“Daddy changed the world”…

CIW: “Like Derek Chauvin and so many other officers like him, the coronavirus requires a favorable environment to kill its victims.  And in both cases it is the very same environment that facilitates the killing— one defined by structural inequalities created and protected by institutional racism.”

“I can’t breathe
please sir
please I can’t breathe”

Those were the final words of George Floyd, murdered by the police in Minneapolis, MN, on May 25th.

The details of his final moments are well-documented.  But the details of George Floyd’s death, as horrifying and infuriating as they were, are not the thing that has stopped this country in its tracks and moved hundreds of thousands of people to flood the streets — of big cities and small towns alike — in protest.  

In all fifty states.  In the face of widespread police brutality.  And in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Instead, it is the very fact that George Floyd’s death was not a singular event, but rather just the latest in a heart-wrenching litany of essentially identical murders — identical in terms of killer, victim, and circumstances — that has made this moment a national tipping point.  To borrow the Spanish phrase, George Floyd’s death was the “la última gota que derramó el vaso,” the last drop that overflowed the glass.

The names of those murdered by the police before George Floyd are etched into our consciousness: Jamar Clarke and Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark and Tony McDade, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner… the list goes on, and on.  Indeed, the circumstances of their deaths are so similar that we have heard George Floyd’s last words before, his unheeded appeal sounding a haunting echo of Eric Garner’s final plea for his life less than three years earlier: “I can’t breathe.”

This is America…

There is one detail of George Floyd’s death, however, that, for anyone who has watched the video documenting the last, horrific moments of his life, is impossible to forget: the cold, heartless look in the eyes of his killer, Derek Chauvin.  For nearly nine minutes, Chauvin’s expression remained unchanged while he slowly drained the life out of another human being.  As he listened to the man under his knee plead for his life, call out to his mother, and by degrees descend into unconsciousness and ultimately death, Chauvin — in broad daylight, on a crowded city street — never even blinked.  Even after paramedics arrived and started taking his pulse, Chauvin kept his knee pressing down on Floyd’s neck; though Floyd had been unconscious and unmoving for several minutes, Chauvin wouldn’t release pressure until the paramedics ordered him to stop, nearly a minute later. 

His was the face of a sociopath.  And in his face, if you look closely enough, you can see us.  You can see America.

Derek Chauvin’s deeply disturbing detachment from the man dying under his knee reflected the profound pathology at the heart of American society that has allowed police violence in Black communities to go effectively unchallenged for generations.  As a people, we have turned a collective blind eye to tens of thousands of homicides at the hands of law enforcement officers — extrajudicial executions, in international human rights terms normally used to describe deaths under brutal dictatorships — for years, and, like Chauvin, we hardly ever stopped to notice.  

To say that trials and convictions for police shootings are rare is an understatement.  Between 2005 and 2017, there were roughly 1000 fatal police shootings per year, or more than 13,000 shootings.  Of those 13,000 killings, only 80 officers were arrested for murder or manslaughter charges, and of those only 35%, or 28 total, were convicted.   Another study on police violence showed that, between 2013 and 2019, Black Americans were “nearly twice as likely to be killed as a Latinx person and nearly three times more likely to be killed than a white person.”

Impunity of that magnitude is not possible without institutional racism backing and protecting the individual officers committing murder after murder, year after year.  While violent, racist officers may be a small minority of the overall police force in any given city, their brutality is aided and abetted by their brothers and sisters in uniform, in ways both active and passive, far more often than it is denounced and punished.  The failure to intervene, like those officers in George Floyd’s homicide who felt it more important not to oppose a fellow officer in public than to save a fellow human being’s life; the omission of key details, or the outright lie, in official reports to cover up a crime; the pre-determined outcome of administrative reviews exculpating violent officers time and time again for excessive use of force; the trials in which law enforcement testimony is given the benefit of the doubt and tilts the scales toward innocence when the evidence screams guilt; in all those ways and more, the institutions charged with protecting citizens from rogue police are twisted into shields that protect those police, instead, from the consequences of their actions.  

And in the end, the sum of those institutions is us.  They are America.

