The police murder of George Floyd — an unarmed 46-year old African American man, in handcuffs and prone, face-down on the street, with two police officers kneeling on his back and legs and another kneeling on his neck as he pleaded that he could not breathe until he took his final breath — was a catalytic event. Nonetheless, it was quite horrifically “normal.” Indeed, its electrifying power derived precisely from the frightful and finally intolerable normalcy of such routine acts of police disregard, degradation, and wanton cruelty. Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized public awareness and sensitivity to the callous brutality and murderous violence of police toward African Americans, and George Floyd’s killing was merely the most recent spectacle of barbarity in a perverse and incessant succession of analogous acts of police racism.
While these grievous and all-too-often lethal acts of police lawlessness and impunity have been inordinately targeted against Black people in particular, they have always also been similarly directed against other people of color. The first epigraph that opens this essay comes from Gil Scott-Heron’s poem commemorating the police murder of José Campos Torres, a.k.a. Joe Torres (December 20, 1953 – May 5, 1977), a twenty-three-year-old Chicano Vietnam veteran who was ruthlessly beaten to death in 1977 by several Houston police on Cinco de Mayo. Six police officers responded to an incident at a bar in Houston’s Mexican East End neighborhood, arrested Torres for disorderly conduct, and then transported him to a secluded spot known as The Hole next to the Buffalo Bayou on the outskirts of downtown Houston, where they descended into an orgy of sadistic violence, beating him continuously for six hours.
The officers finally took Torres to the city jail, where the Desk Sergeant on duty refused to process him due to the severity of his injuries. The arresting officers were ordered to take him to a hospital that specializes in severe trauma; instead, the brutalizers returned to the Buffalo Bayou and dumped Torres into the water, one saying, “Let’s see if the w*tb*ck can swim.” After three days, his lifeless and tortured body was found floating in the creek. It was May 8, 1977, on Mother’s Day.
Following the discovery of the body, two of the arresting officers were charged and later found guilty of negligent homicide (a misdemeanor), by an all-white jury: they were sentenced to one year of probation and a one dollar fine. Three other officers were fired, but no criminal charges were brought against them. Community outrage at the sentencing was manifested in a protest movement that finally culminated in the Moody Park Riot on Cinco de Mayo, 1978, the one-year anniversary of the murder. A federal review of the case by the U.S. Department of Justice eventually led to three of the police murderers’ federal convictions for violating Torres’ civil rights, for which they served a mere nine months in prison. In this example, as in countless others, we are reminded that police racism is not exclusively an expression of specifically anti-Black racism but rather the systemic reflex of an all-encompassing regime of the white supremacy that has been the bedrock of U.S. national formation2De Genova, Nicholas 2006 “Introduction: Latino and Asian Racial Formations at the Frontiers of U.S. Nationalism.” Pp. 1-20 in Nicholas De Genova, ed. Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2007 “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7(2): 231–77..