I Should Not Know Their Names

By Craig Mills

I should not know who George Floyd is. He died in Minneapolis on Memorial Day under circumstances that could qualify as a war crime under the Geneva Convention in a different setting. I probably shouldn’t know who Christian Cooper is either. Amy Cooper (no relation) called 911 on him in anger in Central Park, also on Memorial Day. I shouldn’t know the names Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, or countless numbers of unarmed of Black men, who by all accounts, were ordinary citizens living otherwise ordinary lives. Unless you were personally acquainted with them, you probably should not know them either. Racialized violence and “Karen” incidents directed toward them, however, have made them part of a never-ending, tragic tapestry of Black men the police and those benefitting from structural and institutional racism have harassed, abused, or killed unnecessarily to perpetuate and underscore white power and privilege. These transgressions signal to Black people — and Black men, in particular — their worth in society.

The Cooper and Floyd incidents converged on a somber holiday as the public chafes under the constraints of shelter-in-place orders, many experiencing economic and mental strain. These incidents underscore how routinely Black citizens come into conflict with police and private citizens for simply existing in public spaces in ways other Americans take for granted, indeed, as a right. The Karen incidents have resonance because most Blacks have experienced them in some form and recognize their perniciousness. The Central Park incident is simultaneously jarring, enraging and personal because I use the park regularly for tennis, biking, walking and attending events. I also have been on the receiving end of such passive/aggressive behavior by someone who feels the need to explain “protocol” to me (as if I didn't know) and who has taken exception when I suggest they mind their own business. This has happened mostly at the tennis courts and a shared bike-pedestrian path near the courts. Pushing back may seem innocuous — indeed, my right — until you think of the numerous times someone has called the police or an attendant on a person of color over seemingly minor incidents.

In black-white social conflicts (even when race is not spoken, it is often a subtext for the conflict), the Black individual is usually the presumed offending party who must establish and prove credibility in manifold ways. To be sure, in the Central Park incident, Christian Cooper had to rely on numerous credentials (board member of the New York City Audubon Society, Harvard alum, former Marvel Comics editor, other whites vouching for him) to erase suspicions about him and his motivations. Amy only had to appear frightened on the phone. She adjusted her vocal hysterics to convey her imperilment to the 911 dispatcher in order to hasten a police response from the “threat” of a Black man calmly instructing her to abide by the park rules and to stay away from him. Her behavior chillingly demonstrates how easily privileged individuals can exploit racial perceptions about crime victims and perpetrators. Amy knew that explicitly invoking Christian’s race, accompanied with urban myths about who Central Park is for and who lurks there, authorities would view her threat credibly. Let’s be clear, what she did is utterly repugnant and potentially lethal. It should be a crime.

Unaddresed in these conflicts is the unpleasant black-white racial dynamics that have long governed American social interactions. White retaliation in response to Black expression and police mistreatment are direct results of the history of Black men viewed as chattel who could literally be hunted down, beaten, castrated, lynched, removed from their families at will, and forced to behave deferentially to whites in public spaces. Aggrieved racists have transformed the direct language of publicly calling Black men niggers and boys to referring to us as thugs, thieves, and stupid, oversexed criminals and structuring institutions to confirm these narratives and contain said offenders. The result is societal difficulty acknowledging Black humanity.

Karen memes inject humor into commentary on such episodes, letting “good white people'' tsk-tsk the subject’s behavior. Hopefully, they prompt whites to think about some of their biases. But they do very little to lessen the impact of structural racism or impel many whites from using such privilege unabashedly when it suits them. Each successive event adds new traumatic content for the internet to curate.

