The Slatest

“We’re in the Process of Mass Forgetting”

Nearly three years after George Floyd’s murder, the response to police killings seems to be more muted. We spoke to an expert about what’s going on.

A man stands in front of a government building wearing a shirt that reads, "Black lives matter."
A person demonstrates in support of Daunte Wright in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 21, 2021. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

“They’re trying to George Floyd me,” Keenan Anderson said as Los Angeles police pinned him to the ground on Jan. 3. While he was on the ground, they tased him six times over the course of 42 seconds.

Anderson died in the hospital hours later, likely resulting from the incident, yet his story hasn’t received as much attention as other police-involved killings of unarmed Black men—even though he is the cousin of one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors.

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The relatively muted response raises questions about what’s happened in the past two and a half years, since George Floyd’s murder sparked a national reckoning over race and policing.

“Has the public gotten busier since then? Crueler? More fickle? More tolerant of violence? More futile in our response to it?” Ja’han Jones wrote for MSNBC. “Where are the black Instagram squares, the corporate news releases claiming to stand for racial justice, the social media posts about white folks listening and learning about their privilege?”

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The underlying issue certainly hasn’t gone away. Just days into the new year, Anderson was the third person of color killed by the LAPD alone. An ongoing analysis by The Washington Post found Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans—and in 2022, police killed the highest number of people on record.

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To get some perspective on what has changed, and what hasn’t, since George Floyd’s murder, and the challenges facing efforts to end police violence, I spoke to Dr. Phillip Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor at Yale University. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Shirin Ali: Why do you think the reaction to Keenan Anderson’s death was more muted in comparison to similar cases, like George Floyd or Philando Castile?

Phillip Goff: I think that is because we were distracted by a bumblebee. We’ve got George Santos, we have the failed attempts to choose a House speaker, the debt ceiling has hit. We’re distracted. We’re not paying attention to what’s happening to Black people because there’s anything else in the news. If you think about the names that you listed, all of them came at a time when there was space in the media ecosystem for a story about it. The other piece is that many of those stories had video attached, and the video was shocking. And the individual died right there at the scene. This is an individual who died in a hospital of cardiac arrest after multiple tasings. To the degree that there is video, it is not nearly as sensational, and it’s happening at a time when we have a fairly saturated set of systems.

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During his encounter with police, Anderson called out for help. That’s something we’ve seen in many police-involved killings, but more often than not the plea goes ignored. What do you make of that?

That’s 1,000 percent correct. We see in some of our own research, Black folks are two to four times more likely to have force used on them than white folks in this country. We see the folks with serious mental illness are sometimes up to 12 times more likely to have force used on them than folks without. We probably shouldn’t have armed responders to folks in mental crisis. But since we do have armed responders as the primary first responders to folks in mental crisis, they cannot possibly be trained to deal with them and de-escalate them the way that folks who have taken years of schooling and countless hours of training are taught to. We ended up with violence and punishment in response to mental health crises in places where we don’t need it.

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I’m not suggesting that Keenan Anderson was in a mental health crisis per se. But, he literally said, “please help me” as the first words that are caught on camera. The result on the other end of it is that they tased him literally to death, because, according to police reports, he got scared that he might get killed by cops and so ran away. If you have ever been not quite in your right mind, and you did a thing that under other circumstances you wouldn’t do because you were scared, right? I think that if anybody hasn’t ever done that they haven’t lived around humans. So it is absolutely the case that there are patterns of folks who are seeking help, who end up with law enforcement as the primary first and only responders and end up in a terrible situation, sometimes even in death.

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How is it that we don’t have other ways to help folks out? It’s not just a pattern of traffic stops, it’s a pattern across the country when you’re living in places where you are vulnerable and you are asking for help. We have decided not to fund helpers, except when they come with the capacity to take life.

Most recently, the police killing of George Floyd started this national conversation about police reform. Do you think there’s been significant progress since then?

George Floyd’s lynching in 2020 sort of reignited a conversation we’ve been having, since the founding of the country. I don’t want anybody who reads this story to think that there was nothing, and then in 2020, all of a sudden it all started. Almost everybody remembers Ferguson, which was prior to that. Many people will also remember Trayvon Martin, which was both about policing and not about policing, and was a mere couple years before that. Many of your readers will remember the early ’90s and what happened in Los Angeles after the verdict in the Rodney King beating. We actually do this in this country every 20 to 30 years. Before Rodney King, there was the Kerner Commission report in the late 1960s that said the reason we have these terrible incidents around race and policing is because we have systematically underinvested in the communities that tend to have a disproportionate number of descendants of former slaves.

