George Floyd, Coronavirus, and the United States of Apathy: Uncovering the American Culture of Violence and Indifference

Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. (Photo was taken by an onlooker.)

1. Context

On May 25, 2020, a middle-aged African American man, George Floyd, was arguably murdered by a white Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for at least seven minutes. The incident was then quickly reported by almost all media outlets around the world, and a video capturing the moments when the incident happened — including moments when Floyd yelling “mama!” and pleading the police officer “don’t kill me” — was widely shared online. Calls for racial justice in the United States have been circulating on major social media platforms.

The incident is viewed as another instance of police brutality and racism by Americans in blue-leaning regions. Massive yet originally peaceful protests demanding an inquiry into the incident broke out in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Area and many other cities across the US; but these demonstrations turned violent as various shops were robbed, police cars vandalized, and police stations set ablaze. In response to the riots in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department used tear gas and rubber bullets to quash the protests, and have reportedly fired at least one shot to the protesters. Rumors suggest that protesters who occupied the Minneapolis 3rd police precinct also seized police weapons in the station. It is expected that the demonstrations will remain violent and continue for a few more days until more actions are taken by local or national authorities.

As of now (May 29, 2020), the four police officers who participated in the incident have all been fired; Derek Chauvin has been charged with 3rd-degree murder and 2nd-degree (“involuntary”) manslaughter.

2. The American Tradition of Violence

Needless to say, the video showing how Floyd was asked to “get up and move into the car” while being knelt down by a police officer is very exasperating. The police officers’ brutal treatment of George Floyd is unlawful and despicable. In my opinion, the police officer’s act is no different from lynching.

However, the vandalism accompanying the violent protests are not lawful, either. While protests are turning more and more violent, local police will also start using more coercive ways of maintaining order (i.e., suppressing the violent protests, curfews). The escalating magnitude of this conflict (Minneapolis Police and National Guards vs. violent protesters/opportunists and peaceful demonstrators) is symbolic of how social events are often resolved––but not permanently settled––in the United States: through violence.

Even though the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (1868) declares that the fundamental rights of all its citizens are protected equally by both the federal and the state governments, regardless of their race or ethnicity, we have seen too many historical instances where the law turned a blind eye to racial suppression. Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, disenfranchisement of black voters through literacy tests, poll tax, and the “Grandfather clause”; rampant lynching of African Americans in the South, the “separate but ‘equal’ doctrine” from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Emmett Till, etc., and the list goes on.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. ”

—14th Amendment to the United States Constitution

It was not until the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s that African Americans in the US acquired the same civil rights that white Americans enjoyed––on the surface, at least. But this progress was a result of a series of riots and bloody conflicts between black Americans and the American political system (represented by the police).

Although Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to follow the relatively peaceful approach of civil disobedience––one that Gandhi successfully implemented in India––the vast majority (“grass-root”) of the black American community has been using (or has been forced to use) violence as the major means to defend their rights since the 1960’s, once their peaceful demands are proven to be fruitless.

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Again, the use of violence as intimidation and show of force, whether it’s by protesters or state apparatuses, is an American tradition to uphold law and order, express anger, or demand justice. All of these should theoretically be done in a peaceful manner (procedural democracy, lobbying, petition, etc.), but these methods have so far not been quite effective for African Americans, and thus the conflicts continue till today. It’s not that the American people want to use violence––they have to do so in order to obtain their claim rights under a political system that does not seem to change much after each societal tragedy.

3. The American Reality of Indifference

It is worthy to note that the incident and the protests happened when America was still in the midst of a global pandemic. As the death toll passed 100,000 recently and there are still more than 23,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases being reported each day, the American government does not seem to be concerned about the ongoing, massive deaths of its fellow US citizens.

While violent protests broke out across the country, unemployment rate reaching 20%, and daily coronavirus cases are re-increasing in most states, Donald Trump’s administration chooses a strategy of shifting the focus abroad, instead of tackling domestic issues. In the past three days, his administration has decided to “completely break ties” with the World Health Organization, send a bomber aircraft into Russian airspace, sign an executive order to limit the power of social media platforms to fact-check posts, and finally expulse Chinese students and put sanctions on Hong Kong in retaliation of China’s new National Security Law in HKSAR. Are these actions aimed at mitigating the current domestic crises? No.

