Twenty bucks started the sequence of events that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in the custody of four police officers. Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit bill at a nearby store. The police were called and, a few minutes later, after being handcuffed and forced to the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck, he was dead.
Six years earlier, Eric Garner was accused of attempting to illegally sell untaxed cigarettes, an offense he denied and was never proven. Yet, he was arrested, wrestled to the ground and choked while surrounded by more than half a dozen New York City police officers — all because of an accusation that he was selling untaxed cigarettes that could have netted probably $20 in sales.
Unless understood in the context of systemic racism African Americans experience, it is impossible to understand how anyone can rationalize and justify such a robust use of police resources. The alleged $20 crimes were not threats to the security of the state.
If the level of harm is the measure used to determine how police resources are deployed, one can only imagine the investment of police resources or use of force that should be required to prevent those who commit tax fraud, which annually costs the government millions of dollars. Or prevent the kind of banking fraud that was at the root of the 2008 global economic meltdown. That economic disaster destroyed the finances of millions of people, many of whom lost their jobs and homes — some even their lives — because of the despair they experienced. Surely crimes of this magnitude would have deserved the fullest application of police power possible.
In contrast, however, to the systemic racism experienced by African Americans — who are over-policed, over-incarcerated and disproportionately poor — accused tax cheats are treated with kid gloves by investigators while surrounded by their lawyers. Only one top U.S. banker associated with the 2008 financial crisis ever went to prison, and he was not beaten up by heavily armed police or thrown down on the board room table when arrested. He did not have to plead with police because he could not breathe. He did not experience an officer’s knee on his neck.
When we think of the protests, anger and violence that the Floyd killing has triggered, let’s not forget his death was the fruit of an environment in which African Americans have experienced systemic powerlessness for hundreds of years. It was this preexisting condition that enabled the arrest and killing over an unproven allegation of a $20 crime.
Let’s also not forget that allegations of crimes that involve the theft of resources involving hundreds of thousands, millions and even billions of dollars result in far different responses by the authorities if the alleged offender has means.
And finally, let’s ask why some authorities have believed that violence against the poor is excusable over alleged crimes as insignificant as Floyd was accused of, when it would never be tolerated if applied to a person with racial privilege.
If we wrestle with that question, we will understand why there is such deep fear, anger and willingness to protest.
Lowell Ewert is associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.