DANIEL VAUGHAN: The heightened contradictions in George Floyd’s death

Times of peace and prosperity heighten the contradictions of a civilization. People cease focusing on foreign threats and turn inward to domestic problems. It’s in these moments that either internal revolutions occur, or extreme political despondency. 

Take the United States as an example. We live in one of the most prosperous and peaceful moments in history. Yet the moment we’re in gets compared to times of strife, violence, and upheaval — periods like 1968, the 1930s, and more. Internal agitation seems high.

But our era is peaceful. Pew Research found in FBI statistics that violent crime fell 51% from 1993–2018. If you use data from the Bureau of Justice, the decline is even more pronounced, falling 71% in the same period. If you follow the Our World in Data project, you see a plethora of data showing how we’ve improved, both as a country and a world over the last 50 years.

Our era is so peaceful that we’ve commodified crime. True-crime shows dominate the podcast medium. Serial killers hold strong popularity with listeners.

Streaming services have cashed in, too. Netflix led the way with shows like Making a Murderer, which caused a countrywide debate on the guilt of Steven Avery. Their recent hit show, Tiger King, implies that the legal system sent the poor man to jail, while at the same time, the wealthy antagonists use their resources to abuse the legal system.

Those cultural notes are vital threads that explain this moment. People no longer feel threatened by crime. They’re entertained by it. And with threats fading, people have opened to the idea that police aren’t the forces of total good. Cell phone cameras help prove this fact.

Our culture has slowly built to this point. Protests dominate every major city over the killing of George Floyd and others. But we’ve only reached this moment with a decrease in crime. White Americans, who once fled the city in droves, now show far more empathy over racial injustice and police abuses.

This time of peace has amplified the voices of those who see domestic injustice. For most of the 20th century, when Black Americans made their case on inequality, white Americans noticed it but also lived in fear of external threats. Those who were white feared two world wars, the Cold War, and insurrection from the ’60s and ’70s. Law and order was deemed essential.

The new century brought in fears of terrorism and economic collapse. The pandemic brought something else: quiet and unity. Many major U.S. cities saw crime rates plunge. And as protests showed, everyone began chafing under government orders.

The pandemic unified our focus in a way few things have in American history. It created a cultural touchstone. And everyone is moving from that touchstone to the first significant story after it.

And that means, when police brutality did occur, it happened in an extraordinary moment. George Floyd’s death transpired when crime levels were low, and the country peaceful and prosperous. The pandemic drove everyone into the same position. The protests happened in streets that were, only days prior, universally empty. Everyone was forced to connect via technology — and those screens all showed the same police brutality. 

When you live in an era of low crime and general peace, it means when something wrong does happen, it has more volume. 

It’s a supply and demand kind of issue. When the supply of distractions is high, it makes it harder for individual events to break through the zeitgeist. That’s the lesson from the age of Trump when we have monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily scandals. It’s hard for one thing to stick out when everything stands out. The pandemic changed that.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden is attempting the opposite, fewer of these moments. But when Biden does appear, the cost of a bad viral moment costs more. His news cycles last longer. That’s why his Breakfast Club appearance lasted longer than whatever was last week’s Trump scandal.

What Derek Chauvin committed was a crime. It was utter police brutality, as many police chiefs have attested. Chauvin’s act heightened the contradictions of our moment. Chauvin’s abuse of power shocked the conscience at a time when violent crime is not the norm. People don’t experience crime as in the past, which gives less leniency to police officers.

Periods of heightened contradictions aren’t unique. The French Revolution occurred when things were improving for the lower classes. The 1960s were prosperous. These unparalleled periods remove external distractions to show us what’s happening around us. Those injustices that we could ignore due to other concerns are now gone. Revolutions occur.

All that means we’re also in a unique policy moment. We have the opportunity to exercise a bipartisan political will we rarely get in politics. If that political will didn’t exist, activists wouldn’t have convinced a city council to defund and disband an entire police department in a major city.

Whether we benefit from this time is still up in the air. If we miss that chance at this time, it could represent a lost opportunity that impacts politics for decades to come. If people feel alienated after the best shot in decades at racial reconciliation and police reform, and nothing happens, our system and leaders have failed. If we succeed, it could reaffirm the American system to new depths for succeeding generations.

The choice is ours. These moments are rare and can’t be missed.