The White Imagination Must Be Bound

Photo by Heather Anderson

On Memorial Day, George Floyd became the latest Black life to be brutally taken at the hands of police officers. It happened after he was arrested for buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. There is nothing I could say about this death that would do justice to his life. There is nothing I could say that wouldn’t be said better by members of his family, members of the Black community, or critical race scholars with hefty academic credentials. But there are still some things I must say.

The officers responsible for Floyd’s death were officers from my hometown. It is a place that I recognize. And this isn’t the first time. When Philando Castile was pulled over and murdered in his vehicle by a police officer on July 6, 2016, I had just gotten my driver’s license. The knowledge that such cruelty could occur in the metro area where I spent my entire life shattered my illusions about the power of “Minnesota Nice” to counteract racism.

Today, as a rising senior in college, I don’t grapple with the death of George Floyd in the same way I grappled with Philando Castile’s. I am now used to the sick feeling that burns in the bottom of my stomach. Outrage at the vile racism arrives alongside exhaustion because I know that this country occupies land that was stolen through genocide of Native peoples, the economy was built with Black slave labor, the Constitution was written on a foundation of inequality, and the pillars of the nation continue to be strengthened at the expense of communities of color every single day. I reach out to my friends and family of color, but find we almost have no words left to say.

Too often, people, especially white people, are willing to write off incidences of police brutality as actions of a few twisted, racist, or particularly sadistic individuals. I understand this because, for them, police misconduct appears in their newsfeeds sporadically, accompanied by a hashtag. For people of color, particularly Black men, police misconduct is a daily lived experience. And police brutality, misconduct’s ugly cousin, leaves all-too-frequent scars on their communities. As much as these tragedies are the products of individual actions, the cause is not an individual phenomenon. It is a symptom of a disgraceful system set to ensnare people of color, the system of white supremacy.

The murder of George Floyd is, of course, connected to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in March, along with the Central Park incident involving Christian Cooper the same day Floyd died. One of my professors once told a story about his Black friend working in the upper echelon of corporate America. His friend used to get coffee around three o’clock in the afternoon every day with a white coworker. One day they got into an argument when the white co-worker insisted my professor’s friend had been in London the night before meeting a prestigious client. The coworker was offended that he’d been excluded from this opportunity and refused to believe his Black colleague who said he couldn’t have been in London. To this, my professor said, “The white imagination knows no bounds.”

The white imagination is a powerful tool, it is the manifestation of white supremacy within white and non-white minds everywhere. It is the reason why my professor’s Black friend was accused of time-warping to London for dinner at seven o’clock in the evening by a person who’d sipped coffee across from him in New York City at three that afternoon. It’s the reason why a white woman in Central Park would weaponize her privilege against a Black man in a 911 call and why she could have been believed. More sinisterly, the white imagination festered inside three Georgia men as they got into their pickup trucks to chase Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged past them. The white imagination flared in the minds of the Texas policeman who pulled the trigger on Atatiana Jefferson through her bedroom window last year, the Ohio policeman who shot Tamir Rice in 2014 for carrying a toy gun, the New York City policeman who the same year strangled Eric Garner even as he pleaded for air, and the countless other officers who have senselessly stolen the lives of Black and brown people in the United States. As Claudia Rankine so eloquently puts in her book Citizen, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, Black people are dying.”

So, Black people die because white people imagine they must. The argument should not have to be made that this is unjust. Hence, the reason for #BlackLivesMatter. When I wrote it on my protest sign the day after Floyd was killed, I marveled at how simple it sounded. Black. Lives. Matter. A reminder that, in this nation, Black lives have never been valued as much as white lives. A reminder that everything—from the first slave ship to land in 1619, through Jim Crow, to mass incarceration—is connected. A reminder that the injustices towards Black people in America have been, for the most part, disturbingly intentional.

Weeks have passed since George Floyd died beneath the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Four days after the horrific event, Minnesota took the first small step towards justice by arresting Chauvin and charging him with third-degree murder. Peaceful protesters in Minneapolis continued to halt freeway traffic and swarm the streets through the weekend, demanding that the city bear witness to the tragedy and deliver justice. The cries of protesters echo nationwide, joined by global allies as far away as Berlin, Germany.

As night fell on many American cities the following weekend, buildings burned, helicopters thrummed overhead, and the National Guard’s armored trucks swept through the streets. The acts of destruction are not actions I condone, but they are actions I understand. When peaceful cries go unheeded, when grief isn’t met with empathy, when humanity is consistently denied, and when the system remains blind to suffering—it’s difficult to react with more of the same.

As dawn breaks on another morning, the flames will have been doused. The sun will rise on debris-strewn streets, and business owners will return to take stock of the damage. The question will ring loudly in everyone’s mind: How do we rebuild?

For my city, Minneapolis, rebuilding will not be just a physical task, an application of mortar to brick. Rebuilding Minneapolis must also mean creating a better city for its Black residents, its Indigenous residents, its immigrant residents, and its low-income residents. It will require city officials to listen closely to the demands of its most vulnerable residents and act accordingly to heal centuries-old wounds and restore justice. Charges have since been filed against all of the involved officers, but it should not end with convictions. To truly rebuild Minneapolis, and America for that matter, these tragedies must progress past convictions and towards long-lasting change to the ways this country systematically disenfranchises communities of color. This means examining and dismantling the ways in which white supremacy has leached into our healthcare system, our education system, our criminal justice system, our economy, and our minds. Yes, even the minds of white humanists.

We’ve said this before, and now we say it again. The moment to consider that non-white lives mattered, particularly Black and Indigenous lives, was the moment European colonizers stepped onto this land. But the moment is also now. Missing this moment will inevitably mean another death, more violence, and more grief for those who have been suffering far too long. Let’s not let this moment pass us by.

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