Along with people of conscience the world over, the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights family condemns without reservation the murder of George Floyd at the hands of uniformed police officers sworn to protect him. The tortured eight minutes and 46 seconds that it took a police officer to extinguish Mr. Floyd’s life forever changes our nation and our world.
As never before, the U.S. must now acknowledge what persons and communities of color have long known: that the protection and promise of America has not been a part of their birthright. The raw anger and anguish of demonstrators is not only justified—it is a call for America to look deep into its soul and question why the American Dream has too often been confined by race and privilege.
It is likewise a reminder that no change in our national history has ever occurred without protest. Demonstrators taking to the streets are not outside the law—they are rather demanding to know why Rule of Law in America has historically been arbitrary and capricious in its protections.
The demonstrations that have convulsed America have visibly underscored the very trends of police violence they are protesting: beatings and tear gassing of demonstrators; police cars driven into crowds of protesters; and indiscriminate uses of force. But images of police violence have also been tempered with counter images of police kneeling with demonstrators; of the police chief of Atlanta walking with open arms into a crowd and listening to their grievances; and of numerous men and women in blue protecting protesters as they exercise their essential First Amendment rights.
This is a defining moment for America as we search for our very soul. It also requires that we look beyond the protests and weigh what must now be done. It calls for so many of us in government, in education, and in the realm of public policy to first and foremost listen. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, has wisely noted how America must listen to voices calling for an end to the “structural racism that blights U.S. society.” There are no simple answers to 400 years of systemic racism but listening to the stories of brothers and sisters and communities of color is a crucial start.
As a professional educator I am taught on a daily basis by my students. I have recently learned much by listening to the voices of our younger generation—my students at Florida State University, and remarkably articulate young leaders of color in groups such as My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and Campaign Zero. The demands of these young leaders for immediate changes in policing are compelling. The call by Campaign Zero for “Eight Can’t Wait” changes in U.S. policing policy include a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds; required de-escalation and warnings before shootings; and establishing a duty on the part of law enforcement officers to intervene against excessive force by fellow officers.
Beyond these immediate measures, beyond the righteous anger of demonstrations, and beyond the eight excruciating minutes and 46 seconds that extinguished the life of George Floyd, America must now engage in the hard work of dismantling 400 years of systematic racism. A human rights framework will be critical to this task. At the core of the Human Rights Revolution of the past 70 years has been the insistence that every human being, regardless of race, nationality, or economic class, has certain inalienable rights. These include fundamental “first generation” rights such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture (including chokeholds), and the right to be free from discrimination. Civil rights are a cornerstone of human rights. Equally important are what are called “second generation rights: the right to education, to health care, and to equal opportunity. America has clearly failed our communities of color in both realms. The task of redressing this is not new. We must get it right this time.
A human rights approach to redressing these failures insists that both immediate and systemic changes are needed. It furthermore insists that real change cannot be imposed “from above.” It must be driven and shaped by its most critical stakeholders—in this case, by U.S. communities of color. In addition to its insistence that change come from below, the human rights approach has the further advantage of being universal in its framework and its endorsement. It represents a strong consensus on the part of the global community on what the duties of governments are to their citizens. It also makes clear that the task of effecting change is not a “liberal” agenda nor one owned by a particular political party. It is an agenda grounded in our identity as Americans, and in our common humanity.
The ‘change task” is clearly not confined to U.S. policing practices, nor to U.S. law enforcement alone. It is not a “we versus them” question. Law enforcement officers are not the enemy, nor do they live and operate apart from us. They are, after all, very much “us.” Who we are as Americans determines the character of our law enforcement attitudes and tactics.
My FSU colleague Professor Billy Close has for several decades taught Criminology courses that address racial profiling, biased policing, and white privilege. He reminds us that our task lies not just in eliminating egregious human rights violations, but in addressing the very systems that make these violations possible. We must rethink our criminal justice system, our educational system, and our health care system. And as my colleague FSU Economics Professor Patrick Mason notes, this ultimately means addressing income disparity. It means budget re-allocations—budgets are without question moral documents. Professor Close also reminds us that our task includes countering the forces of “quietism,” the nagging sense that real change is impossible or that it’s all been tried before and found lacking.
The larger task of remaking or rededicating America perhaps starts with those of us who are educators. A group of our FSU African-American professors has issued the call for our campus to embrace “anti-racism”—identifying and then challenging structures or behaviors that perpetuate institutional racism. Their suggestions on how to do so should be our immediate roadmap: creating a First Year Experience Reading Curriculum and a First Year Discussion Group Series; introducing a module on the racial history of Tallahassee, including its protest legacy; and creating a campus-wide Anti-Racism Task Force.
As faculty we must begin by listening but must then offer our students means of concrete engagement and ways to be change agents. This has been at the heart of the CAHR mission since then President Sandy D’Alemberte established the Center two decades ago. That mission remains more important than ever before. CAHR historically has also been a place where stakeholders from diverse backgrounds—academics, law enforcement, policymakers, non-governmental organizations, and victims—can come together to engage in urgently-needed dialogue. The CAHR “table” remains open and available.
CAHR is fortunate to have a home at a university that has embraced human rights as a unifying mission among its numerous colleges and departments. CAHR benefits from its many university partners—the FSU Civil Rights Institute, the FSU College of Social Work’s Institute for Justice Research and Development, and the FSU College of Law’s Public Interest Law Center, to name but a few. We have our work cut out for us.
Lincoln once referred to America as the “last great hope of earth.” We have much work to do in order to redeem Lincoln’s confidence in that claim, and to extend it to those whose life experience has taught them otherwise. Join us in that task.
Professor Terry Coonan, JD
Center for the Advancement of Human Rights
Florida State University