It's probably impossible to talk about the George Floyd case without offending someone at this point. It has become so over-hyped and exaggerated on several levels that it's unlikely ever to be rationally discussed, either in the media (television, radio, newsprint) or in public or private conversation. No matter what anyone may say about it, from whatever point of view, there is likely to be disagreement, even indignation.
Whenever anyone's life and death are taken up so emphatically and purposefully as his, and made to serve such heavily symbolic or political ends, there's bound to be distortions, half-truths, and fantasies. Many people will believe what they want to believe, some will think what they're told to think, and many will feel constrained by the delicacy of the situation to express what they really feel personally, lest they be condemned and shamed.
What do we know about the case?
George Floyd was picked up in Minneapolis after he attempted to pass a $20 counterfeit bill. Small-time counterfeiting isn't a very big deal. Low denomination bills are made and distributed frequently in poor urban communities. We used to get them with some regularity in a small bookstore where I worked some years ago. I wondered then how any self-respecting crook could make much headway with bills of that denomination. The police didn't seen much interested in pursuing these cases.
Floyd may have been resisting arrest, though to what degree has not been made clear. Floyd was a big man, strong, and seemed cantankerous in the brief flashes of video which have been released. It is not unusual for police officers to push a suspect down on the pavement and put on handcuffs. Though many police departments have outlawed choke-holds or knee-on-back/neck maneuvers, this has been a routine way that suspects of all denominations have been handled for decades in law enforcement.
Video clips of police arrests have become common since the invention of cell phone cameras, and this has led to a number of disputed accounts over police practice and false reporting. The Floyd arrest and death would never have come to public attention without the private unauthorized video of the incident, which "went viral" on social media. Both public and private surveillance and recordation have opened law enforcement to a whole new sphere of exposure and revelation, which is bound to be used or misused by anyone seeking to make partisan points.
Once the video was made public, we witnessed a widespread reaction across the nation, and even abroad, outcry and demonstration by those incensed and indignant about "police brutality" which they believe is a perfect example of racist law enforcement, of oppression by establishment power. It's been taken up as an example of unequal social justice, as proof of the "structural" racism inherent in our official laws and practices. George Floyd is being held up as the poster-child of a whole social movement whose demands include defunding of city police departments, increased funding for African American communities, reduced or commuted sentences for black prisoners, new guidelines for training law officers, etc.
Just what sort of man was George Floyd, and why has his case become so volatile and crucial to the American body politic? His Wiki page reveals a distressingly familiar life-arc, a physically gifted big black boy growing up in the ghetto, good at sports, who gets an athletic scholarship in college, yet doesn't quite make it to the professional level, for whatever reason, who then falls back into reduced circumstances, finding pick-up unskilled work, who fancies himself a small-time Rap artist, fathers several children with different women, out of wedlock, and eventually moves on to a life of petty crime, and a prison sentence (for armed robbery). You could view his life as a tragic example of descent, from hope and effort to ultimate failure and death. Toward the end, he had made efforts to rehabilitate himself, though these efforts may not have amounted to much. Coroners reports indicate he had a virtual "cocktail" of illegal substances in his body, and had hypertension and hardening of the arteries. Watching officer Chauvin resting his knee on Floyd's neck, casually looking at this cell phone, I'm not convinced that there was either malicious intent, or any deliberate attempt to murder. Perhaps the only suprisng fact that's come out is that Chauvin and Floyd probably knew each other, having worked at the same night club as security guards in 2019.
Was George Floyd's life an inspiration? Was his death a great tragedy? In such a situation, these questions are not entirely secondary, though from the standpoint of justice and our democratic values, the taking of a life must always be regarded as a serious commission. As a matter of fact, criminals (of all races and backgrounds) are routinely treated to physical abuse and degradation, both in custody and on our streets. But does this happen to African Americans more than others? Apparently. Yet if we choose to measure these (racial) differences in enforcement, we must acknowledge the disparities in behavior as well. We may consider socio-economic factors in criminal causation, but we must also acknowledge the contexts within which such disparate events occur. If high percentages of crime in urban communities are committed by "people of color" then we should expect a consequent high percentage of such arrests and treatment to be reflected statistically.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the George Floyd case is not its exceptional uniqueness or crucial significance, but its banal routine quality. There are tens of thousands of such cases across the land, of poor young men, of any race or background, seduced into the remote possibility of wealth or fame by the mirage of professional sports or entertainment, who end up in dead-end lives, committing crime, abusing alcohol and drugs, leaving a trail of broken families and neglected children. At the time of his death, Floyd's life was on an all-too-common downward trajectory.
Did George Floyd's life "matter"? Of course, to his relations and those who knew him. But to the general population, the man on the street, his life was part of the great anonymous mass of ordinary people whose lives we never know or care about.
What exactly is "social justice"? Is it separate from actual justice, the justice we fix in law and regulation? Can what people feel, and how they behave toward one another, be legislated and enforced, the same way we legislate law and enforcement of our written laws? Can we tell people how they should regard others? Or is this "social" justice the old "eye for an eye" brand, the vigilante justice of the mob, of the vendetta?
Was George Floyd the victim of legal injustice, or social injustice? Was his death the result of his being African American, a career petty criminal, a victim of class inequities, or some combination of these? And if he was a victim, does his death tell us something important about racial "justice" in America? Without question, it does to a certain degree. But not to the extent that it's being made out to be. Floyds' death was unfortunate, but not heroic. Not tragic. Pathetic. Sad. Unnecessary. But not the occasion for national grief and upheaval.