George Floyd is Freddie Gray writ large. The national outrage over Floyd’s slow-motion killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 mirrors and magnifies Baltimore’s fury over the death of Gray on Apr. 19, 2015.
But Floyd died out in the open, where everybody with a camera could see him and let the entire country share in the revulsion.
Five years ago in Baltimore, the street protests over Gray lasted several days and then expired. In cities across the country, the protests over Floyd lasted weeks.
With Floyd’s final funeral service and burial on June 9, maybe the country quiets down now. But will everyone go back to business as usual when it comes to daily confrontations between police and minority suspects?
If Baltimore serves as a test case, the answer isn’t optimistic. Police here felt they were scapegoated after Freddie Gray, that they were bearing the blame for the troubles they face in neighborhoods where violence is rampant and routine and they’ve got to make snap decisions on how to handle it.
In the aftermath of the Gray outpouring, there were police who made deals among themselves, whispering that they’d simply hold back from entering situations in progress and wouldn’t subject themselves to potential blame.
Meanwhile, Baltimore’s street-corner attitude toward the cops hasn’t noticeably changed. There’s still suspicion and antagonism. Worse yet, the level of violent crime goes on unabated.
Around the country, the police are having a bad time of it now. They’re facing angry demonstrators screaming curses at them. Sometimes, the cops have acted badly in response. The anger on both sides comes from years of tension and frustration.
We have to understand something about police, whose jobs are awfully tough. Most of them are good people. But some are racist and cruel and use the power of their positions for abuse.
But all police are a reflection of the America in which they live — and that America, for generations, has sent them cultural signals that the mistreatment of minorities was alright, that they could get away with it.
Is that news to anyone, that America has a history of racism that goes far beyond police departments?
Is it any wonder that three cops stood around and did absolutely nothing while Derek Chauvin slowly, minute by long minute, committed murder in front of their eyes?
Police brutality comes out of American brutality, the political and cultural and legal kind. It’s an America that has turned a deaf ear to all those black men trying to tell us that they couldn’t breathe.
Even the most empathetic police officers have known it was safest for them to turn away from their worst colleagues’ most brutal behavior, because they faced the kind of institutional gang culture no different than the tightest criminal gang — if you tell our worst secrets, you face the consequences.
Will the nation go back to business as usual now or will we see real changes between police and minorities? The answer is yes, some change must be coming because the bar has been raised, and explicit rules will be changed.
It’s not that the entire country has purged itself of prejudice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. It’s that the police are now on notice that they’re being watched closer than ever, and with more cameras than ever; that their bosses, covering their own asses, will be quicker than ever to punish misbehavior; and the kind of anger we saw in the streets these past weeks might have been big and loud, but it wasn’t as violent as it might have been, not nearly.
And the country can’t stand much more of this, not with so much else going wrong right now.
Freddie Gray was part of the start of things changing.
George Floyd continues those changes.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).