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Police Reform Must Go Deep, and It Must Last

One year after George Floyd’s murder, the test for success isn’t about intentions and pronouncements — it’s about actions.

ANGELA WEISS/Contributor

Memorial Day is a time Amer­ic­ans set aside to remem­ber milit­ary members who have given their lives in service of the coun­try and the values it espouses. Yet, in 2020, it was the Memorial Day death of a civil­ian that caused many to inter­rog­ate the nation’s commit­ment to equal­ity, liberty, and justice.

A year ago, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, was detained by law enforce­ment after exit­ing a conveni­ence store on suspi­cion of using a coun­ter­feit $20 bill. A teen­age girl recor­ded the encounter where police officer Derek Chau­vin kneeled on Floy­d’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, forcing the last breaths in his body to scat­ter on the pave­ment. The video of Floy­d’s murder quickly captured the world’s atten­tion and spurred months of racial justice protests that sought to expose the gap between the nation’s actions and its ideals.

A year later, Amer­ic­ans are still left to wonder: will the nation pay its respects to the lives lost in the struggle for equal­ity by enact­ing struc­tural change, or will it be content to simply pay lip-service to them by leav­ing the status quo in place?

The disgust at Floy­d’s killing was one of the few things in 2020 that crossed party lines. Amer­ic­ans of all gener­a­tions, races and ethni­cit­ies, regions, and ideo­lo­gical lean­ings parti­cip­ated in demon­stra­tions that called out abuses of power by agents of the state. The rally­ing cry “Black lives matter” — a phrase that was incred­ibly divis­ive just a few short years ago — tempor­ar­ily became short­hand expres­sion for a belief in an inclus­ive multiracial demo­cracy. Elec­ted offi­cials in local and state govern­ments, as well as both houses of Congress, proposed reforms that sought to rein in police miscon­duct and improve account­ab­il­ity.

But whatever national consensus exis­ted in the summer after Floy­d’s death soon dissip­ated and gave way to partisan bick­er­ing and polit­ical expedi­ence. Support for Black Lives Matter decreased and police resig­na­tions in a number of local­it­ies suddenly increased. Despite the major­ity of Amer­ic­ans believ­ing there is an urgent need for police reform and that the coun­try should do more to hold police account­able, sweep­ing substant­ive policy change remains hard to come by. In Mary­land, the state assembly repealed its Law Enforce­ment Officers’ Bill of Rights over the governor’s veto, while the Minneapolis City Coun­cil’s threat to defund the police didn’t mater­i­al­ize largely due to community resist­ance and waning polit­ical will. And just last week, poli­cing reform nego­ti­ations led by Black congres­sional members Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) hit another snag and a deal still appears far off.

The lack of action and increas­ingly divis­ive polit­ical rhet­oric coupled with the nation’s history of excus­ing infringe­ments on Black Amer­ic­ans’ rights led many Amer­ic­ans to ques­tion whether Chau­vin would be held account­able or permit­ted to walk free. One of the most common descrip­tions of the emotion felt upon Chau­vin’s convic­tion was “relief.” This is an omin­ous sign; people who have confid­ence in their systems of justice do not feel relief when it works prop­erly. Concern that the system would fail spec­tac­u­larly and further erode public trust signals a recog­ni­tion that the nation contin­ues to fall short of its professed values.

On the first anniversary of George Floy­d’s death, Amer­ic­ans are reminded that their govern­ment — one that derives its power from the consent of the governed — is not as respons­ive to the will of the people as it should be. Instead of address­ing concerns about poli­cing, too many offi­cials have taken the oppor­tun­ity to pit citizens against one another and fore­stall changes that would improve public safety and increase public confid­ence. A busi­ness-as-usual mental­ity prevails, redu­cing abuses of state power to a prob­lem of indi­vidual bad apples and leav­ing in place prac­tices that belie consti­tu­tional prin­ciples.

But amid policy inac­tion and falter­ing confid­ence in our insti­tu­tions was a reason to be hope­ful — ripples from the summer of solid­ar­ity were evid­ent in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which saw the highest voter turnout in over a century. Amer­ic­ans compelled the govern­ment to pass Covid-19 relief bills to provide some meas­ure of economic aid to a coun­try stag­ger­ing from the pandemic. And the citizenry contin­ues to recog­nize the need for signi­fic­ant changes to the funda­mental design of our systems of demo­cracy and justice.

Whether we will take the diffi­cult road of living our creed, however, remains an open ques­tion. We are nation that adores its rituals and observ­ances, find­ing time for moments of silence and soar­ing rhet­oric that calls on our first prin­ciples. But if a consid­er­a­tion of the tenets that under­gird our professed ideals does not lead to changed beha­vior and improved systems, our pronounce­ments ring hollow. The lives of those lost — deaths that beg for struc­tural change and for Amer­ica to be truer to its values — are denied the dignity they inher­ently deserve.

Anniversar­ies are collect­ive oppor­tun­it­ies to reflect on trans­form­a­tional events. They return us to the moment and all its attend­ant emotions, provid­ing a chance to find common cause and reaf­firm our commit­ment to the project. On the one-year anniversary of George Floy­d’s death, memorial commem­or­a­tions are planned that will be filled with calls to action to make Amer­ica more equit­able and more just. But it’s what happens after the day of memorial that determ­ines the char­ac­ter of our coun­try.