ABSTRACT: Any culture — police culture, included — is hard to change. Culture, the narratives we create to account for and justify our idea of how to maximize self in the layered contexts of family, group, country, world and cosmos — is like the air we breath. Culture is largely assumed without us being conscious of it. So the question arises: Will the death of George Floyd finally be the tipping point that leads to real change in racial prejudice? The answer put forth here is it very well might be. There is one reason for this: for many people, three seemingly separate things — Trump, the Coronavirus and George Floyd — nevertheless connote the same emotions of uncertainty, vulnerability and fear, so together they are acting as an accelerant on the fire set ablaze by a Minneapolis’ immoral and murderous knee. This metaphorical merging of different things that are founded on the same emotions allows people to insinuate their own story into the story of George Floyd. This is an operation of mind that uniquely can impact on belief systems that are typically impervious to data and information input.
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Human nature, history, and linguistic expression — words — create culture. Culture is the ingrained stories we tell ourselves about how to maximize self in the layered contexts of family, group (by race, age, ethnicity, neighborhood, religion, profession), country, the world and the cosmos. Such narratives help us situate ourselves, they ground us and give us a sense of belonging, as well as a sense of what we are separate from. Culture is like the air we breath — largely assumed without us being conscious of it.
When culture is conceived of in this most basic human way, it can be seen that changing a culture — any culture, including police culture — is a very difficult task. Culture manifests itself in the most mundane ways: what we wear, what we eat, how we greet, and what seems familiar and unfamiliar to us.
When our everyday routines, for whatever reason, are stopped, we feel disoriented. At the same time, though, such a situation can also provide an opportunity for reflection on the meanings we impose on our world and on the world. “Stop” can help put things in perspective…except when so many things are shocking the system all at once — shocks such as Trump, the Coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd by a policeman’s brutal knee — unless those things allow for metaphorical merging.
Trump, An Interruption of Our Daily Routine
Trump as POTUS is unlike any president we’ve seen before. He is a square peg in an Oval Office. Putting aside any of his specific policies, his overall intention seems to dial up the Culture Wars, higher than ever. Trump, like any autocrat skilled at propaganda, seeks to cause confusion and conflict — to keep people off balance and attending to anything other than his executive actions, particularly ones that impact on the judiciary, the environment, school systems and Wall Street.
Coronavirus, An Interruption of Our Daily Routine
Before the trauma of the untimely death of George Floyd, all people were under the yoke of a pandemic. Suddenly, the familiar was unfamiliar. All we hold dear, was just snatched away with a sleight of hand by a bat out of hell. To defend against infection we stayed home. A strange feeling obtained: I miss where I am. It looks the same, it feels different. Things feel out of whack.
When Coronavirus is invisible, but outside my door, some predictable and some unpredictable experiences happen. There’s an overhang of fear to daily life. But also time becomes elastic. Not going to work or school, we can get up late, or early. We can eat when and what you want, not from our office or school cafeterias. Strangely, though, the usual routines we sometimes complain about are missed. We ask, routine rituals, where are you?
A Murderous Police Knee, An Interruption of Our Daily Routine
Black people — and all people of color — are all too familiar with what seems like a staccato series of racial injustices, an unlawful choke-hold on their personhood. This is an affront that started with the slaughter of native Indians before America was the USA, and hopefully has now begun to end on a street corner in Minneapolis. Initially, the carbine won out over the bow and arrow. Now the smartphone camera has perhaps won out over the assumptions of those who, with anger, hold a riot club and wear a badge in the name of “law and order.”
America’s original sin was to enslave a whole people. Why? For what always has been primary in America: business and profit, before anything else. A whole people were deemed property in servitude for economic reasons. So in order to assuage its guilt, America defined each black not as a person. Then America could justify its enslavement of colored people, kidnapped and brought to places such as New Orleans on slave ships from Africa and the Caribbean.
