by Nicole Jonassen
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers responded to a call alleging that 46-year old George Floyd had purchased cigarettes using a counterfeit $20 bill. Four officers, Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao, arrived at the scene. In a series of events now burned into American minds, George Floyd became the latest in a series of martyrs, all victims of police brutality.
Since the murder, news outlets have used security footage to determine how and why George Floyd lost his life at the hands of officers sworn to protect their communities. The police department was contacted by the deli where George Floyd purchased cigarettes. On the call, George was described as “awfully drunk” and “not in control.” Former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng approached George’s vehicle, wrestled George out of the SUV, put him in handcuffs, and sat him up against a wall before leading George to their own vehicle. George fell to the ground and struggled to remain outside of the vehicle. He told the officers he was claustrophobic and that he couldn’t breathe. Then, officers Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao arrived. Chauvin also tried to shove George into the police vehicle before yanking him out of the vehicle completely and onto the street, where George laid face down under physical pressure from three officers. Emergency Medical Services were called for, but Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck, despite George’s promise that he would enter the car if he could stand. Bystanders begged the police officers to check George’s pulse, but they refused. Even with the arrival of EMS and MFD, George entered cardiac arrest and died.
George Floyd’s death sparked protests in Minneapolis and in cities throughout the United States and abroad. Protesters’ first demands centered around bringing the rightful consequences to the former police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd. However, since the officers were terminated by the Minneapolis Police Department, arrested, and charged for their roles in the killing, the protesters have begun to demand large-scale institutional change to prevent similar killings from occurring in the future. Now, the protests are not merely in response to the death of George Floyd — or Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice, or Freddie Gray, or Philando Castile, or Sandra Bland, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor. Rather, the protests are in response to the long-standing legacy of institutionalized racism in the United States and all of its effects.
Renewed awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement has elicited mixed reactions from Americans. Some Americans have condemned the past month’s protests on account of the actions of a fraction of participants. In many cities, initially peaceful protests have been portrayed as violent and unruly after police officers incited violence. Many have alleged that undercover cops have infiltrated protesting crowds to damage property and commit arson, turning the media against the protesters. Meanwhile, many people unaffiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement have used the guise of protest to extort the situation for personal gain, carrying out lootings by breaking into high end storefronts and making off with designer goods. Truthfully, it is difficult to determine whether or not the perpetrators of these offenses are legitimate protesters or merely bad actors hoping to take advantage of chaos. However, there has been irrefutable evidence of the police spreading misinformation. It was reported that the Rolex storefront in Soho was looted and robbed of approximately $2.4 million in merchandise. Rolex refuted this report, claiming that such a robbery was impossible because the store was empty. More recently, it was reported a 75-year old man injured his head due to a slip and fall incident, while smartphone footage revealed that the man had been shoved to the ground by a police officer. In the face of these discrepancies in public statements, many Americans are frustrated with the glaring lack of accountability and reliability in the media.
In spite of growing frustration, the protests have also brought a wave of new awareness for the well-known Black Lives Matter movement and the increasingly popular All Cops Are Bastards movement. People of color and white allies alike have used the unfortunate situation as an opportunity to inform and educate the masses through social media and casual conversation. The Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, has been a well-known and largely understood concept for years. Newer vocabulary, however, has grown in popularity since the George Floyd murder. Among the new terms used to discuss and understand American racism are white silence, white fragility, and ACAB. White silence refers to the choice of white Americans to stay silent in conversations about racial injustice or the choice of white Americans to stay silent in response to acts that perpetuate racial injustice. This choice is made, typically, because white Americans feel no obligation to continuously fight for racial justice, whereas people of color recognize that to fight for racial justice in casual conversation is to fight for their right to a “normal” life. White fragility refers to the feeling of discomfort white Americans might feel when they engage in conversations that confront racism, implicit bias, and the ways they have benefitted from institutionalized racism. White fragility often causes white Americans to assume defensive attitudes, which can effectively make people of color feel guilt or shame for raising the issue in the first place. Finally, ACAB, which stands for All Cops Are Bastards, is an acronym from the United Kingdom. ACAB draws from the word “bastardized,” implying that the police system has been debased and corrupted. Contrary to popular misconception, it does not allege that all police officers are “bad cops” who actively participate in police brutality. Rather, it draws attention to the fact that all police officers protect and defend a system that historically targets people and communities of color and is sworn to enforce laws that disproportionately harm and incarcerate people of color. Armed with these phrases, many Americans have engaged in constructive conversations to inform themselves and others and confront racism, even in its most subtle and internalized forms.
As more and more Americans become allies to the fight for racial justice, it is time for predominantly white communities like Rye to be introspective, to reflect on their positions of privilege, to ask themselves how they have benefited from racist institutions, and to consider practical steps they can take to help society unlearn racism. Many Rye residents have used the resurgence of Black Lives Matter to reflect on race and how it relates to our community. Rye High School students have asked themselves uncomfortable and important questions. Where can we see racism or indifference toward racism here in Rye? Is there adequate racial diversity in our school’s faculty and staff or in our school’s curriculum? Have authority figures at Rye High School taken appropriate action in response to racism? Many Rye High School students now regret having been silent while their peers hollered racial slurs at athletic events. Many now regret walking away when their peers made offensive and racially charged jokes in the cafeteria, the library, or the temp lot. Many now regret waiting until recently to engage in conversation with their parents on the topic of racial injustice. Almost all of us are wondering why we learn about racial injustice as a unit in history class or why we’ve sat through dozens of assemblies about drug addiction but none of them have mentioned the fact that the white men in recovery who come to speak to us are very different from the people of color who are prosecuted and incarcerated for drug possession instead of being sent to rehabilitation centers. In the face of these feelings of regret or guilt, it is important to remember that there is still time for change and progress and that members of our community are already taking steps toward racial equity.
