Newsletter – Well, This is Pretty Awful

I wrote this for the Urban News for June 2020.

It is really hard to know where to start. I thought about just submitting a column that starts with expletives; it would also be completely filled with expletives and it would end with expletives. Somehow, I did not think the thoughtful editors of The Urban News would accept such an article.

It Happened Again

This time it was Minneapolis, but the sad truth is it could have happened anywhere in the United States. Another black man, George Floyd, was detained by police because he was suspected of passing counterfeit $20 bills. There was an altercation, a detainment, a handcuffing.

There was yet another infamous cellphone video. We see George Floyd being held down by a white police officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck, one hand casually in his pocket. Mr. Floyd is on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind him, and can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.”

This is so reminiscent of Eric Garner, it hurts. It hurts badly. As you recall, Eric Garner was a black man who was stopped by police for selling individual cigarettes—a crime in New York. As he is dying, his last words are, “I can’t breathe.” The police officer used an illegal chokehold on Mr. Garner—also a crime in New York.

That was almost six years ago. As in Minneapolis, the officers do nothing to resuscitate a lifeless Garner. The police officer who used the illegal chokehold to kill Garner was fired. There was no indictment. No one went to jail.

Almost any black American—well, I should say, almost any progressive American—can name five to 10 Black Americans killed at the hands of American police officers over the past several years. Their names are widely known, the incidents infamous. Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for a traffic stop while visiting for anew university job. She was arrested for almost no reason, and she died in jail with no explanation. No-one was held accountable; no-one went to jail.

Michael Brown got into an altercation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His offense, which ultimately cost him his life, was walking in the middle of the street. Michael Brown ignored the police request to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk. The incident escalated and ended with Michael Brown being shot to death. The officers were not indicted; no-one went to jail. (The 13th Juror is a book that I commissioned Nelda Holder to write. It is about the death of Michael Brown.)

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old black youth who was developmentally delayed. He was playing in a park by himself with a toy plastic gun—the way white boys play “cops and robbers” with impunity. An unidentified stranger called the police because this 12-year-old boy was playing with a toy gun. The police drove up with their guns drawn. Rice did not respond to initial instructions that were shouted at him, and two seconds after their arrival, he was shot dead. He was treated as a hardened criminal. There was an investigation and the conclusion was that shooting was “justified.”

More recently, Ahmad Aubrey, former football standout, was jogging in a neighborhood close to his home. The unarmed 25-year-old black man was spotted by a father and son, both ex-police officers. They decided that Aubrey fit the description of a suspect responsible for several break-ins in the area. They grabbed their weapons, hopped in their pickup truck, and chased Ahmad down. They followed him, hit him with their truck, and when he tried to challenge them, they shot him to death on a public street in Georgia. For months—until a video came out—there were no arrests. (Let’s not forget Breonna Taylor.)

Ahmad Aubrey’s case echoes the death of Trayvon Martin, a young man was walking back to his house from a convenience store when he was confronted by a resident of his father’s apartment complex—a former “neighborhood watch” leader. A fight ensued. Trayvon Martin was shot dead. George Zimmerman, the security guard, never saw a day in jail for killing an unarmed man.

Unarmed Black Man

I simply don’t understand killing someone who is unarmed. I don’t understand how the law protects police officers who are acting worse than the “thugs” that they’re supposed to be arresting. Americans have been taught that the law is fair. We have been taught even if you been done wrong, our legal system will rectify the situation. Although this appears to be true on TV, in real life, this does not seem to happen for black men.

One of the most egregious cases—are there any that aren’t egregious?—happened back in 1999. Four plain-clothes police officers in the Bronx, in NY, came around the corner and saw a black man sitting on the stoop—of his own house. It was about 12:30 in the morning. It was dark, or as dark as it gets in the Bronx. The police “thought”—assumed, guessed, profiled him—that he was a lookout. But Amadou Diallo was an immigrant who did not speak English. In spite of the officers—in plain clothes, remember—yelling at him, Diallo turned to go inside his own house. He reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. The police officers said they believed it was a gun, so they shot 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, on his own front stoop. Mr. Diallo was hit by at least 19 bullets, and, though there was a trial, no one spent even an hour to jail for killing an unarmed man.

