George Floyd, Pelosi, and the Objectification Inherent in Martyrdom

Lush with references to God, dignity, and justice, Nancy Pelosi’s post-verdict statement was carried by inspired gratitude. After almost a year of unrest, petitioning, confrontation and trial, Derek Chauvin had been declared guilty on three separate charges for the murder of George Floyd. With the United States’ weak track record of guilty convictions of cops, the decision represented not just accountability in Floyd’s case, but also a symbolic revitalization of the justice system as a whole; to this Pelosi spoke. As her statement came to a close, the most notable expression of gratitude was most misplaced: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.”

A triumphant and sure satisfaction rang from her voice, followed by nods of agreement.

Although surely intended to mean that Floyd’s life wasn’t lost in vain, there is nothing to thank– George Floyd didn’t want to die. Can sacrifice be unwilling? Can it be born posthumously? In saying it was such, it implies intention, as if he woke up that day knowing he would be killed, and a sort of revered responsibility to a cause. Seeing how his victorious case is now being discussed, that cause could be anything from police reform to the justice system just working like it’s supposed to. George Floyd laid powerless during the last minutes of his life, so must we continue to take advantage of the fact that he no longer has the power to speak for himself? It’s an abuse.

Countless Black men are harassed, abused and killed by police every year, so are we to understand that they’re all martyrs to a collective sacrifice? Or does that title only belong to Black men killed on camera? They certainly don’t all get the same outrage and media attention as Floyd did, so it raises the question of what they are to us, if not martyrs as well. Martyrs die so that no one else has to, so that no other like them is persecuted. As soon as the benchmark verdict was read, however, celebrations were interrupted with reports of Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing by Columbus police. Silence overcame all. The problems in our institutions didn’t end with this conviction, they’re merely being tended– you don’t get rid of weeds by clipping them, but rather uprooting them.

What Pelosi and many others fail to see is the objectification that lies in this unintentional ‘sacrifice’: by thanking and lauding him as a renewal of faith in justice, he becomes a tool for a reform that shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The responsibility to create a safe and fair society doesn’t fall on the shoulders of citizens, and especially not its marginalized ones. So much of U.S. legislation is carried on benchmark verdicts and historical cases (such as the newly proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act), but why do so many have to suffer in order for good to prevail?

Our language constructs our narratives, and so much of the conversation around the protection of Black people only serves to dehumanize: first “Black bodies”, and now gratitude of sacrifice. This cannot become expected. This cannot become normal. This is not the position we want to designate for Black US-Americans. As we approach sentencing in seven weeks, may we as citizens and those in power keep this in mind.

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