With jury selection in the case of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ongoing this week, the death of George Floyd under Chauvin’s knee is once again back in the news.
Think for a moment about the video of Floyd’s death. Of the eight minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, his hand in his pocket, a Black man killed in broad daylight over an accusation that he might have passed a counterfeit $20 bill.
And then watch the video of former MLB outfielder Johnny Damon and his wife, Michelle, during a February traffic stop in Florida. They are combative, ignore officers’ commands, and at one point Damon pushes one of the officer’s hands away from his wife.
Never at any point are the Damons mistreated.
Let me be crystal clear: the couple should not be in a hospital. They shouldn’t have been shot or choked or slammed to the ground, their faces bloodied or broken. Despite being combative, ignoring commands and pushing an officer, police handled the interaction as they should have. The penalty for DUI and resisting an officer is not now, nor has it ever been, injury or death.
But there have been countless times I’ve been on social media and seen people say that Black citizens, even children, wouldn’t have been killed or choked or slammed to the ground by police “if they’d just complied” with officers’ commands.
So why were the Damons treated properly? They were combative. They blatantly ignored repeated directives, particularly Michelle Mangan-Damon.
For Black Americans, this kind of event is mostly met with gallows humor, like Chicago sports radio producer Herb Lawrence, who tweeted, “Rest In Peace to Johnny Damon and his wife. They should have complied to the officer’s demands and they would not be dead now. Wait…what was that?!”
Because we know, we have long known, what some realized only after the callous, inhumane killing of Floyd: all too often there are two systems of policing, two systems of justice in this country.
I have heard the screams of a 9-year-old Black girl in Rochester, N.Y. after she was pepper-sprayed by police. I have seen Black folk and their allies peacefully marching, yet be met by police in full military-style gear, as though they were preparing to face an enemy combatant and not the citizens they’ve sworn to protect and serve. I’ve been sickened by video of an Arizona police officer body-slamming a Black teenager with no arms or legs. Six years later I still can’t shake the grainy images of Tamir Rice’s final moments, a Black child alone in a Cleveland park with a toy gun, killed by officer Timothy Loehmann before Loehmann’s partner had even put their cruiser in park.
Once they’re old enough to walk the neighborhood alone, whether to school or the corner store, and especially when they’re old enough to drive, Black parents have to sit their children down and instruct them on how to deal with police. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, even when those guidelines — keep your hands visible at all times, respond “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am,” don’t be disrespectful — are followed to the letter.
Damon was visibly drunk, slurring his words as he lamely said, “guys, we’re all for cops,” to the police who had pulled him over after watching him swerve, roll through a stop sign and hit a curb as he was driving home. His wife showed no regard for officers’ instructions, ignoring them again and again. Damon, who is of white and Thai descent, told her to walk the rest of the way to their home while an officer told her not to leave and instructed a colleague to “secure her.”
The Damons behaved the way they did because they knew, subconsciously or consciously, that being white, and especially being white and rich, meant that they would never be mistreated, despite Damon being a clear danger to anyone else on the road with them.
They were never in any danger of being shot for their behavior, never suspected for a second that they might take the end of a billy club to the mouth for trying to shout down officers.
And they shouldn’t have to have those concerns, even as they were clearly in the wrong and being disrespectful.
All we want is that same standard to apply to everyone that doesn’t look like the Damons.