I cannot bring myself to watch the Floyd video, however, because I have seen too many similar videos, and I know how it ends. These images sear. Rodney King’s beating nearly 30 years ago is still vivid in my mind. Eric Garner’s pleas for help as police crushed the life from him still haunt me. To not view doesn’t mean avoidance, though; I don’t enjoy that privilege. Like many Black men, I must reckon with the possibility of such an event happening to me if I go into a wealthy urban or cul-de-sac suburban neighborhood that might provoke suspicion. Venturing into such territory alone brings a presumption of guilt and the pressure to be on model behavior, lest one attract unwanted attention. Getting lost, looking for an address, or simply admiring the homes in such environs is not the innocent, casual occurrence most whites understand it to be.

The Memorial Day incidents feel like they’re on a loop: New name, different locality, similar circumstances, outrage, shaming, repeat. As well, they force me to revisit an encounter I had on the perimeter of Central Park in 2011, at the height of stop-and-frisk in New York. Two plainclothes police in an unmarked car ambushed me in the wee hours of the morning (right after my birthday, no less) and demanded I get off my bike. Though it didn't end violently, it easily could have. The officers did not announce themselves as such. I thought I was about to be assaulted or worse and had to make a split-second decision on whether to try to escape into the park to flee them. I shudder to think what could have happened to me if I had tried to escape them.

Although I filed a complaint that ended unsatisfactorily, I never spoke about it extensively with anyone until Michael Bloomberg ran for president. Bloomberg, who was mayor of New York when the police stopped me, defended stop-and-frisk years after a judge ruled it unconstitutional. Alarmingly, I noticed several people I know warming to the idea of his candidacy, and I felt compelled to speak.

Police have been the face of racial control. They are brutally racist in their actions against Black men to uphold the status quo, killing us at much higher rates in the process. Condemning George Floyd’s murder is easy. When even police who often defend the indefensible publicly object to Derek Chauvin’s actions, it is a no-brainer. The harder work is undoing centuries and individual lifetimes of all the other subjective indignities to which whites subject Black people based on how we speak, express ourselves, dress, what schools we attend, or how we view the world.

It’s how you assess if someone is an “organizational fit.” It’s how you evaluate our credentials and our black-sounding names when screening job applicants. It’s whether you think you can casually approach a Black stranger on the street and expect he can tell you where to buy weed. It’s the coded language you use for Black people exclusively. It’s who you think can lead a group or organization. It’s if you listen to Black voices to get a different perspective on an issue. It’s whether you believe the Black student got into Prestigious U simply because they are Black. It’s if you believe Black people can opine credibly on, and be expert in topics other than Black issues. It’s if you make derisive remarks to your well-educated Black friends about them not being Black enough. It’s whether you claim to not see color. It’s the bias you may have about the “natural” athletic ability you ascribe to Serena and Venus Williams as if they don’t need to train rigorously to be at the top of their field. It’s the presumption, until recently, that Black men were either too dumb or too unorthodox to be the quarterback. It’s whether you think Black people are puppets of the Democratic Party. It’s if you invoke your privilege when things don't go your way or when someone calls you on your shit. Finally, it’s whether you want to do the work to reform institutions and structures that go beyond a one-day march or work for or volunteer with organizations taking on reform efforts. The weight of all this is physically making us sick.

I truly appreciate the outrage young white Americans have expressed and their marching to voice displeasure. I hope this doesn’t become their parents’ or grandparents' “I marched with MLK” moment and believe their work is done when the marching stops, however. Conservatives have been focused on chipping away at the Civil Rights Act and other battles many assumed were long settled. We need your help long after the protests subside. Black people are paying police for the “privilege” of humiliating, degrading, and killing us in our communities. All taxpayers in particular jurisdictions are paying for settlements and lawsuits for this privilege as well. Maybe it’s finally time to rethink this relationship.

Black people are marching and protesting not because it’s trendy or because Netflix or Nike gave us permission. We’re angry and in pain not because Floyd’s murder, above others, is so shocking. Many of us, if we strive for fame for ourselves or loved ones, hope to attain it while living — not for how we have died or attained notoriety tragically. Many others are marching just to live otherwise ordinary lives to their natural completion.

— Craig Mills