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The Justice for George Floyd March took place in Minneapolis on April 19 during jury deliberations in the trial against former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was later convicted on all counts of murdering Floyd.

Voices / Column

Tinder makes a hot flame

The Chauvin verdict came as a relief, but nothing has changed. Black or Hispanic people are four times as likely to have been killed by police as white people — and violence seems inevitable.

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. He serves on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper.

West Brattleboro

I am writing, as a white person, to other white people. My Black friends don’t need to hear me talking, since they know this all by heart. I want to make that clear.

We all know the name of George Floyd now, and that of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who was convicted of murdering him last week.

Anyone who knows the United States watched the trial closely, since flames were already kindling in Minneapolis. A verdict that let Chauvin escape his crime would have turned these flames to wildfire, much as happened in 1992 in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict.

The Chauvin verdict was a relief. Justice was done, and Minneapolis did not burn. And now we know George Floyd’s name, and we know Derek Chauvin’s name.

But nothing has changed. George Floyd is still dead.

* * *

Here are some other names.

Daunte Wright.

Andrew Brown Jr.

Ma’Khia Bryant.

Adam Toledo.

How many of these names do you know? What happened to them?

The easy answer is that each of them was shot dead by a police officer during the last couple of weeks.

Wright was 20 years old, in a new car that his mother had bought for him. He was pulled over on April 11 for a traffic violation and shot as he tried to get back in his car. He was not armed. He had a young child.

Brown did not have a clean record and on April 21 was pulled over on a warrant for a drug violation. He was shot in the back several times as he tried to drive away. He was not armed.

The other two — Ma’Khia and Adam — were children.

Ma’Khia had just turned 16, in foster care. It’s not clear what the story was, but on April 20, she had a knife and was in a fight with two other girls around her age. Within 10 seconds of the police responding to the altercation, she was shot dead.

Adam, 13 years old, had a handgun and was chased by police into an alley. Police body camera footage shows that he had dropped the gun and had both hands in the air, complying with the officer’s orders. Yet he was still shot dead.

* * *

The litany of incidents of police violence and oppression against Black people will not end because Derek Chauvin was convicted. In fact, it is not even slowing down.

The litany of the names we should know — the names of all the unarmed Black people who died because of white violence — stretches back a long way.

Most of us know some of the major ones, like Trayvon Martin.

Michael Brown.

Eric Garner.

Sandra Bland.

Philando Castile.

Breonna Taylor.

* * *

Anyone could be relieved that the Chauvin verdict did not set Minneapolis on fire. With National Guard on the streets and in helicopters flying overhead girded for the possibility, it is easy to imagine the conflagration that would have erupted had Chauvin been declared not guilty.

But there is no relief in any of this. Each new trial brings a new threat of a loss of civil order between the forces of white power and those who fight against these daily murders.

Chauvin’s case is unusual in that he was convicted — an almost unique moment in the annals of police killings of Black people.

According to a Washinton Post analysis of fatal killings by on-duty police officers from 2015 to the present, the rate of police killings is about 1,000 a year, or three per day. Black or Hispanic people are four times as likely to have been killed by police during the past five years.

We see only the ones that were caught on tape and put out on media. If Floyd’s murder had not been recorded, the original Minneapolis Police report might have stood as truth. It was all lies.

Now, the eyes of the media are on the situation of white violence against the Black person, for the first time since the Jim Crow lynching era more or less ended in the South in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rising generation, at least part of it, has demonstrated a willingness to go to the barricades to fight police violence.

At the same time, the extreme right has already demonstrated its willingness to use force to try to maintain the white supremacy that has marked this nation since it was founded. Watch the Jan. 6 tapes of the Capitol insurrection if you don’t know what that means.

The people breaking into the Capitol were led by Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, but most of those who followed them inside were ordinary, middle-class white folks, the same people who might sell insurance or work in a bank or sell real estate.

The same people who might live next door to you.