“I can’t breathe”…

But the deadly impact of that institutional racism, that sociopathology of everyday life in our country, reaches far beyond the long arm of the law into almost every corner of our society.  And it is responsible for many, many more deaths — every single day — than those caused by racist police.  

On the same day of George Floyd’s murder, 633 Americans died from COVID-19.  Their last words, if they could have spoken them, would have also been, “I can’t breathe.” And a grossly disproportionate number of the people who took their last breath on that day — and every day since the pandemic began back in March — were Black and Latino.  

A remarkable study released by the Center for Disease Control last month reports that, “Among COVID-19 deaths for which race and ethnicity data were available, New York City identified death rates among Black/African American persons (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/Latino persons (74.3) that were substantially higher than that of white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) persons.”  

The study — a socioeconomic X-ray of our country today, through the lens of health — goes on to identify a wide range of factors that leave Black and Latino communities more vulnerable to contracting, and dying from, the coronavirus than their fellow Americans.  It is a long list, but nevertheless, it is very worth including an extended excerpt to note the overlap of many of the factors contributing to COVID deaths with the harsh and substandard working and living conditions imposed on minority communities by the forces of institutional racism:


Factors that influence racial and ethnic minority group health

Health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than whites. In public health emergencies, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to outbreaks….

Living conditions

Members of racial and ethnic minorities may be more likely to live in densely populated areas because of institutional racism in the form of residential housing segregation. People living in densely populated areas may find it more difficult to practice prevention measures such as social distancing.

Research also suggests that racial residential segregation is a fundamental cause of health disparities. For example, racial residential segregation is linked with a variety of adverse health outcomes and underlying health conditions.  These underlying conditions can also increase the likelihood of severe illness from COVID-19.

Many members of racial and ethnic minorities live in neighborhoods that are further from grocery stores and medical facilities, making it more difficult to receive care if sick and stock up on supplies that would allow them to stay home…

Racial and ethnic minority groups are over-represented in jails, prisons, and detention centers, which have specific risks due to congregate living, shared food service, and more.

Work circumstances

The types of work and policies in the work environments where people in some racial and ethnic groups are overrepresented can also contribute to their risk for getting sick with COVID-19. Examples include:

Critical workers: The risk of infection may be greater for workers in essential industries who continue to work outside the home despite outbreaks in their communities, including some people who may need to continue working in these jobs because of their economic circumstances.

Nearly a quarter of employed Hispanic and Black or African American workers are employed in service industry jobs compared to 16% of non-Hispanic whites.  Hispanic workers account for 17% of total employment but constitute 53% of agricultural workers; Black or African Americans make up 12% of all employed workers, but account for 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses.

A lack of paid sick leave: Workers without paid sick leave might be more likely to continue to work even when they are sick for any reason. This can increase workers exposure to other workers who may have COVID-19, or, in turn, expose others them if they themselves have COVID-19. Hispanic workers have lower rates of access to paid leave than white non-Hispanic workers.

Underlying health conditions and lower access to care

Existing health disparities, such as poorer underlying health and barriers to getting health care, might make members of many racial and ethnic minority groups especially vulnerable in public health emergencies like outbreaks of COVID-19.

Not having health insurance: Compared to whites, Hispanics are almost 3 times as likely to be uninsured, and African Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured. In all age groups, Blacks were more likely than whites to report not being able to see a doctor in the past year because of cost.

Inadequate access is also driven by a long-standing distrust of the health care system, language barriers, and financial implications associated with missing work to receive care.

Serious underlying medical conditions: Compared to whites, Black Americans experience higher death rates, and higher prevalence rates of chronic conditions.

Stigma and systemic inequalities may undermine prevention efforts, increase levels of chronic and toxic stress, and ultimately sustain health and health care disparities.

The CDC report is a clinical condemnation of the systemic causes behind the (ultimately avoidable) deaths of tens of thousands of Americans at the hands of the coronavirus.  It is, in the bloodless words of science, the equivalent of the final words of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s address at George Floyd’s funeral service in Minneapolis last week: “What happened to George Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services.  It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say ‘Get your knee off our necks!’”

