I am going to be honest with you.
I have no idea how to change a country.
I am merely a black ex-felon who got his life together — and then ran away from America, exhausted by the systemic racism that so pervades society there. I ran away because while a few people close to me cared, I felt that not enough people cared that it made a difference.
Then last week I wrote about George Floyd and why I left and as I post this over 7,500 people have taken a moment from their lives to hear my thoughts. And many of them reached out to me in gratitude and support. And to request that I write more on the topic.
To put that in perspective for me, the town I grew up in currently has a population of 9,500 people — and it grew a lot since I moved away. It’s amazing that you all have taken the time to read my piece, and I feel honored that my article has made an impression on an audience almost the size of my hometown.
You and I can make a difference, we can make a difference, and we can make America a better place for people of all colors and backgrounds.
One thing I do know about is helping people get fit. One key mistake people often make on their journey of change is focusing on what they don’t want instead of what they do want.
You know like “I don’t want this belly fat” or “I don’t want to feel out of shape.” A better starting place is visualizing what you do want. “To be comfortable in your body” or “To live an active lifestyle” are more positive ways to frame your fitness goals, and will more likely lead to success as you begin that journey of change.
I don’t know if this approach can be applied to a path to improve a country, but when I see tons of articles about how we don’t want to have a racist society and we don’t want the police to kill black men, it makes me wonder if it could.
So I want to bring you a vision. A dream of the kind of society I want to live in.
A society that can make us all proud to call ourselves Americans.
The Scene is Set
I want to take you to the moment the police arrived at Cup Foods, May 25th, 2020, at 8:08 pm.
Two police officers are responding to a 911 call from the clerk currently working there. The information given on the transcript (that has been released) informs us that a tall black man is being accused by the clerk of buying cigarettes with a fake 20 dollar bill. He is apparently drunk, refusing to return the cigarettes, and remaining at the scene.
What Happens Next
While I am sure you know the tragic end to this story, you may have missed some critical details of how we will arrive there. Here is where I want to focus:
The two officers approach the car. One of them, Thomas Lane, pulls out his gun and orders George Floyd to show his hands. Mr. Lane then puts his hands on Mr. Floyd and pulls him out of the car.
I want you to reread that last sentence.
Remember that action. Because that is where my vision of how America should operate and how it often does differ.
George Floyd allegedly resists, then is handcuffed and cooperates while Thomas Lane explains that he is being arrested for “passing counterfeit currency.”
There is a struggle to put Mr. Floyd in the car, and additional officers arrive at the scene, including Derek Chauvin. The man who will pull George Floyd away from the car and onto the cold hard ground where he will place his knee on George Floyd’s neck for the next 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
A Quick Thought Experiment
Imagine after having had too much to drink you go to a store which you frequent a few times a week and where the owner personally knows you.
You make a purchase with a $20 bill. After the transaction is done the clerk accuses you of using a fake bill and demands you return the items.
You refuse. Then you wait by your car.
You don’t flee the scene, and you don’t attack the officers when they show up.
How would you expect to be treated?
Let’s Address the Critics
Many of you will reject our thought experiment because it ignores the “facts” of the case.
Such as the fact that George Floyd was not drunk. He was high on drugs.
And that George Floyd has an extensive criminal record.
But none of that is relevant to our thought experiment. Because while we may know these facts now, that officer, Thomas Lane, who pulled out his gun and dragged Mr. Floyd from the car did not know them.
It’s a disheartening (and tragic) fact that as a society we never let many criminals return to a normal life. I cannot say all, since we must not forget that Thomas Lane had a criminal record and was still allowed to become an officer of the law. Felons are not required to wear badges marking them as such.
According to the transcript it was clear that George Floyd was under the influence. But there appears no reason to suspect more than alcohol. The clerk did not suspect more than alcohol and the video footage shows nothing that implies “high on drugs.”
The only relevant difference between the thought experiment and what happened to George Floyd is that you are not a large black male.
And if you are, as I am, then you may have expected exactly what occurred. That a gun would be drawn on you, you will be pulled from the car, and arrested without a say in the matter.
Anything kinder than that is a good day.
What Was the Alleged Crime
Using a counterfeit bill is not illegal. For it to be a crime two criteria must be met:
1. Intent to defraud 2. Reason to know that the bill is not legal tender
Subd. 3. Uttering or possessing. Whoever, with intent to defraud, utters or possesses with intent to utter any counterfeit United States postal money order, United States currency, Federal Reserve note, or other obligation or security of the United States, having reason to know that the money order, currency, note, or obligation or security is forged, counterfeited, falsely made, altered, or printed, is guilty of offering counterfeited currency and may be sentenced as provided in subdivision 4.
But this also is a distraction from what happened that day. The relevant one is that in the United States of America we have a concept known as “presumption of innocence.” Which is more familiar to you as Sir William Garrow’s famous line, “innocent until proven guilty.”
Which means that at the time Mr. Lane pulled his gun on Mr. Floyd, Mr. Floyd was an innocent man.
Except of course for the guilt associated with the color of his skin.
Yes, There Are Exceptions
This is not to say that under every circumstance a cop should not place people into handcuffs as soon as possible, or wait to draw his gun.
If the subject is armed, or posing an immediate threat, then it is appropriate to neutralize the threat, as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. Even if it means ending someone’s life without due process.
But that is not what we have here. We have a man accused of a nonviolent crime, intoxicated, and remaining at the scene. There is no immediate danger to anyone. Regardless of that man’s past, the color of his skin, or whether he is intoxicated, he is still innocent.
What I Want to Happen in My America
In the America of my dreams, a place that you and I can, and will, build together, here is what happens when the officers arrive at Cup foods at 8:08 pm on May 25th:
The two officers talk to the store clerk at Cup Foods, and then identify the suspect.
