Bear witness, record, de-escalate: How race may affect what bystanders are called to do in cases like George Floyd's

In the videos, they are faceless voices, off camera, trying to intervene. They say things like “get off his neck,” or “he’s a human,” or “he’s dying.”

George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died Monday when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes after he was detained. It was bystanders – the owners of those voices – who shed light with their viral video recordings of yet another deeply disturbing incident of excessive force levied against a minority in police custody.

As people in Minneapolis and across the U.S. continue to protest the killing, Floyd’s death has provoked even more questions about the role bystanders should play when caught in similar situations.

Paige Fernandez, policing policy adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union, recommends what many in Floyd’s case did: bearing witness, recording the event, advocating for the detainee and communicating with other officers on the scene to try to convince them to intervene. The role of the witness, though, is only complicated further by race.

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George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck while arresting him.
George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck while arresting him.

“It’s incredibly difficult because I think there are so many calculations a bystander has to make — a ton — about who they are, how vulnerable they might be and how the police perceive them,” Fernandez told USA TODAY.

“I’m hesitant to say anybody should step in, because I don’t want people’s lives to be risked, but I do think there is a role, especially for white allies. If they see an incident of police brutality happening, I think they absolutely have to step in and say something, just because officers often interpret black and brown people as threats for absolutely no reason, other than deep-seated racism.”

Those placed in custody are supposed to wield some protections under the Constitution. The 14th Amendment declares that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and the Fourth Amendment protects citizens “against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

White people must use their 'body in service of the black and brown body'

Yet so often, these protections are violated. Video recorded from a bystander then not only becomes evidence, but social media shares also build awareness and prompt calls for reform.

Author and social justice consultant Anika Nailah, whose book "Every Day in the USA: 30 Black Moments," helps identify racial micro-aggressions, thinks parallels can be drawn to the Civil Rights Movement.

“White people were there on the Freedom Riders buses,” Nailah told USA TODAY. “They sat alongside us. It’s time for people who self-identify as progressives and liberals to put their bodies on the line. Because if they do that, not only are they helping protect black and brown bodies, they’re using the elevation of their white body in service of the black and brown body.

"Whenever white people speak out about these things in concrete ways, either in the moment or afterward, it makes a difference.”

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The most effective measure for bystanders may be to appeal to the other officers on the scene, Fernandez said, because “they are the ones who have the strongest ability to intervene” when detainee rights are violated.

“But this leads us back to the question: How do we police the police?” Fernandez said. “Who are the people supposed to call when the police are killing people?”

Bystanders can play a role in stopping police brutality, combating racism

Whether bystanders should bear the burden of protecting detainee rights remains open for debate.

Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist and author of "My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies," believes the bystander’s role doesn’t end when a case of excessive force does.

“We have to begin talking about things that are going on way sooner and not just having these conversations pop up once another brother dies,” Menakem told USA TODAY.

“We have to let people heal. What you’re seeing right now is 400 years of grief, of using the apparatus of the state to hurt, subdue, maim, kill black bodies. At some point, it’s not incidental. What’s the pattern? What’s underneath that’s making it pop like this? We don’t ask those questions. We have to start. We keep talking about this as incidents and episodes — but it’s not. It’s structural.”

It’s not just policing, however, where bystanders are called to combat racism.

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Susan Sheppard holds an "I can't breathe" sign during a vigil for George Floyd at the Renaissance Plaza in White Plains, New York, on Friday.
Susan Sheppard holds an "I can't breathe" sign during a vigil for George Floyd at the Renaissance Plaza in White Plains, New York, on Friday.

On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man was fatally shot in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood outside the small city of Brunswick, Georgia. He was jogging when a white man and his son confronted him. Police charged the two men with murder two months later, but only after video of the incident gained national attention.

On Memorial Day, a video was posted online of a black man in New York City’s Central Park, later identified as Christian Cooper, recording a white woman, Amy Cooper, who called police and said “there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Christian Cooper said he was simply bird-watching and had asked the woman to leash her dog.

And, as cases of racism against Asian Americans related to the coronavirus outbreak continue to mount in the United States, more witnesses can act as agents to de-escalate.

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Writer and racial justice educator Dr. Robin DiAngelo calls on “white people in particular to understand how layered and complex” racism is and how privilege can be a force for change when properly channeled.

“The fact is, your whiteness is impacting the way you’re responded to,” DiAngelo told USA TODAY. “You have to think: ‘How can I use this in a way that interrupts racism rather than colludes it?’ Say I’m on public transportation or in the street and someone is being threatened or verbally abused, I might actually stand in front of that person so that the perpetrator is distracted by me and it deflects. They’re going to have a different response to me than they would if it was a person of color.”

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DiAngelo, who wrote "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism," suggested “asking questions, calmly” and added that identifying aggressors as racist can escalate matters because people rarely perceive their own actions that way. She said trying to relate to the aggressor by saying things like “I can understand your fear right now, but these people are also Americans” could ultimately diffuse tensions.

“Awareness alone, without action or practice, is functionally meaningless,” DiAngelo said. “If you’re not actually involved in the struggle against it, you are part of the problem.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd: How race may affect what bystanders can do for detainees