Immokalee at the crossroads… 

The farmworker community in Immokalee sits squarely at the intersection of the abiding, structural injustices identified in the CDC report and the unprecedented health care crisis sparked by the coronavirus.

The CIW sounded the alarm back at the beginning of April about the looming disaster in Immokalee due to the cramped, squalid living and working conditions in the farmworker community:

… Those conditions, the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus. And if something isn’t done — now — to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery.

And it is that same institutional neglect that forced the CIW to have to campaign ever since — like our lives depended on it — to awaken local health authorities and elected officials to the very real threat of an uncontrollable outbreak in Immokalee, and to mobilize critical resources to fight the deadly virus.  Meanwhile people in the wealthier coastal communities of Naples and Ft. Myers have received far greater, and more consistent, access to testing and support services, despite the far higher risk to the farmworker community due to the conditions cited in the CDC report.

Sadly, the prediction of a widespread and deadly outbreak in Immokalee is coming true today:

And even now as positive cases continue to spike in Immokalee and the number of deaths starts to climb, our governor continues his push to re-open the state, justifying his decision despite rising infection rates by dismissing those alarming numbers as limited to prisons and agricultural worker communities, as if somehow that diminishes their significance.

What is to be done?

There is a reason why this moment feels like a tipping point.  In the space of just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the longstanding inequities of race in America — manifested and measured in the deaths of tens of thousands of people in minority communities who didn’t have to die — for all who cared to see.  Even an institution as traditionally apolitical as the CDC took note.

And in the space of just the past two weeks, George Floyd’s death has forced those who, until now, have stubbornly refused to open their eyes, to look, see, and acknowledge the institutional racism that has defined, distorted, and shortened Black and Latino lives for generations.  

Like Derek Chauvin and so many other officers like him, the coronavirus requires a favorable environment to kill its victims.  And in both cases it is the very same environment that facilitates the killing— one defined by structural inequalities created and protected by institutional racism.  

If this is truly to be a turning point in this country, we must not only try and convict Derek Chauvin, but also recognize and tackle the broader context that has made his crimes, and those of so many before him, possible.  We must not only combat the coronavirus and treat its victims, but also acknowledge and address the environment that has made the disparate impact of COVID-19’s deadly consequences possible.

Proven remedies exist to address the immediate threats in both cases.  Limiting the use of force (including a ban on chokeholds), identifying violent officers before they build a long trail of victims, requiring de-escalation training, de-militarizing police forces, and establishing alternatives to police intervention in mental health crises and other non-criminal situations are just a few of the measures that are data-proven to work to reduce police violence in major cities across the country.  Testing, contact tracing, and isolation are likewise effective methods for identifying and containing COVID-19 outbreaks before they get out of control.  

But we must not stop there.  We must seek solutions that address the structural power imbalances that underlie and reinforce the longstanding inequities exposed by today’s twin crises.  In both cases, the approaches we take, in the words of a statement on police violence by the American Public Health Association (APHA) titled “Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue,” should “favor community-built and community-based solutions,” and address the causes, not just the symptoms, of the abuse.  In terms of police violence, that means addressing the social inequities that bring about the excessive policing of predominantly minority communities in the first place.  The Center for Popular Democracy notes, “study after study shows that a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons.”

For addressing the working and living conditions that facilitate the spread and worsen the impact of the coronavirus, the Fair Food Program is a proven example of a structural solution that targets the underlying power imbalances that have resulted in generations of farmworker poverty and abuse.  Born of a decades-long community-based struggle, and designed and driven by workers themselves, the FFP has proven its ability to shift power and change lives in the agricultural industry, and has been scaled up and replicated in other states and other agricultural sectors.  Likewise, the broader Worker-driven Social Responsibility model has allowed workers to harness the market power of the world’s largest corporations to end longstanding abuses on now three continents.  

Now is the time for justice for George Floyd.  And now is the time for bold, structural change that can make true the words of George Floyd’s daughter, captured in a viral video (below) in the days after his death “My daddy changed the word!”