Why We Must Hold George Floyd’s Legacy Close to Heart

by Alphonso David

I wrote a short op-ed recently for USA TODAY responding to a request for my reaction to George Floyd’s legacy, one year after his death. Allow me to share one line from that piece with you today as it captures my current sentiments succinctly:

I hold Floyd’s story as mythology, a fire to illuminate the origins of the LGBTQ rights movement which started as a fight for police accountability, a fire to breathe new life into the bodies of humans who have the power to eradicate police killings of Black people as a systemic outcome, a time that seems elusive but for our will to fight for it, precedent no longer withstanding.”

Alphonso David

George Floyd’s story captured the world’s imagination, and helped to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of holding a police officer accountable for an unjustified killing of a Black man, because, as with any mythology, it holds so many archetypes of the human condition. These thoughts have been brooding and proliferating for years as we have witnessed an endless run of video footage showing police in the United States brutalizing Black people. This morally repugnant show set the stage for George Floyd’s story to serve as the tap that set off the powderkeg, sending so many people the world over out onto the streets to demand accountability and systemic change in the midst of a global pandemic. For one summer, Black lives seemed to matter, and people were willing to risk further police brutality amidst a global pandemic to bring that truth to life.

But why did it take this much to have one Black life matter in a courtroom? Why are we so caught up in failed systems that one small measure of accountability for George Floyd and his family is treated as a landmark moment?

Because many systems in this nation were created to oppress marginalized groups and we have to dismantle them.

Nearly 1,000 people have been killed by police since George Floyd was murdered by Officer Derek Chauvin, about 200 of which are Black people, an outsized number as compared to the percentage of Black people in the total population. And we have yet to pass meaningful legislation to tackle police accountability. And even if the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is signed into law, we will still be far off from a future where we will have loosened our faith in our broken justice system enough to sustain the small sort of systemic change that Chauvin’s verdict previewed.

The truth about policing in the United States is that it dehumanizes us all. Black people have known this for a long time, and it is about time that the rest of the world is catching up. Our system of policing dehumanizes Black people by literally treating us as subhuman suspects, circumscribing our rights and liberties, and snuffing out Black lives with impunity. It dehumanizes white people by making them believe that Black people are an inherent threat to their safety, who then react out of fear, seeking supremacy instead of community, by electing officials and supporting policies that result in the ghettoizing and over-policing of Black communities. This is not a world in which we see the humanity in each other, but rather one in which we are assigned worth according to the value of our contributions to white supremacy.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the dehumanization of those who do not benefit the status quo is a throughline undergirding our social fabric. For instance, 2020 saw at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the highest number of reported violent deaths the Human Rights Campaign has tracked. So far in 2021, the Human Rights Campaign has recorded at least 27 such deaths. These are the outcomes that we can expect of a system which holds the values of homogeneity, exclusion and supremacy close to heart, a dystopia emblematized by the lack of firm steps to stem these deaths.

Dehumanizing forces are not only present in police brutality or anti-trans bigotry. We can find them at play in our criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, attacks against voting rights, in our healthcare system, in housing and employment, all battles in which we individually and collectively play a role. The fight to rehumanize is about making sure that we rescue lives from being discounted, and building institutions to honor each person’s humanity.

We will not reach the promised land by burning the pages of George Floyd’s story to keep us warm at our darkest moments. We get to the promised land by enshrining his story in our institutions in the form of statues, plaques, the retellings of his story, by passing legislation to transform policing, and ultimately, by transforming our systems so that they truly serve us all. We get there by honoring the origins of our movement which started as a fight against police violence and a transformation in policing.

We get there by telling the story of a time when we all banded across differences to fight to rehumanize our communities. We get there by speaking his name, George Floyd, and by saying her name, Breonna Taylor, and by saying their name,Whispering Wind Bear Spirit, and by remembering that through commemoration, so many things become possible, may we never forget.