Read: The double standard of the American riot
Over the past 10 years, the proliferation of mobile video and social media has exposed the pervasiveness of police brutality. Millions of Americans can instantly watch footage of police throwing a young black girl around outside of a pool party before jamming a knee into her back. They can hear Eric Garner’s and George Floyd’s final words—“I can’t breathe!”—through their own devices. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but it is also a great accelerant, Catherine Lhamon, the chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, told me.
On November 15, 2018, Lhamon’s commission released a report on how police use force in common situations. Among the most crucial reforms it called for was to “shift their frame from warrior to guardian,” Lhamon said. When I asked her what cities had started to effectively implement that framework, she pointed to the one that launched hundreds of active protests across America: Minneapolis. “Change is slow and hard to sustain, and that is a painful lesson of history,” Lhamon said. On Tuesday, the Minneapolis Board of Education unanimously voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. “I value people and education and life,” Kim Ellison, the school-board chairwoman, told the Star Tribune. “Now I’m convinced, based on the actions of the Minneapolis Police Department, that we don’t have the same values.” Officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has been charged with second-degree murder.
“Reports are a key component of driving change, but they can’t be the only one,” Lhamon told me. Politicians have to actually act on the recommendations—the ones that have been laid out decade after decade—and they have to do it now. Even still, police are rarely convicted for crimes related to brutality or shootings while on duty. “People are living inequality now, and they need collective redress for that inequality now.”
The Kerner Commission ended its final report with a note of exasperation. Kenneth Clark, whose research had informed the Brown decision, provided the commission’s coda. “I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot,” he had testified to the committee.
“I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
On Tuesday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio called for a national commission on race to have “a robust and inclusive national dialogue on racial inequities.” He hoped it could be packed with individuals such as former Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama who “have spoken eloquently about racism as a stain on our national character.” The next commission will issue informed and well-meaning recommendations. But they won’t be surprising. Because we’ve heard them all before.