A year ago this month, a world watched horrified by the disposal of yet another black life at the hands of police.
George Floyd, pinned under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, would take his final breaths while bystanders recorded the scene. Video of the deadly encounter played on screens and smartphones throughout the world, igniting a massive awakening amid a devastating pandemic.
Demonstrators in the United States and dozens of other nations poured into streets, protesting injustice and police brutality, and affirming support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
I viewed this upheaval from self-exile in Trinidad. These dreaded scenes that had become commonplace in America had, years earlier, caused me to flee my home.
Momentum swept the globe, heralding a wave of promise for a more just and equitable society, and I watched with reservation, skeptical that progress could be made.
I had lived, studied and worked as a writer and journalist in New York City and Baltimore, and have experienced the divisions that cleave communities and cause so much pain and anguish.
In Baltimore – with its own disturbing history of police involved killings, notably Freddie Gray in 2015 – pledges of reform after the George Floyd murder rang as loudly as anywhere. Promises to change policing and to bolster representation in corporate boardrooms.
A year later, the time has come to take stock. Have promises made last spring been fulfilled? Is momentum for change continuing?
Reforming police practices
Grassroots activists seized the moment a year ago, calling for changes in policing – and Black women like Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, the Howard County lawmaker who is vice-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, led the charge.
In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed a landmark police reform legislation package – the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021. The bills tackle police accountability and transparency, and include mandatory body cameras, new rules on execution of warrants (particularly “no knock warrants” like those used in the killing of Breonna Taylor), and an increased civilian role in police discipline.
“This is a necessary step towards healing,” Atterbeary told Baltimore Fishbowl. She called the package “very comprehensive,” and said “the entire community was involved in getting Baltimore to this landmark moment.”
DeRay McKesson, the community activist who played a role in helping to craft the legislation, said that the final product was an important step yet incomplete.
“This won’t be the end of the conversation,” McKesson told Baltimore Fishbowl, adding that because legislatures are often hesitant to take on police reform in back-to-back years, “it’s unclear whether or not we will get a clean-up bill next year to fix some of the holes in this bill,”
Passing the package was a major challenge, drawing sharp lines between lawmakers of different parties. “It took months of work to get this bill through,” Atterbeary explained. “There was no universal acceptance of it.”
Opponents said the measures demonized police, and called the legislation “anti-cop.”
“It allows for hindsight review of folks sitting in the easy chairs to judge people who made split-second decisions in volatile situations,” said state Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican who sits on the Judicial Proceedings committee.
The opposition perplexed many reform advocates. The stiffest penalty under the measures are 10 years in prison for an officer convicted of causing serious injury or death through excessive force.
“We don’t want people joining the force who are afraid of accountability or who are worried that they may face consequences for hurting or killing citizens,” Atterbeary said. “The criticisms are just absurd to me.”
Still, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan sided with opponents and vetoed three of the major reform bills. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly quickly overrode his decision.
And then on April 10th, Maryland abolished the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which acted as a shield for officers who committed offenses against civilians by allowing officers to wait five days before cooperating with internal misconduct inquiries. It wiped officers’ slates clean after a period of time, and put investigations of police in the hands of other officers.
Maryland, in 1974, was the first state to implement such a bill of rights, a dubious distinction copied by 15 other states. Many hope that its reversal, too, could be a harbinger.
How law enforcement responded
Even before the Assembly acted, local police departments, whose leaders said they were outraged by Floyd’s death, sought to increase accountability and strengthen culture.
The Baltimore Police Department adopted an Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) program, mandatory training to give officers tools for de-escalation and peer intervention. Department leaders hope that, when executed correctly, the program can save both careers and lives.
The city also is set to launch a pilot program in June to divert some calls from police to trained mental health clinicians.
Mayor Brandon Scott said the program will be a “holistic rethinking of public safety” and necessary for tackling the structural inequities in the law enforcement system.
“This pilot is not about defunding police, but rather acknowledging that police departments cannot tackle violent crime, our fire department cannot tackle public health and mental emergencies — and everything else,” Scott said during a news conference.
A year ago, Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt called Floyd’s murder “nothing short of a grievous tragedy,” and pledged internal departmental work to expose bad officers who “tarnish the very badge that we wear.”
The department created a Professional Standards Bureau in July 2020 to strengthen oversight, as well as a peer support and wellness team for officers. Like Baltimore City, the county has expanded its mobile crisis unit for residents experiencing mental health crises.
