George Floyd’s death is a reminder that black voices are still ignored

June 4, 2020
By: Ivan Natividad, Berkeley News
Female protesters chant with their hands at raised at their mouths
In New York, protesters demonstrate against the the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 29. (AP photo by Mary Altaffer)

The excruciating stretch of eight minutes when four Minneapolis police officers ignored George Floyd’s pleas for one of the officers to take his knee off Floyd’s neck is the most recent occurrence in a long history of black people’s urgent cries for help being ignored by America’s white power structure.

That’s according to Nikki Jones, a UC Berkeley professor of African American studies who, for 10 years, has worked with research partners to collect and analyze hundreds of video recordings of police encounters with the public.

“The resistance sparked by Floyd’s death that we see out in the streets today is not the only form of resistance that occurs,” Jones said. “Resistance happens every day.”

Nikki Jones
UC Berkeley African American Studies professor Nikki Jones.

Through her Justice Interaction Lab and with support from the William T. Grant Foundation, Jones and her research team, led by Brie McLemore and Peyton Provenzano, graduate students in Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, are using recordings of local police confrontations to examine the content of residents’ complaints about policing.

The footage was collected by a resident of a historically black San Francisco neighborhood who recorded his neighbors’ routine everyday encounters with the police.

Jones hopes the research will help the public better understand black people’s interactions with law enforcement and the struggle for black freedom.

“We’re trying to identify what black youth imagine and articulate as a new form of justice, a new way to imagine black freedom based on the experiences of black people in their communities,” said Jones, who is the acting chair of Berkeley’s African American Studies Department and faculty co-chair for the Chancellor’s Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and Community Safety.

Jones sat down with Berkeley News to talk about Floyd’s death, the protests that followed and what can be done to break the cycle of violence against black Americans.

Berkeley News: What was your first reaction to the encounter George Floyd had with police the day he died?

Nikki Jones: It was a visceral reaction, an emotional reaction and a reaction that’s also, as a black person, one about self-preservation: How do I process these events while also protecting my spirit, working and caring for my family? I have to think about this, because these types of tragic events happen again and again.

Analytically, when we think about the call that was made that brought the police on the scene and what happened following that, it’s these kinds of calls, these relatively low-level, non-violent offenses, that are, in some ways, the most volatile and escalate again and again into lethal violence.

What law enforcement will tell you, is that the escalation has to do with what the civilian is doing. They will say the civilian dictates what happens in an encounter. But that’s not actually true. Officers have control in different ways, and the things that they do or say can escalate an encounter. Certainly, this officer was in control and abused his position of authority over George Floyd.

To us, we see someone pleading for his life, and we think officers should respond as we would. In fact, they should. But officers may view those pleas in a suspicious way, as counter to their training, which tells them that, if a person says he can’t breathe, he can breathe. The officer was not responsive in any way to Floyd’s pleas, and that is one of the reasons so many people are out protesting in the streets.

Do you think these protests around the country are making a difference?

It’s hard to predict what the effect will be. It’s effective to the extent that it has gotten America’s attention, and it has gotten the world’s attention, again.

At the same time, when we think about the case of the unrest over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, those events hastened change in police reform. Yet, what people are in the streets about is not just about policing policies and practices. People are in the streets because of a persistent vulnerability to violence that has lasted centuries. It has not changed over a six-year period since Ferguson, and it’s not likely to change tomorrow.

So, this kind of thing, I suspect, will happen again. On what scale? We don’t know. But it will happen again, because it’s part of an ongoing struggle for black freedom.

What do you say to those who don’t understand why people are protesting in the streets?

I tell my students that one of the gifts of doing the work and the kind of analysis that I do, and that my colleagues in the Department of African American Studies do, is that, when events like this happen, you’re not surprised, because you understand why and how we ended up here.

Some of us have a good understanding of how we got here. But I don’t think it’s true that all of us do, because you really have to center the black experience and value black subjectivity in order to understand what’s happening. Then, you have to understand the nation’s history of racial exclusion and racial terror, and that history is not taught even in some of the best high schools in the country.

Understanding is going to take work, and the ignorance that is often not called out and goes unchecked makes that work even harder.”

– Nikki Jones

I would say to people who expect to turn on the TV and make any sense of what they’re seeing that (that kind of thinking) is a privilege. It means that they haven’t experienced the treatment that people are protesting. That’s something that they have to understand about themselves.

Understanding is going to take work, and the ignorance that is often not called out and goes unchecked makes that work even harder. Black people can’t be the ones educating everyone. If you are truly, truly interested in being an ally and working toward a world where black freedom can actually be achieved, then you have to do the work.

Learn from the people around you. These stories are everywhere, they’re in books that people have written for general audiences, in the music that people listen to. So, there are entry points everywhere. You have to position yourself so you’re in closer proximity to those entry points if you really want to understand what’s happening.

What are some concrete ways to move forward?

I think that what we’ve seen since Ferguson is a renewed interest in police accountability. Prior to this moment, when law enforcement was engaging with the community, it was a very joint problem-solving kind of framework.

The community is invited in and participates within that framework, but doesn’t necessarily get to challenge that framework, even if that framework is harmful for people in their neighborhoods.

We’ve seen a shift from that kind of engagement model to an accountability model, where the law enforcement is, in fact, accountable to the community, which means officers would acknowledge what it is the community says it needs and what the problems are, including when the police are the problem.

In this model, the law enforcement is responsive to the community in some meaningful kind of way. That’s accountability, and it’s a harder kind of relationship for law enforcement to enter into.

I encourage people to start where they are with change. Start with yourself, those you love, those in your home, those at your work and those in your community.”

– Nikki Jones

Instead of the community socializing into law enforcement’s world view, the community is saying, ‘We want you to socialize into our world view. It doesn’t matter if you think a certain action was justified, we want you to see the world from our perspective.’

So, that work has to happen. You have to have police accountability. You have to have transparency. You have to push as much as you can in that direction.

I think this moment will also push people to take abolitionist alternatives, like defunding the police and divestment/investment strategies, more seriously. We’ve already seen this in the decisions of the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis public school system to end their contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department.

For the greater public, there’s always something that you can do. If the change you enact isn’t on the global level, that doesn’t make it any less important. I encourage people to start where they are with change. Start with yourself, those you love, those in your home, those at your work and those in your community.

There is still so much to do, and that’s a testament to the depth of the problem. I think where I’ve come to in my own evolution is to accept that this is the struggle. To think that something is going to be changed immediately is naive.

So, in thinking about what we can do in this moment, we can be prepared to identify the opportunities that exist in these kinds of crisis events. To reflect and to think about where you have the most impact and then to do the work that might save a life.