Three years. Six minutes.
These are the numbers on my mind as I reflect on the killings of George Floyd and Jordan Neely, two distinct yet eerily similar instances of Black death that put Americans — particularly, white Americans — in focus.
Three years have now passed since Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, in a filmed killing that ignited racial justice protests. The amount of time that police officer Derek Chauvin spent kneeling on Floyd’s neck — around nine minutes — reflected the cruelty required for someone to commit such an act, as in: How could someone spend nine whole minutes crushing another being to death?
At the time, many thought that the gruesome nature of Floyd’s death would spur white America into anti-racist action. But while important social justice gains have been made in Floyd’s name in the three years since, the wave of white empathy seems to have hit a wall.
Corporate leaders have been exposed for their empty promises of racial equity, federal legislation designed to prevent police misconduct has faltered, and, anecdotally speaking, a lot of white folks seem to have lost their capacity for anti-racist outrage.
Complicity and complacency require much less effort.
I think that’s how we arrive at what I feel has been a rather muted reaction to the behavior of Daniel Penny, who is charged with manslaughter after holding another New York subway rider, Jordan Neely, in a chokehold that reportedly was about six minutes longer than Chauvin knelt on Floyd. Penny’s lawyers claim he was acting in self-defense and never intended harm.
As I wrote earlier this month, many news outlets’ framing of the incident seems to indicate a disturbing level of acceptance for the possibility that a white man could have reason to choke or crush a Black man until he dies.
I don’t think it’s particularly useful to try to rank acts of violence by their grotesqueness. So I won’t try to decide which is more galling — death by white officer or death by white civilian.
But I do think the three years separating the killings of George Floyd and Jordan Neely speak to an enduring belief that Black people must be policed in public. And, to me, the support for Penny just shows that people are willing to assign those responsibilities to everyday citizens, who may be even more brutal than officers themselves.