For George Floyd’s Mourners, What Does ‘Justice’ Mean?

HOUSTON — Hundreds of American flags lined the street outside George Floyd’s funeral services, as if the deceased were a member of law enforcement, not a black man killed in its custody.

The line to view his body included parents with children, co-workers, and well-wishers from out of town, many clad in black. Throughout the country, Mr. Floyd’s death has become the catalyst for protests, kicking off a national wave of reckoning with inequities that has spread from policing to the worlds of entertainment, business and media. In Houston, where Mr. Floyd grew up before moving north to Minneapolis, it was an outpouring of pain and grief.

Mya Little, 19, left the Fountain of Peace church after viewing the body, with her mother at her side.

“I do not know what we have to do, but living like this isn’t it,” she said. “Being scared to go places? Being scared to move around freely? This isn’t justice.”

To answer the pain and fear Ms. Little and millions of others have expressed in the days since Mr. Floyd’s killing last month, Democratic elected officials have taken to calling out the “systemic racism” of America. It is a phrase used to convey how institutions like law enforcement need a drastic overhaul — if not total dismantling.

But it is not clear how much will happen after officials point out the deep-rooted flaw in the system, and some progressive Democrats and criminal justice reform activists are saying they’re worried that politicians are using the language of systemic reform but stopping short of the more radical policies to address it, such as redirecting funding from law enforcement to housing and education.

In a recent speech, former President Barack Obama said, “In a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is, challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief.” Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee for president, used a similar construction: The moment, he explained, highlighted how foundational racism is in this country.

“We need to root out systemic racism across our laws and institutions, and we need to make sure black Americans have a real shot to get ahead,” Mr. Biden said in an opinion piece on fixing policing published this week.

The language is searing. The proposed solutions in many cases go further than mainstream politicians have ever gone. But, set against how dire the politicians say situation is, the suggested fixes feel to some activists like relics of a bygone era, proposals that could reduce harm, but fail to deliver structural change.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has assembled a Police Reform and Racial Justice Working Group. Several cities have called for task forces. Congressional lawmakers introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would ban chokeholds, create a model use of force standard, establish a National Police Misconduct Registry, and mandate training on biases including racial profiling.

Mr. Biden endorsed several of the congressional proposals, and said he would support tying federal aid to whether police departments “meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.” In the same opinion article where he called out systemic racism, he proposed “getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect.”

For younger progressive leaders, and some of the mourners at Mr. Floyd’s memorial services, this range of potential solutions amounts to a tacit reaffirmation to work within the system they have described as fundamentally broken.

While the Minneapolis City Council attracted national attention for its call to divert resources from its police department to other methods of public safety, calling for a police-free future remains a policy outlier, and it has been rejected by progressive national leaders including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. One reform initiative, called 8 Can’t Wait, pushed for immediate changes in police departments, including banning chokeholds and the practice of shooting at moving vehicles. Activists criticized it as an incremental position and a compromise, with a counter campaign describing it as “a slate of reforms that have already been tried and failed.” That campaign, called 8 to Abolition, emphasized prison abolition, ridding police departments of military-grade equipment, and diverting funds to safe housing.

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the progressive who represents part of Minneapolis, said some of the calls to action from the Democratic caucus were not enough.

“If we are not clear in proposing policies that undo the policies that have codified our pain and trauma, then we will be in the same state,” she said.

She supports reforms similar to the some of the more far-reaching activist proposals, though her policy pitch did not contain significantly more details than the congressional requests she criticized. “Money keeps getting poured into having more police on our streets, more jails to incarcerate people, and more money to criminalization to our community — rather than our rehabilitation and rebuilding,” Ms. Omar said.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Democratic mayor of Jackson, Miss., said members of his party needed to be honest with their voters: police reform cannot fix systemic racism in policing.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” he said, quoting the activist and writer Audre Lorde.

In the more than two weeks since he died, “Justice for George Floyd” has become an omnipresent mantra, but there remains little agreement on what that would mean from a public policy perspective.