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So it’s a cycle that we go through. We’re currently in this period of the cycle that happens every 20 to 30 years, where we’re in the process of mass forgetting. In another 20 to 30 years from now, unless somehow the cycle has picked up speed, we’re going to say, oh, I remember that person and when they were killed and when that started it. George Floyd just reignited a pattern that we have in the United States. That said, I do see at every 30-year interval, there are real changes, and we do a disservice to the men and women who spend their lives dedicated to making those changes real, not to acknowledge them.

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We’ve seen places focus on reducing our reliance on systems of punishment when systems of care can prevent that need. In Denver, the STAR program, which sends out mental health responders instead of law enforcement, has been an overwhelming success, and many places have replicated that. Berkeley, California, was the first to eliminate police responses to low-level traffic incidents. Philadelphia and Seattle caught wind of that and tried to replicate it. Pittsburgh and Los Angeles tried to replicate what Philadelphia has done, but Los Angeles only did a pilot program. If that program were city-wide, Keenan Anderson might be alive today.

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But those elements where we’re ending the reliance on systems of punishment, where they’re unnecessary or systems of care can replace them and prevent the need, that’s good news. In St. Louis, Missouri, they’re doing that kind of work where they’re using the same sort of philosophy—instead of sending police they’re sending help. All of these local successes are great. What we’ll need as a nation are leaders to aggregate those successes up and start telling those stories. Otherwise, we end up with what we almost ended up with in the midterms: people fearmongering about crime, saying that policing is the only answer when police themselves know better, and then using that as a political cudgel and forgetting the very communities that are asking for something different.

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In what areas do you think there still hasn’t been enough change?

Oh, in all areas—there’s no place where I feel like, “oh, yeah, we’re done with that.” I’d say that there are some local communities that have got the right amount of urgency, indignation, and rigorousness in terms of analysis and implementation of policy. They’re making some headway, but we are still generations away from making the kind of headway where we can say we have done all of the care that we can do. We have to fundamentally rethink how we’re setting up our society, if we want to solve these problems, because these aren’t just problems of policing and public safety. What we saw in 2020 was the past-due notice for the unpaid debts owed to generations of Black people for 400-plus years in this country. If all we end up doing is adjusting policing, we haven’t even addressed the root cause of these issues. So nowhere are we close to being done.

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How have efforts to implement police reforms and address racial inequities been stymied over the years?

It’s not that there are people who want to change things and then there are people who are neutral. There are people who want to change things, and there are people who like the way things are. We used to have some protections for voting rights for Black people, and they needed to be spelled out explicitly because there were folks who were murdering folks who were trying to vote. The people who were doing the murdering had kids and were elected to public office, and many of them were also law enforcement. They didn’t come out of the ether whenever the protesters showed up—those are citizens, they vote, they give money to causes.

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So we’ve got a governor in Florida who does not want people to learn about segregation in Florida, and racial violence in Florida, because if people learned about the truth, it would be harder for them to erect their entire political apparatus, right? We have people who think the best way to manage vulnerable Black communities is to lock them up or commit acts of violence whenever they are in a place where they shouldn’t be, where they violate a law that was made to give them opportunities to lock the folks up.

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There are people who genuinely believe that’s a good idea, and many of them will tell you, honestly in their heart, that it has nothing to do with race. That it’s just the right way for society to work. So for sure, there are constant, organized, and well-funded efforts to move things in the wrong direction on these issues that persist.

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The short answer to your question is not just yes, but hell yes. At every point in time, both while the protests are going, while progress is being made, and while there is a lull in that.

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Is there anything within this moment that gives you hope?

I like to say that hope in the face of reality is a revolutionary act, and you try to be a revolutionary every day. If you give up hope, you should probably get out of the way of the people who are going to fuel the change that needs to come. So I have to hope every day. The things that are giving me hope right now, they’re young people being activated to this stuff, who are going to learn not just about the principles that are unnecessary to replace the systems that we’ve got, but about the logistics that are necessary to put the policies in place. I’m excited about them. I’m a professor, so I get to talk to students all the time. Students are always energizing for the work that I do.

Police chiefs have been saying for a couple of decades now: you use us for everything and blame us for everything, stop doing it. But now, we got activists saying it and we got electeds saying it. There are countless folks around the country who are trying to figure out how we shrink our reliance on systems of punishment and increase our reliance on systems of care. The Center for Policing Equity has the “unlocking democracy” learning communities. It’s 20 different municipalities who are trying to do that in four different areas of mental health, cops in schools, traffic accidents—exactly like the Keenan Anderson incident—and street violence. These are five elements in each of the five municipalities trying to shrink their reliance on systems of punishment. None of it is perfect, and there’s going to be a whole bunch of folks who get it wrong. But that is a commitment to this idea that we have to find new ways and new systems, that’s going to make the uprisings that come 20 or 30 years from now so much more effective at getting political change than the ones that we’ve seen over the last 20 to 30 years.

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