George Floyd anniversary: The death toll that shows little has changed since his murder shocked the world

One year ago George Floyd’s death shocked America. In the 12 months since little has changed

Andrew Buncombe,Josh Marcus
Monday 24 May 2021 20:52 BST
Clockwise from top left: Angelo Quinto, Kurt Reinhold, Kendrell Watkins, Ashton Pinke and Mario Gonzalez were unarmed when killed by police
Clockwise from top left: Angelo Quinto, Kurt Reinhold, Kendrell Watkins, Ashton Pinke and Mario Gonzalez were unarmed when killed by police (The Independent)
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It was when people said this needs to stop. It was when millions of Americans marched to say no more.

It was a defiant insistence that what had become business as usual – the routine killing by police of unarmed people of colour in what should be everyday interactions – was no longer acceptable.

And yet a year after the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd, the life literally squeezed out of him at a Minneapolis intersection by Derek Chauvin, as worried witnesses urged the officer to stop – and later millions watched around the world – the killings have not stopped.

Rather, from Detroit, Michigan, to Laredo, Texas, they have continued apace. Indeed, there have been such deaths in 45 of the nation’s 50 states, with just Alaska, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Rhode Island, not recording any.

The Independent is highlighting five of those more than 400 killings, several of which share similarities with the way George Floyd lost his life.

In August 2020, police in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tased Kendrell Watkins, a Black man in the midst of a mental health breakdown, as he fled naked down the street. Body camera footage shows they didn’t know his name. A month later, sheriff’s deputies on a homeless outreach team in Southern California shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, after tailing him on suspicion of jaywalking and making fun of his accent.

In December, a 30-year-old Asian American man, Angelo Quinto, died after his family in Antioch, California, called officers to help as the young man suffered a mental health episode, but restrained him by pinning him to the ground for five minutes. His family is now backing efforts to pass a bill that would ban the use of prone restraint, which experts say has long been known to cause fatal asphyxia.

In April, Mario Gonzalez, died after police in Alameda, California, forced him to the ground and handcuffed him, a day before the jury in Minneapolis convicted Chauvin of murder – one of the very few convictions of its kind.

This month, as the police force in Mesquite, Texas, promoted the first Black sergeant in its history, officers shot and killed a 27-year-old man, Ashton Pinke, also known to have mental health problems.

In each of these cases, there is a constant: families, community members, and lawyers say there was no need for the officers to have used lethal force.

Minneapolis rallies before anniversary of George Floyd killing

In the year up until the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in the Powderhorn Park neighbourhood of the Minnesota city, at least 508 people of colour, almost all men, lost their lives at the hands of the police. In the 12 months since, the figure is hardly different, measuring at least 426 people gone.

“At a nationwide level, when we look at the data, we see a fairly consistent and stable rate of fatal police violence, going all the way back as far back as we have reliable data, which is 2013,” Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the founders of the Mapping Police Violence project, tells The Independent.

“Every year, the police kill about 1,100 people. It fluctuates from, you know, 1,000 up to 1,200. But it’s consistently around that number every single year.”

He added: “The big picture is we haven’t seen a reduction nationwide since the police murder of George Floyd, or since 2015 and 2014 and the activism and national conversation around this issue that happened.”

The statistics also show a disproportionate number of those killed by police are young men of colour. A study by researchers at Yale University based on data collated by the Washington Post, found that Native Americans were killed by police at a rate three times that of white people, Black people were killed at 2.6 times the rate of white people and Hispanics were killed at nearly 1.3 times the rate.

Among unarmed victims specifically, Black people were killed at three times the rate and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people.

The study’s author, Dowin Boatright, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Yale, said that fatal police shootings of people of colour needs to be treated as a “public health emergency”.

“Those killed by police on average are young people — the average age for all victims is 34,” Mr Boatright said when the study was released last year. “For Black people, the average age is 30.”

And he said the impact on communities was devastating. “In areas where there are police killings, the Black population reports worse mental health,” he said.

In the year since Mr Floyd lost his life, there have been widespread calls for reform, and more accountability, including everything from defunding police forces and creating community protection groups, to dismantling the powerful police unions, who have long been blamed for protecting “bad  apple” officers.

There have been calls for special independent prosecutors to oversee the prosecution of police-involved killings, against a backdrop of figures that show only a handful of police officers are ever charged. Chauvin was the first on-duty white police officer in the history of the Minneapolis police force to be charged with murder.

President Joe Biden has a patchy record of racial justice and reform; as a senator he was one of the most outspoken backers of the 1994 Crime Bill, which disproportionately impacted communities of colour. Yet when he made his third run for president, he did so vowing to make America look into its soul, and work for a more equitable future.

He appointed a Black woman, Kamala Harris, as his vice president, and has championed a police reform bill in the name of George Floyd, that would, among other measures, compile a national database to keep track of bad officers, scattered across more than 17,000 separate law enforcement agencies across the country.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has passed the House, but has not yet been approved by the Senate and signed into law, something Mr Biden had hoped would be achieved by the anniversary of his death.

After Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, the president spoke with the dead man’s family.

“You’ve been incredible, you’re an incredible family. I wish I were there to put my arms around you,” Mr Biden told them. “I’m anxious to see you guys. I really am. We’re going to get a lot more done, we’re going to do a lot. We’re going to stay at it til we get it done.”

Mr Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said last week the president still had confidence the bill would pass the Senate, though could offer no timeline. She said the White House had “confidence in the negotiators” and would like the bill passed “as quickly as possible”.

On Tuesday, the actual anniversary of Mr Floyd’s death, Mr Biden will host members of Mr Floyd’s family at the White House. On Sunday, some of them joined a march in Minneapolis and spoke of their loss.

“It’s been a long year. It’s been a painful year,” said Bridgett Floyd, the dead man’s youngest sister. “That officer doesn’t understand what he took from us.”

Experts say despite the national picture in regard to police killings shifting very little, there have been strides made at the local level. Mr Sinyangwe said Baltimore and Oakland were among forces that had taken steps to reduce such incidents.

“So Oakland, if you look over the past decade or so, there’s been about a 90 per cent reduction in police shootings, which is huge,” he said. Other experts have pointed to the cities of Berkeley, California, and Ithaca in New York as having overseen wide scale transformation. Ithaca has renamed its force the Ithaca Police Department and has armed and unarmed public safety workers.

“There’s never been more scrutiny, deservedly so, of the way municipalities deliver public safety services, and we have to use this moment to come up with a better system, we just have to,” Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said earlier this month.

Mr Sinyangwe points to other challenges.

“What we see is that depending on where you are, you might be in a place that is making progress, in some cases, significant progress. But in most places, that isn’t how it is happening,” he said.

“Some places things have gone in the opposite direction. So when you look at rural and suburban areas, things are going in the opposite direction, the numbers are getting worse ... A whole bunch of small police departments across the United States, which is a much more difficult problem to solve.”

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