On June 3, Rye High School alumnus Zach Gaouad created a petition to “Promote Racial Awareness and Diversity Within the Rye High School Student Body and Faculty,” a critical cause, as any student or teacher at Rye High School will attest to. The petition calls for Rye High School to fulfill its promise of “pursuing excellence” by raising awareness of students’ implicit and explicit expressions of racism, cracking down on microaggressions toward people of color, and amplifying the voices of the 1% of the Rye High School student body that is black. When asked about his motivation behind creating the petition, Zach said “I did not feel supported, heard, nor understood by faculty or my peers during my years at Rye High. I cannot stand idly by and let that happen to other students of color.” Zach wants to see everyone in Rye sign his petition, including the educators. As he put it, this is a time for white residents to “put all potential tunnel-vision aside and recognize that they will never be able to relate” to the way people of color feel at Rye High School. Zach points to the proposals laid out in his petition, which were created in collaboration with the black student body of St. James High School in Maryland, and hopes that the school board will discuss the issues and put them to a vote. Zach knows that, unless Rye becomes less racially homogenous, it will be extremely difficult for the community to develop any genuine understanding of race relations in this country. Finally, when asked about the sacrifices white Americans might need to make as we tear down racist institutions, Zach had this to say: “I hold no privilege based on my skin color, so why should white people? We poured our hearts out writing that petition, and we shouldn’t have had to do that. We shouldn’t do what our teachers should have done for us. Everyone needs to realize that, as a community, we owe our marginalized people better.”
Beyond laying out important goals for the school district, Zach Gaouad’s petition has served as a conversation starter. Rye High School Senior Sadie Koenig had this to say about Zach’s petition: “I think the petition is necessary, and I do think the Rye community needs to be held accountable for acts of blatant racism, but I definitely believe a lot of that could begin in the classroom.” She says that, as an AP US History and AP US Government & Politics student, she was taught “how awful slavery was and that segregation only lasted a few years and now we are all equal.” Rye High School students deserve to know that that is not the case. Luckily, curriculums can be changed to become more accurate representations about the state of race relations. History teachers can stop portraying the Civil Rights Era as a fully successful movement and can instead recognize the ongoing struggle people of color engage in on a daily basis. All educators can do their part to familiarize Rye students, over 82% of whom are white, with harsh realities like the school to jail pipeline, the history of Stop and Frisk, and the painful lack of accountability for police involved in the killing of black men and women. Unfortunately, it is much harder to change an attitude than it is to rewrite a class syllabus, and the attitudes of Rye City School District administrators do not seem to reflect the outrage and disappointment Rye residents feel in response to the George Floyd murder. On June 4, 10 days after George Floyd’s death, Superintendent Dr. Byrne sent an email to the school district addressing the situation. Instead of even mentioning George Floyd by name or making any concrete promise of change, Dr. Byrne referenced a Civility Statement the school district adopted in 2013. Having read the email, Zach Gaouad said “I found Dr. Byrne’s response inherently disrespectful to the students of color he is supposed to protect.” Many Rye residents agree that the RCSD response has been, in short, not enough.
In the absence of leadership from our school district, members of the Rye community look to peaceful protest as another avenue for progress. On Tuesday, June 9, there will be a peaceful protest at the Rye Playland, where all funds collected will be donated to The Bail Project, an organization that aims to stop the mass incarceration and has paid bail for over 10,000 people to date. I strongly encourage everyone who can to attend the protest. Some members of the Rye community have already had the opportunity to attend protests and regard their experiences as life-changing. Rye High School Senior Katie Sack spoke on her experience at the New Rochelle protest: “By attending this protest, I was able to learn a little more about these injustices, and it opened my eyes to the pressing issues that our society is facing.” Katie is actively trying to educate herself on the racial injustices that are deeply rooted in our country and believes that attending a protest was a major step toward being a better ally. Even if you are unable to attend the protest, there are so many ways to help dismantle racist institutions: sign petitions, donate to Black Lives Matter and to bail funds, amplify the voices of black influencers on social media, patronize black-owned businesses. The first step, however, is to ask yourself how racial hierarchies have impacted your life. I will start. My name is Nicole Jonassen. I am half Asian and half white. I benefit every day because my name “sounds white,” and I benefit from white privilege because I “seem white” on paper. As an Asian American, I know that my family members’ immigration to this country was made possible by the efforts of black civil rights activists. I know that the Model Minority Myth was designed to pit racial minorities against one another, and I know that the elevation of Asian Americans as “obedient” and “intelligent” has been used as a tool to deter the progress of African Americans. I know the role that privilege has played in my life, and I intend to do everything in my power to be an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, to tear down institutionalized racism, and to see a far more equitable world one day.