Everyone Agrees the Killing of George Floyd Isn’t Up for Debate. What Happens Next Is.

The George Floyd video — if not the upheaval that followed — showed that agreement is possible, if also painful

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, there was, for one brief and stinging moment, a feeling in the air that had been achingly absent for months: a feeling of consensus. Anyone who watched the video of ex–Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes could see that the events shown on the video were not up for interpretation. Even before Chauvin was charged in Floyd’s death, it was clear what had happened. This was not an accident or an unintended consequence of authorized force. Chauvin had murdered Floyd in a bloodless act of cold blood.

So unequivocal were these events that it wasn’t just anti-racism activists and others on the left who were appalled, but also some of our farthest right-leaning politicians and pundits. Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, known for championing President Trump, as well as being an all-around criminal justice hardliner, said on May 29 that there were “clear facts” that Chauvin should be charged with murder. Laura Ingraham, arguably the most noxiously Trump-aggrandizing Fox News personality, called Floyd’s death “outrageous,” as well as “infuriating and heartbreaking” (though she still managed to shoehorn in praise for the president’s response). Even Rush Limbaugh, despite later arguing rather ridiculously against the existence of white privilege (he’s a flat-earther on that score) said that Chauvin should be charged with murder. “Look, you people in law enforcement know I’m at the top of the list of people who support you and understand how hard your jobs are,” he said on his May 28 broadcast. “I still — given all of that, do not… I cannot find a way to explain that. I can’t find a way to justify it. I don’t care what the guy did.”

Within a few days, many parts of the nation had plunged into chaos. In Minneapolis especially, but also in cities like New York and Los Angeles, incidents of rioting and property destruction threatened to overshadow lawful protesting, especially on the news — with the massive overreaction from police at times exacerbating the impression of widespread civil disorder. Several members of law enforcement have been badly injured or killed, including a retired St. Louis police captain turned small-town police chief who was shot to death on June 2 while trying to protect a pawnshop from looters. At the same time, we’ve also been barraged with incidents of police acting with jaw-dropping brutality, including using pepper spray and Tasers against protesters, dragging people from their cars, and driving police vehicles into crowds. On June 4, two officers in Buffalo, New York, were seen shoving a 75-year-old protester, who subsequently fell backwards, hit his head on the sidewalk, and lay there bleeding and motionless as police passed him by. The day before, of course, police fired tear gas and flash grenades into crowds of peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., so the president could pose despotically for an empty photo op in front of a church. As much as words like “anarchy” and “fascism” tend to get thrown around too loosely these days, I’d venture to say that these particular days, roughly the days between May 30 and June 4, more than warranted them.

Everyone still appears to agree that Chauvin murdered Floyd, and there’s growing support for at least a handful of police reforms. But lots of people now are also fighting about how best to go about fighting for justice. The questions and points of contention are far-ranging and, in some cases, strangely unanswerable. Do “peaceful” protests include destruction of property? Does looting, in and of itself, constitute violence? Who exactly were those violent white protesters? To what extent were organized criminals taking advantage of the police being distracted by the protests? And how would the call to “defund the police” — really a call to reassign their non-crime-fighting duties to other city agencies — work in practice?

If that sort of muddy battleground feels familiar by now, it’s because we’ve been occupying similar terrain for the past several months when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Though you’d have to be a deeply committed conspiracy theorist to believe the virus doesn’t exist at all, public opinion as to how to deal with it is not so much divided but utterly torn asunder. Thanks to a combination of chaotic messaging from government leadership, around-the-clock panic mongering from the news media, and a steady clusterfuck of social media commentary (including from the highest government leader himself), it often seems like we understand less about the virus every day. It lives on surfaces or it doesn’t? The antibody tests work or they don’t? The states that have reopened are seeing infection spikes or they’re not? Outdoor transmission is extremely unlikely or it’s not? Hydroxycholorquine is Trump-backed quackery or a potentially useful therapy? The Wuhan lab theory is the domain of tinfoil-hatted xenophobes or a legitimate hypothesis worthy of examination? On and on it goes.