Coronavirus and George Floyd’s Murder Are The Same
Given all these interruptions the question arises: Will the killing of George Floyd finally lead to real, lasting change — change in police behavior and the assumptions that underlie it, as well as changes, in general, regarding racial discrimination?
The answer is: THIS MOMENT IN HISTORY CAN BE DIFFERENT.
That’s because one plus one plus one — The inauguration of Trump, plus
the coronavirus plus the death of George Floyd — are metaphorically the same, inasmuch as each connotes the same emotions: uncertainty, vulnerability and fear. FEAR OF DEATH.
Even Trump’s base mostly came to him out of fear — fear of traditional power structures and the coastal elites not understanding or caring about them. Many of Trump’s supporters felt they didn’t have a voice and were marginalized. They thought Trump would change that.
This potent joining of the emotional meaning of Trump, Coronavirus and George Floyd helped to bring millions of people from around the world, out into the streets, protesting. And when different belief systems metaphorically merge, change can happen..
The Hard Road From Street Protests to Structural Change
Let’s ask again: Will George Floyd’s suffocation by a policeman’s knee actually be the tipping point that begins an unstoppable process to put racial discrimination in its place — remembered, but buried in the American annals of national sin?
Many people are optimistic; their answer to this question is “Yes!” Hope is part of human nature. But so is tribalism and aggression. Change in belief and behavior is actually quite difficult to achieve, even in the presence of positive, sincere intent. Change is hard. Apathy is easy.
Acknowledgement is lacking of the price paid by colored people by virtue of the stress they are subjected to resulting from having to always be hyper-vigilant for the blows of prejudice. Living with a chronically-activated fight-or-flight response levies a huge physiological — not to mention a psychological — toll.
Acknowledgement is also lacking that there must be consequences for unlawful — and immoral — police behavior. A jury trial of Derek Chauvin must return a verdict of guilty and incarceration of an appropriate length must follow. Apologies or excuses — or the recalcitrance of police unions — must no longer be the end of the story.
How Belief Systems Work
Much care, persistence, strategic thinking and creative planning are required to assure an end of long-entrenched racial prejudice.
The first obstacle is the normal workings of the brain — information, data, and facts are puny in the face of belief. And belief is the engine of history.
We incorrectly assume that people are rational, logical, objective thinkers. We incorrectly assume people can be educated to be morally better. Change is not the purview of education. Change is the purview of personal experience.
To form a more perfect union, a state of consciousness needs to be created such that people can symbolically and metaphorically insinuate their own story into the story of George Floyd. That’s an emotional, narrative process, not a straightforward utility checklist. That’s how people living under the Covid-19 pandemic found a kindred spirit with Black Lives Matter. The Coronavirus acted as an accelerant to a wider response to a policeman’s killing knee. In a sense, both were considered “germ warfare.”
We know about both ends of the Bell Curve — those for or those against racial discrimination. They are already locked into their positions.
Attention must be paid to the Undecided, the Confused or the Fence-Sitters. If they can be turned — or actually, turn themselves — into active supporters for change, change will appear as a result of their vote in federal and local elections, and not just as a result of shouts on street corners.
Police forces in America were originally created for the purpose of protecting property and property owners from rioters who owned no property and had little. America means “business.” Today we live in a different, and very complex, world. The whole idea of police must change.
Again, words count. Words such as “Law and Order” and “Riot Police” carry assumptions by police who stand on their implied “I’m going to whoop you” meanings. Yes, we need police to perform certain critical tasks such as direct traffic, deal with terrorism, and foil bank robbers. We also need “community service professionals” who are selected and further trained to behave in ways that promote their community’s common good.
And we have to also recognize reform is needed in our economic system, our educational system, our judicial system and our political system. We must stop and ask ourselves some big questions: What is the meaning of personhood? What is the meaning of civil rights? What is the meaning of human rights? We need the courage to address these questions, truthfully and creatively. That was the original idea of America. America was not created as an ideal. America was created as an idea — the idea was creativity. Right now, creativity is not a luxury; it is a necessity.