Let’s organize to transform public safety

A new book on George Floyd’s life makes clear that there are systemic problems with policing and racism in our nation. We know how to change that, and make our communities safer.

SHARE Let’s organize to transform public safety
A mural painted by artist Kenny Altidor depicting George Floyd is unveiled on a sidewall of CTown Supermarket on July 13, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

A mural depicting George Floyd is unveiled on a side wall of a Brooklyn supermarket in July 2020.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer just over two years ago. His killing sparked a movement to end unjustified police killings and racist law enforcement practices. Sadly, the killings have not stopped. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was blocked by Senate Republicans last year. The struggle continues in communities large and small.

During racial justice protests that sprung up after video of Floyd’s murder spread around the world, millions of people spoke his name as they demanded accountability and justice. Now, a remarkable book examines Floyd’s life and death in the context of our history and what one of the authors calls the “complex, tangled web” created by racism in this country. 

“His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice” was written by Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa. It draws on the reporting of their colleagues and on intimate interviews with Floyd’s family, romantic partners, and circle of friends.

Columnists bug


In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.

At a time when politicians are making it illegal for educators to acknowledge that systemic racism exists, Samuels and Olorunnipa document in painful detail the ways in which racially discriminatory policies on housing, education, health care, addiction, policing and more contributed to “a life in which Floyd repeatedly found his dreams diminished, deferred, and derailed—in no small part because of the color of his skin.”

“For example,” Samuels says, “you could not disentangle police departments’ disproportionate use of force against African Americans from the junk science that is still taught about Black people being more resistant to pain. We could not ignore that those same instincts led to the inadequate mental health treatment in George Floyd’s life, nor could we separate that society both encouraged George Floyd to bulk up to pursue his athletic dreams and then stereotyped him as dangerous when he was off the field.”

The book doesn’t try to make Floyd a saint. It doesn’t have to. He was a human being. He did nothing to deserve being murdered on the street by an abusive police officer who shouldn’t have been wearing a badge.

“His Name Is George Floyd” is worth reading for many reasons. It gives us a fuller picture of the person George Floyd was. It introduces us to many people who loved him and sought a measure of justice for his murder. And it points to some important facts about policing in this country.

Road map for transformation

One is the need for accountability. Chauvin had a record of violent behavior. When abusive cops are not held accountable, more people will be subjected to their violence.

Another point is that policing is a local issue requiring local solutions. National policies, like those in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, can help. But holding violent cops accountable, getting them off the streets, or better yet, preventing them from getting hired in the first place, all require change at the local level.

People For the American Way spent the two years since Floyd’s murder developing a road map for transforming public safety. We looked at the research. We talked to criminologists, public officials, clergy and other community activists, and members of law enforcement. “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety” is a guide for public officials and community activists seeking to make their communities safer.

Among the essential steps to make policing more just and more effective at the same time: improving recruiting to weed out potentially dangerous cops, holding violent officers accountable, and getting unfit officers off the force. Also, importantly, restructuring public safety systems to reduce the unnecessary involvement of armed officers in situations where they are not needed and for which they are not trained is good for cops as well as communities.

Opinion Newsletter

The authors of “His Name Is George Floyd” describe optimism in the face of our history as both a defense mechanism and a means of survival. I am optimistic that we can end unjust police killings. I am optimistic that we can build the uncomfortably large coalitions it will take.

“Our book makes the argument that if we can demonstrate step-by-step how this country’s history with racism continues to shape people today, then we can continue the good work of dismantling systemic racism,” Samuels told me in an email. “We have to connect the theory with the practice.”

That job belongs to all of us. We know what kind of changes will make our communities safer. Let’s organize, city by city and town by town, to make it happen. 

Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The Latest
It’s been a wild week, and up next for the Bears is a visit to the defending champion Chiefs.
One day after cutting Peterman, the Bears are bringing him back.
Besides Fox News, Murdoch started the Fox broadcast network, the first to successfully challenge the Big Three of ABC, CBS and NBC, with shows like “The Simpsons.”
A healthy relationship with food is a solid foundation for mental wellness.
The Biden administration has announced it’s providing funding to produce another round of free at-home tests via the COVIDTests.gov website.