The answers to all of the above are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Also no, no, no, no, no, and no. You get the idea. Which is that no one has any idea.

The uncertainty around how to respond to Covid-19 made it that much easier to organize ourselves into warring factions based on an ever-shifting balance of moral and ethical considerations. It is wrong to order takeout food because it puts delivery and other restaurant workers at risk? Or it is helpful because it keeps local businesses alive for another day? Is it okay to send kids to summer camp in locations where phase two or three reopenings are underway? Or is even that too risky? Can I go maskless while I’m jogging as long as I don’t get too close to anyone? Does the fact that I’m asking any of these questions in the first place mean that I’m a privileged asshole who should just shut up and keep quiet until this whole thing is over?

The answers to all of the above are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Also no, no, no, no, no, and no. You get the idea. Which is that no one has any idea.

The death of George Floyd, however, isn’t an idea. It’s a hard fact captured on video about as clearly as anything can be captured, without room for hedging or creative extrapolation, though no doubt some team of defense lawyers will try. It may, in fact, be one of the few videos in the history of the internet to have been viewed millions of times and yet prompt almost no debate as to what’s actually being depicted.

That’s why, for at least a day or so late last month, the utter moral clarity around Floyd’s death felt almost startling. After months of infighting about the correct response to Covid-19, here was something we could all agree on: This death was a horrific crime that should be punishable under the full extent of the law. And given how many of us were delirious from arguing with our Facebook friends over the validity of epidemiological models we didn’t understand in the first place—hell, most of us didn’t know what an epidemiological model was until mid-March—this sudden consensus suggested that there might still be such a thing out there as incontrovertible reality.

The responses to the protests in recent days — and the warring opinions about and analyses of them — have extinguished, or at least mostly obviated, that moment of consensus. National agreement about what happened quickly gave way to disagreement about what ought to happen next. To hear the president threaten to use the Insurrection Act to order military force against the public, to see Sen. Tom Cotton defend this idea in the New York Times, and then watch as that newspaper had an internal meltdown over the fact that this opinion was expressed in its venerable pages, is to wish we could go back to the good old days of constant low-grade existential despair and carb overload from all that sourdough bread. As inspiring as it was to see footage of massive peaceful protests all over the country this past weekend, they’re likely to remain overshadowed for a large fraction of the country by the scenes of destruction that came before. Meanwhile, let’s not ignore the cognitive whiplash that can come from watching otherwise-intelligent and surely well-intended people shame lockdown skeptics as “grandma killers” one day and, the next day, glorify massive street gatherings on the grounds that police brutality is as deadly a virus as Covid-19. We can all see what happened to George Floyd, but we still can’t see the shadings of the forest for our own righteous trees.

And yet, this case already seems different from so many others. Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but on Wednesday those charges were upgraded to second-degree murder and the three ex-officers who stood by were charged with aiding and abetting. The same day, Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, issued a statement criticizing the president’s use of military force against protestors. Calling the protestors’ demands for equal justice under the law “rightful,” as well as “wholesome and unifying,” Mattis said, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”

Those are extraordinary remarks from a former White House official, even one who, like Mattis, had known differences with the president. The current defense secretary, Mark Esper, has also distanced himself from his boss, saying he does not support using military troops to control crowds on the street. Meanwhile, the nation’s streets grew calmer as the week progressed, and the protests swelled in size and scope, sparking solidarity protests around the globe. Another surge of coronavirus infections, ignited by all the mass gatherings, may well lay in wait, but there’s always the hope that the warm weather will enable some sort of reprieve. The summer is just getting started, but it’s difficult to think about anything other than all the anger and despair — be it related to the pandemic, the grotesque presidency, or a social and political infrastructure that seems to perpetuate racism and injustice at every grinding turn. And though we’ll probably never reach consensus on exactly how to solve these problems — some epidemiological, some electoral, some systemic — at least we can agree that it’s well past time for a lot of things to be over.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store