice for the individuals harmed in these incidents, others believed justice was only possible through a complete reform of the police system. Still others took up the cry of “defund the police,” questioning whether or not the American police system truly protected its people (Tensley). The protests, however, did not stay peaceful, as protesters destroyed property and ransacked shops in cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle. Looting and violence amid the protests drew sharp criticism. Some viewed looting as outside the protests, “hacked by criminal networks” (Wagner). Others, who believe that “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free” defended looting as a way for disadvantaged people to gain power (Escobar). Nearly a year after George Floyd’s death, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of all three charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. While most rejoiced, many disagreed on what kind of victory Chauvin’s conviction signified. Those who viewed Chauvin as a “bad apple” among good police felt a sense of conclusion (McEvoy). However, many protesters believed the conviction of Chauvin was merely a step in the right direction of a long road to justice for all Americans, a belief echoed by former US president Barak Obama, saying, “Today, a jury did the right thing. But true justice requires much more” (BBC). As Christians, our ultimate hope for justice lies not in our justice system, but in Jesus Christ. This should not lead us to complacency or apathy, rather now is a unique time for Christians to speak to America’s unrest.
Booker, Brakkton, and Rachel Treisman. “A Year After Breonna Taylor’s Killing, Family Says There’s ‘No Accountability’.” NPR, NPR, 13 Mar. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/03/13/973983947/a-year-after-breonna-taylors-killing-family-says-theres-no-accountability.
“Breonna Taylor: What Happened on the Night of Her Death?” BBC News, BBC, 8 Oct. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54210448.
Broaddus, Adrienne, et al. “Police Fire Tear Gas at Protesters in a Second Night of Demonstrations after Minnesota Officer Fatally Shoots Black Man.” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Apr. 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/04/12/us/brooklyn-center-minnesota-police-shooting/index.html.
CBSThisMorning, director. Police Officer Fired for Pepper-Spraying Black and Latino Lieutenant during Traffic Stop. YouTube, YouTube, 12 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj66LBel_WQ.
“George Floyd: What Happened in the Final Moments of His Life.” BBC News, BBC, 16 July 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52861726.
Gonzalez, Oriana. “Nearly 100 People Arrested during Daunte Wright Protests in Minnesota.” Axios, 17 Apr. 2021, www.axios.com/100-arrests-minnesota-protests-daunte-wright-89f03863-6b9e-4996-9d9a-4173539a83e9.html.
Halter, Nick, and Torey Van Oot. “Derek Chauvin Found Guilty of All 3 Charges in George Floyd’s Murder.” Axios, 20 Apr. 2021, www.axios.com/derek-chauvin-guilty-verdict-george-floyd-death-c01ef7d6-a027-4d77-bfa1-33586ca7734f.html.
Holcombe, Madeline. “Army Officer Was Afraid for His Life during a Virginia Traffic Stop, Attorney Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Apr. 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/04/13/us/virginia-police-stop-army-lieutenant-lawsuit-tuesday/index.html.
“Never-before-Seen Video of George Floyd Played in Derek Chauvin Trial l GMA.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CjE7J4ig_4.
Staff, WCCO-TV. “Protesters Clash With Police In Brooklyn Center After Deadly Officer-Involved Shooting.” WCCO | CBS Minnesota, WCCO | CBS Minnesota, 12 Apr. 2021, minnesota.cbslocal.com/2021/04/12/bca-reporting-to-officer-involved-shooting-in-brooklyn-center/.
“Derek Chauvin Conviction: ‘This Is Monumental. This Is Historic’.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Apr. 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56824330.
Escobar, Natalie. “One Author’s Controversial View: ‘In Defense Of Looting’.” NPR, NPR, 27 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/08/27/906642178/one-authors-argument-in-defense-of-looting.
Khazan, Olga. “Why People Loot.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 June 2020, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/why-people-loot/612577/.
Layne, Nathan, and Jonathan Allen. “Minneapolis Jury Convicts Ex-Policeman Derek Chauvin of Murdering George Floyd.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 20 Apr. 2021, www.reuters.com/world/us/jurors-resume-deliberations-derek-chauvin-murder-trial-2021-04-20/.
Tensley, Brandon. “Legal Scholar Explains the Origins of America’s Policing Crisis and How It May Change.” KAKE, www.kake.com/story/43929978/how-did-america-end-up-with-a-policing-crisis-and-whats-the-path-forward-an-expert-explains.
McEvoy, Jemima. “Prosecution Paints Derek Chauvin As Bad Apple In Closing Argument: ‘This Was Not Policing’.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 Apr. 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2021/04/19/prosecution-paints-derek-chauvin-as-bad-apple-in-closing-argument-this-was-not-policing/?sh=36d4460254d1.
Wagner, Dennis. “’Peaceful Protests Got Hijacked’: Some Criminals Used George Floyd Protests as Cover for Looting, Police Say.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 18 June 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/news/2020/06/15/criminals-used-george-floyd-protests-cover-looting-police-say/5324881002/.