The Baltimore County Council passed the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency (SMART) Policing Act on Oct. 5, 2020, requiring annual police training in de-escalation, implicit bias, and the use of physical and lethal force; as well as how to deal with vulnerable persons. The measure directed policies affirming the sanctity of life, and the duty of officers to intervene in incidents of excessive force. It also prohibited neck restraints by police.
In Howard County, Police Chief Lisa Myers, the department’s first Black woman leader, joined the largest demonstration in the county’s history on June 2, holding a sign that read “Silence is Complicity.”
“We stand with our community to condemn the disturbing acts that led to this terrible tragedy,” she said. “These types of incidents embarrass our profession.”
Since Floyd’s death, Howard County announced the implementation of a body cameras for 300 uniformed officers with direct and regular contact with the public. The department created a new Professional Standards Bureau reporting to Myers. In it is a new Quality Assurance division to oversee staff inspections and police policies and Internal Affairs division to investigate complaints and maintains an early warning system regarding employee performance.
A new Wellness Coordinator position was created to assess and address professional health among police employees.
And as in Baltimore, Howard County police are developing a “Communications Initiated Referral to Crisis” (CIRC) program, so dispatchers may divert mental health-related 911 calls to a certified crisis counselor.
In Baltimore, Floyd’s death coincided with moves by city’s top prosecutor to end the war on drugs.
In March 2020, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby instituted a Covid prevention policy which dismissed all drug possession and other minor non-violent cases including prostitution, trespassing, open containers and minor traffic offenses. What started as a tool to help squelch the spread of the coronavirus has now become permanent. In March 2021, at a press conference in downtown Baltimore, Mosby declared Baltimore’s war on drugs over and announced the permanent adoption of the Covid policies.
“America’s war on drug users is over in the city of Baltimore,” Mosby declared. “We leave behind the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero tolerance policing.”
Citing a 35% drop in property crime among other statistics, Mosby said that “clearly, the data suggests that there is no public safety value in prosecuting these low-level offenses.”
Local businesses also stepped up to demand change – and be part of it.
Baltimore-based Under Armour has regularly voiced support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On June 8 2020, company CEO Patrik Frisk tweeted to reaffirm Under Armour’s commitment to the movement and to community and workplace diversity and inclusion.
“And we are just getting started,” he wrote. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, but with committed leadership, a genuine belief to do what is right, and the means to make it happen, we know we can succeed.”
In 2021, Under Armour’s Black Employees Achieving Together (BEAT) group collaborated with Baltimore native photographer and activist Devin Allen on a new line of footwear and apparel. The initiative was created as a way to showcase Black cities and enhance inclusion.
“I wanted people from places like Baltimore, Oakland, Chicago, and Detroit to be proud of their cities,” Allen said in a statement. “Because our communities have so much to offer, so much to celebrate. Photography can open doors. By teaching kids how to document the world, express themselves, and capture what they see, we can strengthen their futures through art.”
The Baltimore-based money management firm T. Rowe Price committed $2 million in June 2020 to organizations working to fight racism.
“My hope is that we are at an inflection point and that our actions and voice will contribute to the encouraging momentum behind the call for racial justice,” Bill Stromberg, president and CEO, said in a news release.
Recipients of the grants were announced in February 2021, with money going to groups to expand access to racial justice education, and support entrepreneurs and small business development through the Black Business Initiative and Baltimore Corps.
Exelon, the parent company of Baltimore-based Constellation energy, lent its voice toward dismantling inequity and promoting inclusion in the wake of Floyd’s death. On May 28, 2020 Exelon CEO Chris Crane issued a public statement asking company employees to be a voice in the fight against injustice and discrimination.
“There is no room in our company for hate, intolerance, discrimination or harassment of any kind – either obvious or covert – toward our colleagues or customers,” he said. “We cannot tolerate it and none of us can stand by quietly if we observe it.”
In May 2021, the Exelon Foundation surprised 7 participants in its STEM Leadership Academy with full college scholarships valued at over $1 million. The recipients are high school girls from under-privileged communities in the D.C. metro region, Chicago and Philadelphia.
But many advocates are pushing companies to go beyond words, and even money, into representation.
According to Deloitte’s Center for Board Effectiveness and the Alliance for Board Diversity, White people still hold more than 80 percent of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies.
