NewsGeorge Floyd & The Enduring Disregard For Black HumanityKathleen Newman-B…26 May 2023

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/AFP/Getty Images.Three weeks before the three-year anniversary of George Floyd’s brutal murder, Jordan Neely died in the same way; a chokehold delivered by a white man who, onlookers claimed, viewed him as a threat instead of a human being. For three weeks, we’ve had to watch our timelines debate whether Jordan Neely was worthy of compassion, of care, and of his life. And for three years, we’ve seen George Floyd go from a man to a martyr for racial reckoning. But Floyd didn’t sacrifice his life for the greater good. He wasn’t an activist or a symbol upon which to project supposed progress. He was a person. A son. A brother. A father. AdvertisementADVERTISEMENTIn the three years since George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, his death has been used as a prop for political gain — on the right to justify their tirade against “wokeness” and fairness and the fact that anti-Black racism exists, and on the left to sign into order police-reform legislation that wouldn’t have saved Floyd’s life. Floyd is now fading into the background of our post-2020 timelines. Like mandatory masks and the cast of Tiger King, the public remembrance of Floyd is slowly being relegated to A Thing We Cared About In 2020. On the third anniversary of his murder, I imagine that there will be a few tributes, some nods to the fact that his brutal murder catapulted the country into a long overdue conversation about the white supremacy embedded into its fabric, but generally, (white) people seem to want to go back to a time when Black life lost was an inconvenience they could ignore, not a systemic plight rightly inciting riots and calls for change. Jordan Neely is just the latest – and most public – example.“

Chauvin and Penny have become white knights, saviors of civility, while Both Floyd and Neely were stripped of their humanity to become hashtags.

”Neely was an unhoused Black man on a New York City subway pleading for someone to see him. His actual calls were for food and water — basic human necessities — but at their core, his cries were simply a plea for help. According to accounts, Neely was yelling and in distress. He wasn’t harming anyone. And yet, a white former marine named Daniel Penny put him in a chokehold for 15 minutes (according to one onlooker), effectively killing him. Penny has expressed no remorse for his actions — maintaining he was acting in self defence — and, like Chauvin before him, has received an outpouring of support and defence from strangers. These people have been able to find empathy for men who behaved so callously, but not for their victims. They have become white knights, saviours of civility, while Both Floyd and Neely were stripped of their humanity to become hashtags. As we’re watching Neely’s legacy form in real time — as a figurehead of the fight for people experiencing homelessness or as a dangerous lunatic who deserved to die — I can’t help but see the obvious parallels between him and Floyd, and the glaring ways in which the media, the police, the public, and their perpetrators refused to treat them with a shred of human decency.AdvertisementADVERTISEMENT“News reports keep saying that Mr. Neely died, which is a passive thing. We die of old age. We die in a car accident. We die from disease. When someone holds us in a chokehold for several minutes, something far worse has occurred,” Roxane Gay writes for The New York Times. Over and over, we saw the police and media outlets, including The NYTimes, contort themselves to say everything but what happened, to soften the blow of the cold-blooded actions of Penny. “Did anyone ask the former Marine to release Mr. Neely from his chokehold? The people in that subway car prioritised their own discomfort and anxiety over Mr. Neely’s distress,” Gay continues. She is right. The bystanders who allowed Neely to be choked to unconsciousness by Penny’s hands right in front of them without advocating for his life chose comfort over kindness and their own biases towards homelessness and Black people over mercy. But part of why they did that is because of the rhetoric the very paper of record that recorded her words perpetuates. The blame isn’t on Gay at all, but it’s telling that The New York Times can choose to run a piece that is “an unequivocal condemnation of what we are becoming: a people without empathy, without any respect for the sanctity of life unless it’s our own” while continuing to spew anti-trans pieces, spit misinformation about trans people and stoke hatred towards one of the most vulnerable and historically unhoused groups. AdvertisementADVERTISEMENT“

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I can’t help but see the obvious parallels between Neely and Floyd, and the glaring ways in which the media, the police, the public, and their perpetrators refused to treat them with a shred of human decency. 

”“A lot of major newsrooms, when they are writing about trans people,  are treating them with the same respect and dignity as they would treat any other source that they are writing about. The New York Times is failing to do this [and] overall creating this pattern of coverage and behaviour that is harmful to trans people,” trans journalist Tuck Woodstock said recently on the You’re Wrong About podcast. This is important because there is no higher authority in the media than the Times. “These stories are really demonstrably hurting trans people and part of it is that a little over half of Americans don’t think they know a trans person so this is where they are getting their information, from the media. And also The New York Times’ trans coverage has been cited in amicus briefs supporting anti-trans legislation.”The paper’s inaccurate reporting on trans issues led to hundreds of contributors speaking out against their coverage, specifically the misframing of their stories on trans kids and their gender identities. The paper has been parroting lawsuits brought by parents against school districts that are part of a legal strategy tied to groups that have identified trans people as an “existential threat.” I say all of this to say that who we humanise matters. And how Black folks, trans people, and people experiencing homelessness are treated is a direct result of the empathy – or lack thereof — we consume from the media. And often, it’s the people who fall into all three of these categories who suffer the most. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, unsheltered rates among trans people “are increasing at an astounding pace.” Trans folks experiencing homelessness increased 88 percent in the United States since 2016, and for unsheltered homelessness, it’s up 113 percent. AdvertisementADVERTISEMENT“

Holmes actively harmed people. She is set to report to prison in a week for her crimes. And yet, because she’s blonde and white, gets to be called “normal” and “gentle and charismatic” in print beside photos of her even blonder kids and supportive partner sitting barefoot on rocks looking like a Ralph Lauren ad.