The US federal government’s indifference to the ongoing massive deaths of its citizens is, to some extent, a predictable outcome, since the majority of Trump’s supporters who will vote for him in November are 1) not heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; 2) American nationalists and some even white supremacists, making it not politically profitable for Trump to directly denounce the police brutality in George Floyd’s incident; 3) jobless war hawks and anti-socialists/anti-communists/islamophobic mobs who favor American isolationism and want small-scale wars with China, Russia, Iran or Venezuela to boost domestic demand––so that they can be employed again. Hence, the massive deaths of Americans who are originally not Trump supporters do not matter that much to him and his re-election campaign, besides the detrimental economic consequences that these deaths may result in. That is, unfortunately, the reality in today’s extremely polarized America.

The culture of indifference can be found among the protesters as well. Again, the US is still in the middle of a serious global pandemic, yet the protesters decide to gather in masses, despite the high risk of transmission of the disease (though most of them are wearing masks). Some rogues among them even smash cars and rob businesses that belong to innocent civilians. The indifference to their social responsibilities and others’ properties may eventually cause them to lose public support.

4. United States of Apathy

George Floyd’s death is not the first, and will (unfortunately) not be the last, on the list of events that involve a white police officer killing an unarmed black citizen. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, …, hundreds of lives have been lost to unjustifiable police killing like Floyd’s in the last decade alone, yet nothing — nothing — seems to change on a societal or legal level, despite so many violent protests that have happened. In fact, although the US Congress required the Attorney General to publish annual statistics on police use of excessive force as early as in 1994, this was never carried out, and the FBI does not collect these data either.

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What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

––Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV

America, i.e., the system of the United States, has always been very tolerant of violence and massive deaths. This includes deaths from unjustifiable homicides by police officers, mass shootings, school shootings, wars on foreign soil, political assassinations, public health crises, etc..

While most Americans, i.e., the people of the United States, feel that they have had enough of such excess of deaths and violence, and want to reduce the level of tension in their country; America the system has never succeeded in delivering this popular demand, and arguably, has never tried to do so on a legislative level in the last decade.

The issue is that people who are sympathetic to others’ miseries cannot substantively alter the system of the United States of Apathy for the better.

In contrast, America the system has encouraged the use of violence at the very beginning of the last decade. Through the controversial Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), of which the latter in turn cited the 14th Amendment to uphold the right of an individual to “keep and bear arms,” essentially struck down local laws that restrict the purchase of handguns and the use of rifles and shotguns across the entire jurisdiction of the United States (i.e., “selective incorporation”). This affirmation of violence, though lawful, would result in serious social consequences that are harmful to people’s safety, which is undeniably a more fundamental right than gun ownership.

“Guns don’t kill people; people do.”

––American “proverb”

America the system is like a gun. While there are massive violence and deaths happening again and again under this gun in the past few decades, people tend to blame the person who is temporarily in charge of the gun, instead of the gun itself. The “perpetrator” should certainly be held accountable, but this phenomenon is in itself worth questioning.

Although there are currently nationwide violent protests demanding greater racial justice, racial conflicts in America will not cease until there is a series of substantive, revolutionary policies, such as (but should be more radical than) those passed during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, that aim to further eliminate racial inequality. In my humble opinion, below is what I predict will happen, based on historic records:

Police brutality incident due to racism→Peaceful protests demanding justice and public petitions→Violent riots where businesses are looted and buildings are set ablaze→Escalation of violence by both the protesters and the police, more people are injured or killed→Successful police crackdown on protesters as the protests significantly disrupted others’ daily lives→Police officers who participated in the incident are fired and convicted (usually not a serious crime) →Yet nothing happens to their boss, their department, or the system in general, which caused/should be responsible for the institutionalized, recurring problems in the first place→Presidential or congressional candidates who denounce police brutality are elected→but they do little to actually push the policies (or new changes are defeated in the legislative process; or new policies are not strictly enforced by the bureaucracy)→Wait for a few more months→New police brutality incident due to racism→…

The lack of peaceful negotiations, the nonexistence of a culture/tradition for consensus, and the absence of an explicit system of political responsibility (e.g., “I don’t take responsibility at all”––one of Trump’s most infamous quotes––is reflective of how the American system functions under its current structure of federalism) are holding the country back, reinforcing a never-ending cycle of violence and unnecessary deaths. This is true in America’s handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd incident.

Today’s America is too indifferent to the lives of the Americans.

First-year college student at Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University. Loves writing articles in English, Français, 中文 whenever he has free time. Sapere aude!