By Jacob Derin
As the Derek Chauvin trial is wrapping up, the nation is already turning its eyes to the Daunte Wright shooting and drawing the familiar political battle lines. Following George Floyd’s death last summer, lethal encounters between African Americans and the police have been the subject of intense political scrutiny and debate.
Floyd’s drug use provided fodder for some of these debates, as did Wright’s criminal background. I do not want to rehash these here; instead, I’d like to consider the psychological consequences of these highly publicized incidents.
I think that there’s a tremendous lack of empathy involved in this debate. Black Americans are saying, very clearly, that they do not trust the police to treat them fairly. By some accounts, as much as two-thirds of African Americans report distrusting the police. And it’s not difficult to understand why in the wake of the constant coverage of this sort of lethal interaction.
Oftentimes, they are met with statistics, facts about the backgrounds of police shooting victims or other data. But the very fact that such deep mistrust exists is enough to indicate that we have a serious problem. At a minimum, we have dangerously strained relations between the police and the communities they serve.
This not only makes it very difficult for the police to do their jobs effectively, but it also sows fear and tangible psychological harm. An entire generation of Black Americans lives with this fear on a daily basis, and no amount of rationalizing or statistical arguments will ease that fear. When the consequences of interaction are as potentially serious as loss of life, it’s not unreasonable to worry, “Am I going to be tomorrow’s headline?”
When the violence broke out after George Floyd’s death, a quote from Martin Luther King had been frequently invoked in defense of the rioters: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
I think this is true in a descriptive sense, even if it’s not a justification for violence in and of itself. Rioting may be morally wrong, particularly when many of the targets of those riots are businesses owned by Black people, even while the riots tell us something useful about what’s wrong in our society.
In a broader sense, people are losing their faith in American institutions, with the police being perhaps just the most visible example. Again, it’s not difficult to see why people feel this way. After a disastrous presidency, which left the nation’s economy in worse financial straits than it had experienced since the great depression amid the worst public health disaster in 100 years, it might be reasonable to conclude that the institutions don’t deserve our faith.
However, we need to get away from the “we have to break it to fix it” mentality that gave us four years of Trump and the political violence that followed George Floyd’s death. We have to fix it to fix it.
People need to put aside their perfectly justified cynicism towards American institutions and become part of the solution. To do this, we need to work together, and that’s impossible if we remain so staunchly identified with tribal identities. The core of any relationship is understanding, and that holds true at the national level.
Unless we make a real effort to understand each other, we’ll never be able to fix what’s been broken.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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