The relentless racial injustice that drives the protests roiling NC and the nation

The relentless racial injustice that drives the protests roiling NC and the nation

Protests erupted around the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It has been eight days since Minneapolis resident George Floyd, a Black man described by friends and family as a “gentle giant,” a kind and trustworthy man with a big heart, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer.

Floyd was not resisting arrest when Chauvin was caught on camera pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, refusing to let up even when he begged for air and told Chauvin he could not breathe. Chauvin has a long history of abusing his power —the Washington Post reported that he had received at least 17 complaints in his 19 years with the Minneapolis Police Department and had been involved in at least two shootings, one of which was fatal.

Rather than being one of merely a few bad apples, however, Chauvin represents a policing system that is inherently racist and has led to the deaths of thousands of Black Americans in the last decade alone. In 2019, there were only 27 days when police did not kill someone. George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, but his death exemplifies the underlying problems with the American police that are pervasive throughout the country; North Carolina is no exception.

The U.S. justice system has always been biased against Black Americans. As of 2016, Black Americans were incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of white Americans nationally, and in North Carolina, the Black per capita adult imprisonment rate was 4.5 times higher than its white adult per capita imprisonment rate. In 2019, 38% of the people killed by police in North Carolina were Black, despite the fact that Black people constitute only 22% of the state’s population.

A system with no oversight is prone to abuse, and the police force is no exception. Only 1% of police killings from 2013 to 2019 resulted in the officers involved being charged with a crime. In effect, this means that there is no accountability for police roughly 99% of the time. Measures that have been proven to increase police accountability, such as civilian review boards and strict deadly force and body camera policies, have yet to be implemented in the majority of cities, including North Carolina’s major population hubs.

Raleigh police changed their body camera policy last year, after a senior officer fatally shot Soheil Mojarrad, a 30-year-old man accused of stealing a cell phone and holding a knife. The previous policy required officers to turn their body cameras on “as soon as feasible” upon a potential violation of the law. After Senior Officer W. B. Edwards shot and killed Mojarrad without turning his body camera on, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown released an updated policy wherein cameras would always be recording without audio to prevent what she called “the human error of not turning the camera on.”

Many of North Carolina’s cities have civilian review boards, including Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte. But these boards are largely powerless to conduct the kinds of investigations that would constitute any real oversight. None of the three aforementioned cities’ review boards conducts independent investigations into complaints; Raleigh’s board does not conduct any investigations at all.

In the two cities with boards that do conduct investigations, findings of error are rare. In the 23 years since Charlotte’s police advisory board was created, there have been only two findings of error.

In 2015, the chairman of Durham’s board, DeWarren Langley, said that there had “never been an instance where the board sided with the complainants over the cops.” (Emphasis in original quote.) According to annual reports from the board, this is still true today.

The year after a series of officer-involved shootings in 2014, Durham’s Human Relations Committee recommended that the citizen oversight board be allowed to directly investigate complaints against officers. Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield rejected the recommendation. Durham residents then pinned their hopes on a bill in the state House that aimed to prohibit racial profiling, but that would have also authorized citizen review boards to conduct independent investigations. The bill never made it out of committee.

A bill in 2017 specifically written for this purpose also died in committee.

In Raleigh, a civilian review board was created earlier this year despite vehement opposition from Deck-Brown, after police fatally shot a man they said was “armed and acting strangely.” The board was established after years of advocacy by community activists, particularly the group Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce. Although its creation can be touted as a victory, Raleigh’s board is even more toothless than those in Durham and Charlotte.

According to its own website, the board does not “conduct investigations, hear testimony, or contribute to disciplinary action.” Nor does it “respond to citizen complaints” or “collect data.” Its sole functions are to review “existing Raleigh Police Department procedures” and “engag[e] community members through educational outreach on Raleigh Police Department directives.”

The fact that there is essentially no accountability for Raleigh’s police is even more concerning when considering their actions at the George Floyd protest on Saturday evening. A protest attendee, who asked not be identified out of fear of employment issues and general possibility of reprisal, described the scene for Policy Watch.

When the protest started, they said, it was peaceful. A huge crowd had assembled, filled with people of all ages, races, and genders, and they marched down Fayetteville Street with signs. A few people were passing out water bottles and masks to anyone who needed them.

Around 8 p.m., they said, they “saw large groups of police in riot gear running towards the main group of the protesters.” At this point, police began deploying tear gas to subdue the crowd.

“There were kids in the crowd that was tear gassed,” said the protester.

This is consistent with reports from other cities where protests were largely peaceful until police began provoking violence.

Twelve arrests were made following Saturday’s protest, and on Sunday morning, Deck-Brown promised that “there will be more to follow.”

Chauvin and the other three officers involved in Floyd’s death have since been fired from the Minneapolis police force.  Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday.

The fact that it took four days for Derek Chauvin to be arrested for murder and only a few hours for 12 people to be arrested for property damage is the reason why these protests must and will continue. We will value Black lives as much as we should once Chauvin and officers like him are brought to justice with the same haste as the people protesting against him.

Aditi Kharod is a senior UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at NC Policy Watch.

Some of the numbers driving the protests
8 – Number of days since Minneapolis resident George Floyd died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer
9 – Number of minutes that former officer Derek Chauvin was recorded pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck
22.2 – Percentage of North Carolinians who are Black (U.S. Census)
23.5 – Percentage of Black residents living in poverty in NC (BTC’s County Economic Snapshots 2020)
10.6 – of white residents living in poverty in NC (Ibid)
28.5 – of Latinx residents living in poverty in NC (Ibid)
32 – Percentage of Black children in the U.S. who lived in poverty in 2018 (Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation report: “Children Living in High Poverty, Low-Opportunity Neighborhoods.” )
6 –  Times more likely that Black children live in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods in North Carolina than white children (Ibid)
4.5 – Times higher the adult per capita imprisonment rate for Black people than its whites in North Carolina (Source: ACLU of North Carolina)
1 in 40 – Share of Black men in North Carolina who were imprisoned as of 2016 (Ibid)