* * *

Racial hatred is a central fact of the nation, and it is how the Republican Party has been able to maintain its hegemony since Richard Nixon first developed his southern strategy. The ongoing demonization of the Black body is central to the mechanisms of oppression in this nation.

What amazes me, honestly, is how so many people I know feel the deep well of hope to simply be accepted, just to have a decent American life without the constant fear that goes with having brown skin.

I still remember how last summer one of my favorite ballplayers, a New York Met named Dom Smith, wept as he was in a press conference talking about how he felt after seeing the tape of the George Floyd murder. “It’s not fair,” he said. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

The Black person is the endless Other for the white, no matter how deeply we try to espouse the same goals and beliefs, how hard we take the latest police killing. We can’t know what it means to be Black in America. We just can’t.

This summer there will be more verdicts. There are bills and initiatives on the table — like making Washington, D.C. a state or some first conversations about reparations — that won’t go anywhere now but maybe will someday. And there will also be more trials and juries, with people watching.

There is strong tinder in the fields now, in the United States. In many places it has already been lit.

One hopes for a way forward that does not involve violence, but violence seems inevitable to me. Tinder makes a hot flame.

* * *

We are at war in this nation. The polarization — between the white nativist forces that have always composed the bedrock of the colonized land and the forces that have seen hope in the language of our documents despite how rarely we have lived up to them — has not been fiercer since the 1850s.

There are always middle grounds in a battle. Sometimes it is a river, sometimes it is no-man’s land. Sometimes it is neutral ground where people speak in serious and honorable ways.

Perhaps there is some middle ground in our current national governance, but I have yet to see it, and doubt that I will anytime soon.

I like the idea of middle ground, but the idea that it is up to those who stand for liberal democracy and civil rights to build bridges to those whose ideas of these are rooted in nativism and a desire to return to the 1950s? That seems wrong to me.

To create some true middle ground may be impossible right now. A lot of folks are too exhausted by the struggle even to try.

We are relitigating the Civil War right now, and it may be that Sherman’s march is a better metaphor than Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” after his 1938 summit with Hitler.

* * *

I hope it is not the case, but it seems likely to me that sparks of events will make the coming summer a long and hot one.

The armed militias have gone quiet for a time, but they will come back. The war against democratic values is still raging on the right.

The left is primed to fight now. Young people are on the barricades every night in some cities. The potential for Black outrage at white crimes to boil over is something we know from history and need to recognize.

We need to think about what Minneapolis would have been like if the Chauvin verdict had gone the other way. We should keep in mind what real fires look like, and we should remember our history.

What will the fire be like next time?

And let’s at least try to know the names. Not just the new ones, but the old ones, too.

Ephraim and Henry Grizzard, lynched in 1872 in Tennessee.

Samuel Smith, lynched in 1924 — he was 15.

Like Ell Person, one of the 232 recorded lynchings in Tennessee, according to a state web page.

It’s just one state, and far from the worst. But I was researching the question of lynchings in Tennessee, and I came across this passage: “Tennessee’s ‘greatest lynching carnival’ was held in Memphis in May 1917 when Ell Person, the allegedly confessed ax-murderer of a sixteen-year-old white girl, was burned to death in the presence of fifteen thousand men, women, and little children.”

Search on the web, and you can find longer lists — lists that stretch back for well more than a century now, although not until after the Civil War ended did the names of lynched Black individuals began to be recorded, sometimes on postcards that showed the murder scene.

It used to be legal in Virginia to kill an enslaved person if you paid compensation to the enslaver. More than 400 Black men were killed that way in the pre–Civil War era.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

That’s just true. The lust, exploitation, and violence that characterize white America’s treatment of BIPoC people is inscribed in the DNA of the nation.

Speaking as a white person talking to white people, I think that it is important for us to bear this in mind as we watch the coming months unfold.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #610 (Wednesday, April 28, 2021). This story appeared on page C1.

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