What has really changed in 21 years? It appears that nothing has changed. Twenty-one years after Amadou Diallo’s legalized homicide, it is still okay to kill a black man (or woman) just because—you thought you saw a gun; you thought you were in danger; the black guy looked “suspicious”; you got a call about “an armed man.”

Let’s be honest. That is not okay.


Riots have broken out in Minneapolis-St. Paul where George Floyd was killed. A police precinct was burned; stores were looted. These riots, and some looting, have spread over the United States. Demonstrations have been held in Atlanta, New York, Dallas, and other major cities, as well as smaller places like Asheville. Twenty-five cities have imposed curfews hoping to curb the violence. What has Donald Trump done? Almost nothing but tweet, and claim that George Floyd is having a “great day” in heaven looking down at the unemployment numbers.

Riots happen for a reason. The simplest way to think about a riot is that the contact that the society has with that group of citizens has been broken. In our society, we believe in law and order. We believe in justice. We believe that the police, for the most part, are here to serve and protect us, the American population.

These riots are happening for combination of reasons. Many in the black community feel betrayed. COVID-19 is killing blacks at a disproportionately high rate, and it appears that nobody is doing anything to fix this problem. The Mueller report, which clearly outlined how Trump obstructed justice on a number of occasions, has been buried, and Trump, like the rogue policemen, has not been indicted (that we know of), not been hauled into court, not paid any penalty at all. What does he do, besides tweeting? He claims to speak for George Floyd; he thumbs his nose at the black community; he actively courts white supremacists.

Last month Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her unleashed dog in New York’s Central Park, in an area clearly marked “dogs must be leashed.” A black man, birdwatching in that nature preserve, asked her politely to leash her dog. She responded that she was going to call the police: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” This was white privilege at its most outrageous for everyone to see. Fortunately, Mr. Cooper, the birdwatcher (no relation, despite the shared last name), livestreamed the incident on his cell phone for the world to see—and she was fired from her vice-presidential investment job and is under investigation by authorities.

Remember that the coronavirus is percolating in the background. 1.5 million Americans have been infected with this virus. Twenty-six percent of these infections have been in the black community, more than twice their percentage (12%) of the population.

Trump asked a foreign power to help with his re-election, but despite the Mueller Report, the FBI investigation, and impeachment, there are no consequences for Trump breaking the law. But George Floyd, suspected of a minor infraction, is killed in yet another homicide at the hands of the police. For some in the black community it is just too much to take.


  • The last election flipped the electoral college by only 100,000 votes. We need every progressive to vote. We need every Democrat to vote. We need every liberal to vote. We need to vote in every election. We need to vote in local, state and national elections. Voting is as important as going to church on Sunday or providing food and shelter for your family. Vote!
  • Write your representative. Write your senator. Write your city councilman and your state senators and representatives. Write your local newspaper. Write a Facebook post. Heck, if you know how, produce a tik-tok video.

Americans killing Americans is wrong. It is always wrong. We have to be relentless and get this word out. We must change laws.

Stand your ground laws were designed to allow white people to shoot black people on sight. They set the standard for using deadly force this way: If you think that someone may—kind of, sort of, possibly—be in your space; or that you may be—kind of, sort of, could, possibly—be in danger, you can blow the person away with your Dirty Harry 357 Magnum.

If you are white, and a black person is walking in front of your lawn, and you feel scared, you can claim the right to shoot him. (If, however, you’re a black person with a licensed weapon, and a white civilian or cop breaks into your home in the dead of night, you do not have the same right; like Breona Taylor’s boyfriend, you will be charged for shooting plainclothes police using a battering ram to break in through your front door at 12:30 a.m.)

These laws and these standards must be overturned and removed from the books forever. There has to be an imminent threat: someone must be shooting at you, shooting at your family, before it is okay for you or the police to use deadly force. Someone must be holding a knife and rushing at you before you can use deadly force. The standard must be that 90% of Americans in the same situation—perceiving that their lives are in mortal danger—would do the same thing before it is okay to use deadly force.

We must work together to fix this. We may not be able to fix this overnight, but we must start today.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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