Jeremy Roenick tried. He really did.
His heart was in the right place when he tweeted about the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, but the former NHL star missed the point, and failed to recognize his privilege as he typed up his message and hit “send.”
“Absolutely disgusted by the 4 Minneapolis police officers during the arrest of George Floyd,” Roenick tweeted, and probably should have stopped right there. “In this current environment, why didn’t someone take the cop off him? I would’ve, it’s worth going to jail for! Enough is enough! #cantbreathe”
Let’s just take a moment to go through this, bit by bit.
“Absolutely disgusted by the 4 Minneapolis police officers”
“during the arrest of George Floyd…”
They killed him. The police killed George Floyd. We’ve come to accept terms like “officer-involved shooting” and “actions during the arrest” that sanitize the actions of and remove responsibility from police who kill.
“In this current environment”
In the United States and its precursors, since 1619.
“Why didn’t someone take the cop off him?”
The police were in the middle of killing a man who was being detained for “trying to pass a fake $20 at a convenience store.” And they knew they were being recorded doing it, by people pleading with them that Floyd was not resisting arrest. What would have happened if one of the black people there got physical with the cops?
They’d be dead, too.
The suggestion that someone in that situation could put their hands on a police officer and live to tell the tale is the height of white privilege. And maybe if it had been Roenick doing it, he’d have escaped with just being beaten by the four police officers. Either way, this casts the bystanders in a cowardly light, when really they were doing all that they safely could do, pleading for mercy as the officers of the state choked the life out of a man in broad daylight.
“It’s worth going to jail for!”
The point isn’t what anyone did or didn’t do here but the police officers responsible for killing George Floyd in front of witnesses and cameras. And again, while Roenick sees jail as the worst possible outcome, a person of color envisions death by cop.
“Enough is enough!”
And now we need to talk about hashtags.
It’s a good thing, for memorializing victims and for generating attention, that we see names and phrases turned into hashtags, building a forum to talk on social media about individual incidents of police violence. It’s also more than a little cringeworthy when those hashtags start getting appropriated by well-meaning white people with deeply flawed takes, like Roenick in this instance.
For a white person outraged by the ever-rising death toll of black people at the hands of police, this is very tricky territory. How do you weigh the desire, the sense of responsibility, to speak out against institutional racism and violence, against the importance of listening to the people who experience it?
White people do not know what it’s like to leave the house every day with the knowledge that someone might call the police — and put their lives in danger — over such simple matters as going to work, pointing out a park’s leash laws or working out in your office building’s gym. The latter incident occurred in Minneapolis, where a white man threatened to call 911 to summon the same police department responsible for George Floyd’s death.
Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t killed by the police, but his murder in Georgia, and because of Gregory McMichael’s law enforcement ties, and particularly the state’s response to it, fits into the narrative. And it was notable in that case that Tom Brady, not exactly known for progressive activism, was one of the signers on a letter from The Players Coalition urging the U.S. Department of Justice to take up the case.
The problem with quiet support is that it leads to things like ESPN rounding up tweets from the world of sports about an incident in which the only white people you hear from are Taylor Twellman, in a tweet linked by Jaylen Brown, and J.J. Watt, quoted from a press conference. When this happens, it leads to an atmosphere where racist violence can be categorized as a black issue, rather than one that needs to be a priority across society.
Speaking up, though, circles back to the problem that Roenick ran into, of having a heart in the right place and words that come out all wrong. Centering yourself on an issue where the goal needs to be squaring focus on how vile and unacceptable the situation is can’t be the right way to go.
It’s easy to get caught in the middle and not know what to do, and there isn’t a simple solution to a complex problem. But what people can do is try their best — and this goes beyond the problem of institutional racism — to try to amplify the voices of those speaking from the experience of living in a marginalized and discriminated against group. Smash that retweet button. Quote tweet with support. Share petitions. Go to a demonstration. Speak out in a way that doesn’t make it about yourself.
There’s no magic formula, but especially on social media, it’s just as easy to listen as it is to speak. Working to find the right balance between those things is a markedly easier task than living the experience of never knowing if this is the day you happen to run into the wrong police officer.