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”In the weeks after Jordan Neely’s killing, leading up to the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, it was glaringly obvious who gets sympathetic portrayals in the press. Convicted fraud and disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes got a glossy photoshoot and gushing profile (yes, in The New York Times) calling her “Liz” and focusing on her life as a soft spoken mom, not a felon who scammed patients with shoddy medical tests. Holmes actively harmed people. She is set to report to prison in a week for her crimes. And yet, because she’s blonde and white, gets to be called “normal” and “gentle and charismatic” in print beside photos of her even blonder kids and supportive partner sitting barefoot on rocks looking like a Ralph Lauren ad, shielded by their whiteness and alleged “normalcy.” Holmes hasn’t even served her sentence yet and The New York freaking Times is giving her a head start on her rebrand. The most infuriating part of watching Holmes be treated with the dignity Black folks rarely receive was watching Neely be vilified on the same timeline, knowing that there are no second chances for the countless Black people judged on sight as abnormal. They don’t get to rebrand because they are dead. A few months ago, I had the privilege of asking one question on a chaotic red carpet to trans actor, activist, and Pose star Indya Moore. I gave her the opportunity to speak to the necessity of support for her community, especially for Black trans women. “I think it’s really important that we highlight the many ways that we can love each other and respect each other because that is what is going to save our human family and teach us how to be gentler, loving, non-violent beings,” she said in a beautiful answer that went viral for its clear, concise communication of her community’s reality that focused, above anything else, on empathy and love. “We out here humanising robots and dehumanising trans folks,” Moore said. AdvertisementADVERTISEMENT

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This line has been replaying in my head since I first heard Moore say it. We out here humanising robots and dehumanising trans folks. It reinforces the fact that everyone else, including tech, gets to be human except Black folks — especially Black trans folks, Black unhoused folks, and Black disabled folks. The same industries who collectively promised they were listening and learning in 2020 are now boasting about using AI to “increase diversity.”  So what they took from the uprisings inspired by Floyd’s murder, and the calls for more equitable workplaces for Black people, was to replace them with AI and sell us images of Blackness that aren’t even real? As these conversations, and the public push for anti-racism, has waned, it’s easy to say that 2020 wasn’t a signal of change. But it’s not that nothing has changed since George Floyd’s murder, it’s that some things are much, much worse. Now, bigots are even more wrong and strong in their hatred. And companies think it’s enough to sprinkle in some performative representation (without even using real Black people!!) without doing any actual work to fix the systemic barriers facing Black employees. Now, it’s typical to be scrolling through your timeline and see people say that Jordan Neely deserved to be choked to death because he made some white people uncomfortable.“

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We out here humanising robots and dehumanising trans folks.

indya moore”“If only white America were as disquieted by the evil on which its comfort is built as it is by our demands to be treated humanely. If only your comfort were not so damn expensive for the rest of us,” Brittany Packnett Cunningham writes for The Cut. “​​With few words, Jordan’s basic, human needs shouted just a little too loudly, drawing attention to the starving underclass that props up our wealthy society. His mental illness screamed of profits prioritized over people; his infrequent treatment diversions were no match for the 44 times he’d been thrown in a cell before his murder. His Blackness disquieted the American ideals and sensibilities that proclaim us all equal. His existence, on that train, on that day, exposed just how poorly America cares for her people and how poorly we care for one another.” AdvertisementADVERTISEMENTI used to think that lack of care was rooted in ignorance. I used to live by words taught to me by the media I consumed as a kid, The Oprah Winfrey Show: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” That quote is from the late Maya Angelou and I heard it first on Oprah when I was an impressionable kid intent on changing the world. If they know better, they’ll do better was the guiding principle on which I based my writing, pleading white people to believe that Black lives mattered. Well, 2020 proved that no one can feign ignorance. And since George Floyd’s murder and the backlash that followed didn’t spark mass defunding of police departments and change beyond The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 (a bill which puts more money into policing and doubles down on tactics we know do not work), it was clear that knowing and doing are mutually exclusive in the eyes of corporations, the government, and countless Karens. I once believed that if people knew how bad homelessness is or how disabled people are treated or how racism simmers under every single structure of capitalism, they would do better. Now, I know better. What I know is this: If you are white and rich, your crimes are publicly downplayed. If you are white and violent, you get called a hero. If you are Black and unhoused, you get murdered on the subway. If you are Black and choking, people will record you on their phones until your last breath and the life leaves your eyes. Then, your execution will go viral. And your humanity will become a hashtag, a debate, a political talking point. ChatGPT could write the script of Black death and subsequent spectacle because it’s become so predictable and devoid of heart. On the three-year anniversary of Floyd crying out for his mother in between chanting that he couldn’t breathe, I’m not going to leave you with a message of hope. I’m not going to promise progress or rage about the apathy towards the reckoning many of us are still fighting for. I’m not going to say that Neely or Floyd were killed to teach America about how to treat its most vulnerable. I’m just going to remind us all that they were people. And what we should all know by now is that they deserved better.Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!   

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