For a growing consortium of progressive groups focused on young voters, justice for Mr. Floyd requires dismantling police power and investing in programs related to mental health, housing and education — which activists believe would reduce crime and violence.

But among the larger Democratic electorate, including older black voters who helped Mr. Biden secure the nomination, many are holding out hope that police departments can be reformed, and practices such as anti-bias training and better data collection can lead to improved relationships between the police and the community.

At Mr. Floyd’s public memorial Monday, the mood of the thousands who gathered to mourn was palpably different than at protests across the country. There were no uniform demands for defunding the police or antipathy for law enforcement. In many ways, the crowd reflected the breadth of opinion among black voters, including those who were encouraged by the Democratic Party’s response to the recent protests. It stood in stark contrast to the scenes in Minneapolis, where elected officials have been booed out of protests for refusing to commit to policy demands.

Yancy Carter, who brought his 14- and 17-year-old children to the public viewing, said “those who are in charge of the police departments need to make the tough calls to fire or suspend.” Tina Barron a 47-year-old Houston woman, said she was confident police departments could be reformed with more training.

“I’m sorry, I love my Democrats,” said Nadine Scott, a 60-year-old woman in Houston who took issue with the activists not focusing on Republicans. “We just need this energy in November to vote Trump out.”

Mayor Frank Scott Jr. of Little Rock, who ran as a police reformer, said respecting the diversity of opinion — especially among black voters, who are too often seen as a monolith by white Democrats — was critical to building lasting coalitions.

“As much as people like to shout about their desire for change,” he said, “when you try to implement change, it’s often met with resistance.”

The diversity of opinion from across the electorate may give Democrats ample room to craft a response that meets the moment. Naming the problem has become a political layup, especially considering the changing racial attitudes of white liberals in the era of President Trump.

But it’s proposing solutions that can be more divisive, leaving leaders who often aim for the biggest policy changes opting for small solutions.

Mr. Sanders, the democratic socialist, said he wanted to give police departments “the support they need to do their jobs better defined.” Other politicians, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, sought to redefine what activists have come to call defunding the police. He asserted in a recent news conference that “when they’re saying ‘defund the police,’ what are they saying? They’re saying we want fundamental basic change when it comes to policing — and they’re right.”

Mr. Biden’s political transformation on policing has carried him from writing a Senate bill with a Police Officer Bill of Rights in 1991 to kneeling in protest of police brutality this year. This week he rejected the idea of defunding the police outright.

Throughout his career, in Delaware and in national politics, Mr. Biden has relied on his close relationship with black communities. And like many politicians, including Mr. Obama, the former vice president has also leaned on themes of unity to inspire the country about racial progress — rather than prioritize things that may be currently unpopular.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader and candidate for governor who is also in the running to be Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential pick, said in a recent interview that the willingness for more Democrats to call out systemic racism should be applauded. There was value in identifying systems of oppression, she said, even though it must be coupled with actions.

“If we want to dismantle an injustice system that does not see the humanity of these men and women, then we have to not only articulate what the broken pieces are, but we’ve got to then hire the right people to fix and make it better,” she said. “And that happens through voting.”

At the public viewing for Mr. Floyd’s body, that was the theme from many mourners — that police departments did not see black humanity. Warren Washington, a 56-year-old man who drove from Baton Rouge, La., said politicians, in this moment, had an opportunity to “show the world we’re the America we’ve pretended to be.”

“You have to acknowledge it, but you have to also break the system down in order to restore order and confidence,” Mr. Washington said.

Inside the Fountain of Peace church, where Mr. Floyd’s body lay in a tan suit, David Hester was inspired to rededicate his life’s mission.

“I looked at him in that coffin and I told him, ‘Your death will not be in vain,’” he said.

Mr. Hester expressed skepticism that police departments could be trusted to enact reform themselves, “You have the foxes manning the henhouse here,” he said.

He cited the way police officers have historically protected their own in times of crisis, sanitizing what actually transpired.

The original news release from the Minneapolis Police Department on Mr. Floyd’s death described the actions of the officers, like this:

The officers “were able to get the suspect in to handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

No mention of the knee on his neck. No mention of his cries for help.

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