In September 2020, the U.S. corporate community launched the “Board Challenge,” with participants pledging to add Black directors to their boards within the upcoming year.
“One objection we hear is whether companies can find the kind of diverse board talent they are looking for,” said Guy Primus, CEO of Valence and a co-founder of the Board Challenge. “It is 2020 — it is not a pipeline problem, it is a perspective problem.”
Within six months, 75 companies have taken the pledge, including giants like Uber and Verizon, agreeing to send progress reports for accountability.
But in an acknowledgment that companies non-profits still need a push to do the right thing, lawmakers in Annapolis passed a measure requiring that corporate boards and executive leadership must contain members of underrepresented communities – Blacks, Hispanics and others – if they are doing more than $1 million in business yearly with Maryland.
A report showing compliance must be filed yearly to the state Department of Commerce.
Like the police reform measures, the corporate representation bill was part of what Jones, the House speaker, called her Black Agenda – and agenda that was largely successful and deemed urgent in the General Assembly’s first session after the Floyd murder.
Stuck in Washington
In Washington, change seems to be stuck.
In 2020, advocates introduced their own policy as a guide to address police reform called the The Breathe Act. The bill — named as a requiem to Floyd – and supported by the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives, argues for a more comprehensive strategic plan for community development, interventions and a non-punitive approach to public safety. The goal: to break the cycle of incarceration and criminalization.
In response, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced in the Senate. The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people’s constitutional rights, limiting qualified immunity protections now in place for law enforcement.
The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national database of police misconduct in an effort to increase transparency and accountability. Yet the Bill seems to do little to address the system and focuses more on addressing grievances against deadly police force. In March, the measure passed the Democratic-controlled U.S House but faces an arduous battle in the Senate.
At a Joint Address to Congress on April 28, 2021, Vice President, Kamala Harris spoke out in support of the bill and urged the Senate to move forward with passing the legislation.
“There is no question that we’ve got to put an end to these moments where the public questions whether there’s going to be accountability,” she said. “And that’s why Congress needs to act, and that’s why they should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”
Where we stand
Though much change has come, with Baltimore doing its share, the country seems to be in an even more precarious situation than a year ago.
2021 has seen its share of riots and protests as the number of fatal police shootings of minorities – including minors – continue to climb.
During the Chauvin murder trial in April, police shootings continued, a tragic juxtaposition.
And as a jury delivered a momentous guilty verdict, a police officer in Ohio would fatally shoot 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant within 10 minutes of receiving an emergency call. Five additional police shootings would occur in the 24 hours after the verdict.
As police-involved shootings mount, Baltimore activists continue to host protests and call for national reform. Associations like The Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition – an activist group – have been on the frontlines mobilizing forces in the hundreds in the Baltimore area since last summer. The group started with 35 members and now comprises over 30 churches, synagogues and nonprofits. On Martin Luther King Day, the Coalition led a 100- car-caravan through Baltimore against police brutality.
Race relations remain tense, especially after the Jan. 6 insurrection in the Capitol that put white supremacy on display once again. Groups like NFAC (Not Fucking Around Coalition), are mobilizing Black followers to counter right wing militia groups in 2020 like the Proud Boys. Asian hate-crimes continue to rise across America. And although employment rates have dropped, millions continue to be out of work sinking many into poverty.
From Where I sit
In 2013, I wrote about leaving the land of the free to find freedom in Trinidad and Tobago.
After years of contending with America’s tumultuous racial scope, I grappled with a system that disproportionately created devastating outcomes for Black people in America.
I rebelled against that system that was poised to make me a statistic.
Finally giving up on the American dream I held so dear from childhood. Now that I have children of my own, I wonder what their America will be like.
From my vantage point outside of the United States, I watch and wait. A year after George Floyd, I wait.
I wait for the day people that share my skin tone are not killed by police in viral videos on the internet. I wait for the day I do not have to have “the talk” with my son about how the color of his skin may make him intimidating. I wait for the day Black people are not trapped in a system of devastation and a cycle of poverty and incarceration.
I wait for the day a school-to-prison pipeline cannot consume my children and their hued peers. I wait and hope any change is not met with gruesome backlash. I wait for lasting change that will ease my burden and relieve my fear.
I yearn to see the day that my children can proudly wave the American flag, and be confident that the freedom it represents also applies to them.
Adam DeRose contributed reporting to this article.