A police officer in Minneapolis knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than five minutes, even as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, and even after Floyd was forced unconscious. Make no mistake, this police officer killed George Floyd. Floyd did not “die,” an intransitive verb that leaves out who was responsible for the death. He was killed. In the words of the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, John Harrington, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.
This point needs to be belabored, because language is important. Four days after the killing of Floyd, the entire Vassar community received an email from President Bradley, sent in good faith with an important message, but one that abuses language so thoroughly that it makes it seem like the racist and violent actions of the killers and bigots responsible are forgotten about. Nowhere does it mention the words “police,” “kill,” “murder” or any of their synonyms. The phrase “the violent deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery” leaves out the fact that the police shot Breonna Taylor to death in her own home. Ahmaud Arbery did not meet some arbitrary “violent death” while jogging in the Georgia countryside; he was killed by a former police officer and his son in what should only be described as a modern lynching. Using the phrase “what happened in Central Park to Christian Cooper” makes it sound like a white woman using the police force, and its deadly implications for Black people and all people of color, to threaten Christian Cooper is just something that happened, not something caused by human action. Describing instances of racism and the killings of Black people by racist white police as “events” is erasure of the very evil that the message is supposed to address.
Even in cases like that of Sandra Bland, where there is no single culprit, it is inappropriate to vaguely wave away what really happened. The staff of the Waller County jail failed to provide the minimum level of care to someone within their custody, a bar already extremely low for prisons, and this callous indifference is what allowed Sandra Bland to take her own life. A justice system built on years of Jim Crow and racial discrimination ground Sandra Bland in its gears, nothing less. To say that these are just “injustices that continue to occur in our communities” implies that these are cosmic coincidences divorced from the reality that people are making these choices, choices to kill and destroy other people.
President Bradley is not the first to use this form of language, a combination of what is known as the exonerative tense and weasel voice, but to call out racism and say that Black lives matter require that we identify those perpetrating the killings and wrongdoings. There can be no progress unless we hold accountable those who are responsible, responsible for actions that kill innocent people, whether actively or passively, across the United States. That accountability is impossible if we use language that severs consequences from the actions and intentions of the people who brought about those deadly consequences. Distress and danger is not an excuse for omitting and concealing the fact that innocent people are dead because of racist actions and systems.
I want to stress that I agree with the message of President Bradley’s statement. I just wish the language she used agreed too. Now is the time for real, fundamental changes, ones that no longer allow police to murder people of color consequence-free. Legislative change is possible, but in order to do that everyone has to understand that racism and these deaths did not come out of a vacuum. They came from the actions of people, and it’s up to us to afford these actions the proper context—in our responses and in our words.