Next they approach him with courtesy, confirm that he is intoxicated, and simply explain the alleged incident.
“Sir, the clerk believes that you used a counterfeit bill, and we can see that since it appears you are intoxicated now isn’t the best time to sort all of this out. Therefore, we will need to take your personal information so that we can sort this out tomorrow.”
George Floyd cooperates and gives this information to the officers.
The police give the information to the store clerk and tell him to have the establishment contact them tomorrow if they can’t get this sorted out.
In your vision at this point the officers may be done and can exit the scene, but as this is my dream, it’s not quite done.
My dream ends with the police giving George Floyd a ride home — he is intoxicated and we wouldn’t want him to make a poor decision like driving a vehicle. And Thomas Lane has a friendly (albeit intoxicated) conversation with a fellow ex-con who will never know of the bond that they share.
Things That Could Go Wrong
Certainly in my dream there are other potential points where the interaction can deteriorate when the officers approach the situation.
Maybe George Floyd is waiting to ambush the police and because they didn’t pull a gun first he shoots a cop.
But of course we now know that George Floyd was unarmed.
Maybe George Floyd won’t answer the clerk and never goes back to deal with the problem. The store will have lost the cost of the pack of cigarettes.
But I find it doubtful that George Floyd would want to find a new store to pay his cell phone bill just to “get away” with one pack of cigarettes. Especially from a store where the owner knows him and thinks of him as “a big teddy bear.”
Maybe George Floyd refuses to cooperate, and the police are forced to restrain and handcuff him to get the information that the store needs to sort out this unfortunate situation.
There are many ways the situation could still turn out poorly, both for the cops and for George Floyd. But when the default treatment of a man is that he is not only guilty but dangerous too and must be treated as such because of the color of his skin, larger problems will eventually arise. Such as a tragic and unnecessary death. Or the outcry and outrage we are now witnessing in the streets and in our daily news.
An Open Sandwich
Saying that all police officers default to treating black men as guilty and dangerous upon first sight is just as problematic as saying all black men are involved in criminal behavior and should be treated as dangerous.
In fact, I have experienced times when I was stopped by police officers in the United States and they were respectful and let me go on my way.
But I have also had incidents when I hadn’t committed a crime and was minding my own business when I was stopped at gunpoint and harassed for no apparent reason.
I will always remember one night when I was pulled over in Washington D.C., dragged out of my car, and then forced to sit on the curb under armed guard by an officer while his fellow officer took 15 minutes to thoroughly search my vehicle.
And when I say thoroughly, I mean that in addition to the normal search places he literally unwrapped the barbecue sandwich I had just purchased on my way home, and picked through the meat with his fingers. Fingers from the same hand he had used to pull me from the car.
He left the sandwich open on the seat. Leaving me to clean up the mess as both officers pulled away without a word of explanation or an apology.
How Can We Rebuild Trust
Experiences such as the ones I went through do not lend themselves to respecting the law or the legal system.
I am not trying to avoid blame for the crimes that I would commit in the future. It would be ridiculous to say that it is all society’s fault that I matured into a criminal after things went awry in my life. I am not asking for reparations from the punishment my criminal behavior warranted.
But I want you to understand why I believe that the idea that society is not also responsible for the mass criminalization and incarceration of the black community is also absurd. Each individual is responsible for their actions but as a society it is our imperative to be responsible for the environments and experiences which influence individuals’ actions.
And having built a society where 25% of black males will spend time in prison we all need to take responsibility for fixing the problem.
The above statistic is not evidence that the black man is very likely a dangerous criminal and should always be treated as such.
Instead, we should approach it as the black man begging for air, and realize that we are all the ones with a knee on his neck, while he lays handcuffed on the ground.
We need to take the knee off — but we also need to remove the handcuffs.
Or better yet, find ways to avoid putting them on in the first place.
If you found this article informative the best place to connect with me on issues of racial injustice is on Twitter. You can also clap for this article, share it with a friend, or post it to your own social media accounts.
Every voice matters. I hope you might join yours with mine.
Thoughts from Officer Sam (not his real name)
The officer’s initial approach to Floyd with his gun drawn seems weird to me (tv tactics). Once the gun is out you don’t have a ton of options. How was Floyd’s vehicle positioned and where was the officer’s approach route? I don’t like critiquing these events without all the facts or seeing some footage. But if the events played out like you described them, I’m not a fan.
Counterfeit bills are one of the more annoying calls to get. You’re supposed to contact the Secret Service once confirmed. Crazy, right? But they’re pretty common.
Your dream scenario with the ride home could have played out 20 or so years ago, but now that’s frowned upon because of liability litigation etc. If they got into an accident and he got injured the lawyers would have a field day. But they could have allowed him to call a friend or a cab or maybe even arranged a ride for him. Where Floyd’s car was parked matters too. Is it taking a spot on the store’s lot? Is it a metered street spot on city property?
What stands out to me is the call to 911 — a low-end non-emergency call for service. That’s a big part of this problem we are facing. People constantly calling me to solve their problems. Cops are wearing too many hats. They become multi-taskers. And as our Canadian PN friends (1) pointed out, that doesn’t work.
Your open sandwich story annoys me because I know guys that would do that. Tools.
A lot of what you wrote/expressed reminds me of a class we had on implied bias. Which was later debunked, but there are pieces that actually make sense.
And it’s tough being a white cop in an all black neighborhood and hearing “you’re doing this because I’m black.”
But that’s another discussion. The reader should know I worked patrol from 1992–1994 in northwest Baltimore, south of the race track. North of the track was mostly white, Russian and Jewish back then.
1 — This is a reference to Precision Nutrition, the company whose Nutrition Coach certification I maintain, and whose behavior change software I often use with clients while coaching them for weight loss.