How Not to Mourn George Floyd

When a conviction comes as a relief but offers no consolation.

This newsletter will be a mixture of long form essays and shorter posts that survey the current moment. Today will be one of the days for a series of shorter reflections. Feel free to skim them for the ones you want to read.

Learning from Pelosi’s Blunder

I don’t think I’m alone in finding a somber and guarded relief in the news that former police officer Derek Chauvin had been found guilty on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd. As horrifying as the video of the murder was, it still seemed possible on Tuesday morning that the jury would follow the familiar path of the legal system in giving an accused cop all the benefits of doubt in order to reach a not guilty verdict.

Yet as welcome as Chauvin’s conviction is, there’s little consolation to be taken from it. First and foremost, Floyd is dead and he shouldn’t be. As a human being he deserved the protection of the state and instead was killed by the armed wing of the state. That core injustice, which strikes at the very essence of what it means to be not just a citizen but even just a social being, rightly inspires rage.

Speaking at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi said, "Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.” At which point she lifted her eyes heavenwards. Pelosi continued, “For being there to call out to your mom—how heartbreaking was that—call out for your mom, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But because of you, and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.”

Pelosi’s comments provoked widespread and justified derision. Katherine Krueger of Discourse Blog wrote:

It’s a hell of a thing to thank a man who shouldn’t have had to die for nevertheless teaching us a valuable lesson about “justice.” It’s also a hell of a thing to shout out the absolutely wrenching part of the tape of Floyd’s death where he calls out for his mother and to follow that with the word “but.”

It’s worth asking why Pelosi spoke in such a grating and ill-considered way. The best explanation I’ve seen was from military technology writer Kelsey D. Atherton who wrote:

The language Pelosi used is reminiscent of that adopted for the obituaries of civil rights martyrs, framing it as knowingly risked sacrifice with political aim. She fundamentally misunderstands how Floyd's murder was violence police chose to inflict on him during his daily life. Specifically, Pelosi's words struck me as cribbing from King's obituary for James Reeb, a white UU [Unitarian Universalist] minister who went down to Alabama and was murdered after dining with some of the other marchers.

Pelosi’s speech was an attempt to turn Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s conviction into reassuring morality play, a redemption narrative that can comfort us. The martyr died but the kingdom of God is at hand, where the wrong-doer will face retribution.

But Floyd was no martyr in the way the slain civil rights leader, including King himself, were martyrs. He was just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, living in a society where cops feel, not without reason, that they can kill Black people with impunity. The goal of Black Lives Matter is, in that sense, both radical and conventional: it’s a call for a re-ordering of society so Black people can be left alone, can lead ordinary lives, can walk the streets without worrying that the whim of one cop can turn them into accidental martyrs.

The right to live an ordinary life shouldn’t be much to ask, yet enough people vested in the status quo resist change. Which is another reason why Pelosi’s words hit a sore spot. Whatever “justice” has been achieved has been partial and in the face of an obdurate political system.

Axios reports that, “The unanimous guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin are a huge relief for Washington’s political establishment but seem unlikely to rush in the systemic overhauls George Floyd’s family and civil rights and progressive leaders seek.” Axios added, “Senior Democratic and Republican aides — who would never let their bosses say so on the record — privately told Axios the convictions have lessened pressure for change.”

One can be skeptical of the Axios report for relying on anonymous sources. But if this reporting is accurate, then there is all the less reason to turn a tragedy into a heartwarming redemption story.

April Snow

It’s late April but it snowed a few days ago here in Regina. This is not unusually but still disheartening. At some point even the greatest winter enthusiast wants spring to start. This feeling was well captured by Cliff Sterrett in his comic strip Polly and Her Pals from March 3, 1935. The strip is a jaundiced debunking of the adage that March comes “in like a lion, out like a lamb.”

(Strip from Brian Walker’s The Comics: The Complete Collection).

Ilhan Omar’s Alternative

As a counterpart to Pelosi’s false consolation, it’s worth pondering the concrete alternatives Ilhan Omar is putting forward. Radical steps, yes, but well within the realm of the doable.

Tucker Carlson’s Strange Night

Tucker Carlson had a very strange program last night. He interviewed Former NYC Deputy Sherif Ed Gavin and apparently expected Gavin to agree with him that the Chauvin verdict undermined policing. When Gavin started cogently making the case that Chauvin was guilty, Carlson had a meltdown and cut the interview short. I’d encourage a viewing of the segment with particular attention to Carlson’s maniacal laughter at 3 minutes 15 seconds in.

It’s a bizarre, almost Joker-like cackle. It felt like more than schtick, almost as if Carlson’s nihilism and bad faith could no longer be contained in his body and had to come bubbling out uncontrollably as he tried to defend the indefensible.

At the end of the episode, Carlson started raving about Washington Post writer Eric Wemple investigating into Carlson’s “dusty” college yearbook. I suspect we’ll hear more about those yearbooks.