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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What Must Be Spoken

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump attends a memorial service for George Floyd

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump attends a memorial service for George Floyd

Margalynne Armstrong

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Margalynne Armstrong is an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

I write from a sheltered space, away from rubber bullets, flash bombs, tear gas, and arson. My privilege is expansive, as I am a professor able to remain sheltered yet work through the COVID-19 shutdowns, who lives in a house at the urban-wildland interface, supplied with good internet and plenty of food. Even though I am a member of a demographic group that experiences one of the highest levels of poverty in the U.S., African American women, the comforts of my material existence are, undoubtedly, superior to those of most people. 

During the past week some of my white female friends have called to ask me how I am doing in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal death at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. They ask me even though they know that I don’t have any immediate reason to feel physically threatened. But they know that I have seen the same appalling images that they have viewed in the past few weeks and they intuit that these images are more devastating for me and all African Americans. They are right. 

It has been horrendous for Black Americans to witness Floyd’s brutal killing so soon after we saw Amy Cooper brandish her white womanhood to threaten Christian Cooper with police violence, so soon after we saw Ahmaud Arbery murdered by white vigilantes, so soon after we learned how Breonna Taylor was murdered in her bed by the police. These are only some of the most recent atrocities African Americans have suffered at the hands of law enforcement, the litany of names need not be recited. We know that African-American men are two-and-a-half times as likely to be killed by the police than white men.

Seemingly unconcerned that he might face any ramifications for his actions, Chauvin appeared to kill Floyd with a sadistic nonchalance, ignoring Floyd’s pleas and those of civilian onlookers who begged Chauvin to let Floyd breathe. Only one of the three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest made any attempt to dissuade Chauvin, urging him to turn Floyd to his side. Chauvin’s fellow officers have now been charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder. As an African American I felt such desolation as none of the other officers tried to stop Chauvin. The killing epitomized police culture, indeed American culture, the ability to watch Floyd’s suffering and death and see nothing wrong with the picture. It epitomized the law’s imprimatur on extreme police brutality.

The U.S. Constitutional standard for judging police brutality, as articulated in the Graham v Conner decision, abandons considerations of right and wrong to defer to a chimerical standard of “whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ (to other police) in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.” Justice William Rehnquist’s quoted statement gives free rein to the law enforcement officer to go as far as s/he can to restrain a suspect until it becomes unreasonable in the sight of the average officer. 

Because the continuum of reasonability is limited only by the leeway that law enforcement personnel give themselves, George Floyd’s fate was determined by whether most officers who witnessed another officer apply nine minutes of knee pressure to the neck of Floyd’s prostate body would deem it unreasonable. The morality of Chauvin’s cruelty is legally immaterial. But, the unspoken, un-utterable factor in the calculation of reasonability is that any amount of force can be deemed reasonable if the body being restrained is black. The police operate and reflect a culture filled with negative portrayals of and ideas about African Americans as violent, as dangerous, as less capable of feeling pain, as less than human. 

It is time to confront, speak out against, and immediately vanquish these perceptions. It is time to require the ethical treatment of all humans. Black lives do not matter to the police because they do not matter to the American polity. The Black Lives Matter movement addresses this fact. Of course, all lives matter, but the United States operates as if Black Lives don’t.

Jun 5, 2020