In the waning hours of the long Memorial Day weekend, a south Minneapolis street that had been filled with warmth and sunshine, morphed into horrifying darkness in less than 10 minutes.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died at the hands – a knee, actually – of Minneapolis Police officers. In broad daylight. Recorded by witnesses. Crying that he could not breathe. Asking for water. Calling out for his deceased mother.
In my role as Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the Minnesota chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), I feel compelled to share the heaviness in my heart over what transpired; the fatigue of the repetitive pattern-almost-commonplace occurrences of African American men and women who have been killed at the hands of law enforcement.
This commentary is not a broad-brush indictment against the men and women who serve to protect our communities. Rather, it reflects the work we as communicators can and must do. As PRSA members, we provide counsel on how to communicate in challenging situations, with diplomacy, grace and transparency. Our Code of Ethics mandates that we protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential to serving the public interest and contribute to informed decision making in a democratic society.
I recall moderating a Minnesota PRSA breakfast roundtable held in the wake of the 2016 Philando Castile shooting titled “Navigating Public Relations and the Media in Racially Charged Times.” At this event, an impressive panel of communication leaders opened the door to a real and honest conversation, and I was lulled into a false sense of thinking we were on the cusp of change. Four years on, Minnesota is once again under the glare of the global spotlight.
Fact: education, employment, health, and wealth disparities persist in the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. Fact: African Americans have been at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. As national figures descend on Minneapolis to share their outrage, Mr. Floyd’s death adds another layer to the anxiety and distress that we, as a society, already feel. This is a pivotal point in our nation’s history.
Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American New York man, arrested in 2014 for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on the street, repeatedly cried out “I can’t breathe!” after police used the chokehold method on him – as bystanders recorded his death on their cell phones. Mr. Floyd’s anguished, repeated cries of “I can’t breathe!” possessed the eerily familiar echo of Mr. Garner’s, that will remain forever embedded in our collective consciousnesses.
As the wife of an African American husband, the sister of two African American brothers, the aunt of several African American nephews and the mother of two young adult African American sons, I worry every time our sons venture out – whether to go for a run, meet friends at an eatery or sports bar (pre-COVID) or to simply drive to the store. When our sons were pre-teens, my husband and I had "the familiar talk" of all African American parents about how to handle themselves if they are ever stopped by or have an encounter with police. We know these early lessons are not guaranteed to protect them.
According to the most recent data, Blacks or African Americans comprise 19.4 percent of the Minneapolis population. Yet a 2015 American Civil Liberties Union report of a three-year analysis shows African Americans and Native Americans (who comprise 2 percent of the city’s population) are arrested at rates nearly nine times higher for low-level offenses.
In the days and weeks ahead, many of us, while managing our emotions, will be called upon to provide counsel and serve as spokespersons for various institutions in response to Mr. Floyd’s death and to a rightfully angry community.
I encourage us to be intentional in connecting with one another. Let us hold each other to even higher standards. Let us be upstanders, not bystanders. I am immensely grateful for the numerous text messages and phone calls from colleagues. Reaching out to someone may help stop their tears. We are still navigating the uphill battle of this pandemic while dealing with the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death. Practice self-care.
Minnesota PRSA is dedicated to change based on strategic and ethical outcomes. We stand with Minneapolis and our nation, in mourning the loss of Mr. George Floyd. Father. Beloved family member. Hard worker. Suffocated under the weight of a knee.
Submitted By: Marsha R. Pitts-Phillips, Diversity and Inclusion officer, Minnesota PRSA