Ed Sinclair || April/May 2021
George Floyd was murdered at the knee of a police officer and at the hands of historically racist public policies.
American public policy is a two-faced nesting doll. A local law inside a state law inside a federal law. Each doll has a smiling face on one side, eager to help; on the other side, a menacing sneer, eager to depress and deprive. It can cocoon you in layers upon layers of protection, or burden you with layers upon layers of grief. The side you see is an accident of birth and geography.
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Texans of color know this well. As in many states, elected officials are gravely concerned about the minuscule threat of “voter fraud.” Since 2011, Texas has regularly passed discriminatory state laws to ensure privileged Texans can sleep well knowing that Lone Star elections are oozing with integrity.
Crystal Mason, a Black woman, was convicted of a second-degree felony and sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting during the 2016 election. (Here are a few other second-degree felonies in Texas: murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and sexual assault.) Her prison-worthy offense? She voted while on supervised release after serving a federal prison sentence for a white-collar crime. She never intended to vote illegally, and simply did not grasp the byzantine voting laws that made her federal supervision a disqualification under state law. Because of the new offense, she was sent back to prison on her original federal offense, her grief compounded. She has now been released (again), and is currently working to appeal her state conviction.
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On the other hand — or face — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, one of Texas’ loudest proponents of “election integrity,” has himself been indicted, is reportedly under FBI investigation for another batch of alleged offenses, and was an invited guest of the deadly January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. His trial for multiple felony indictments, which landed in 2015, is somehow still pending while he continues his day job as Texas’ top lawyer.
Breai understands herself as having an outer layer of grief wrapped around countless others, all hardened through generational oppression and multiplied by contemporary tragedy — another kind of nesting doll. This doll is personal — as is mine, and yours — but its creation and replication among millions of Black and Brown men and women is political, shaped by policy.
George Floyd’s death was no accident, or sad “wrong place wrong time” story. As with most social constructs, coincidences are rare.
Public policy, like grief, compounds for non-wealthy, non-White, non-male, non-straight people. Arrested in a community with struggling schools, selectively aggressive law enforcement, and a legacy of redlined housing policy? Applied for a job after the arrest but sorry, no interview due to a criminal record? Missed rent to cover medical bills for a family member without affordable healthcare? All of this compounds. One layer begets another, until the cumulative weight destroys a life.
Nor does disadvantage at the hands of public policy trade or replace or take turns. The arrest is not Monday’s problem and the rent Tuesday’s. Wednesday’s problems come with Monday and Tuesday dragging behind, with a toddler’s boundless energy, all ready to shriek aloud at once.
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George, like Breai, knew this. He was a Texan, as am I.
Texas is a state — previously a nation — founded upon the Southern bedrocks of slavery and tax avoidance. After the Civil War, Texas state prisons became extensions of the slave-holding elite; emancipation required a new approach to exploiting the free labor of Black Americans. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution essentially permitted the enslavement of those who were convicted of crimes. Former slaves were quickly accused of newly defined “crimes,” convicted, and then leased by Texas back to former slave and plantation owners. Hardly a break in productivity, hardly a break in brutality. Texas and its elite landowners used public policy to move from privilege to privilege — same color, same shape, same form. The same set of policy dolls kept business going as usual for the elite and oppression going as usual for Black Texans.
George, who grew up near Emancipation Park in Houston’s Third Ward and later spent time in East and Central Texas prisons, is a contemporary victim. After several years in prison, George was released into the free world, a world tainted by its undead inner dolls of the past — public policies never fully acknowledged, confronted, or reconciled. He eventually left his home state for the warmth of other suns. George’s and Breai’s and millions of others’ griefs are the real result of American policy — an unequal society, sometimes improved, often stagnant, consistently tragic. Compounded for some, enriching for others. Over time.
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American public policy has improved in some respects. But make no mistake — progress is forward-looking; it does not erase the preceding brutality or injustice. Victims of unjust policies do not shed their protective layers because a law changes. A knife in the back, partially removed, still remains. Appomattox did not erase centuries of bondage. Murderous backlash to Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, and constant lynchings did not come and go, each era forgotten with the next. Jim Crow, criminalization of addiction, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, police brutality, and voter disenfranchisement do not separate into neat containers of disadvantage.
It all compounds. So does pain.
George’s death grievously, brutally stretched over 9 minutes and 29 seconds. The second minute was not simply a repeat of the first minute; he was already weakened by the first. The third minute was not a repeat of the second minute. The fourth minute was not a replica of the third minute. The fifth minute did not negate the pain and suffering of the fourth minute. The sixth minute did not replace the fifth minute. The pain of the seventh minute was not identical to the pain of the first minute. The eighth minute was most certainly not similar to the seventh, nor the ninth to the eight. The last 29 seconds, unspeakably different from the first few. Layer after layer, again, again, more, more, and, and.
Unlike the privileged, who live in a world with mobile and nuanced policies designed to empower, like qualified immunity for abusive police officers, the oppressed develop cumulative suits of armor to simply survive. Each new, painful layer hardens the ones beneath. Every new law or public policy shift enacted to maintain injustice-as-usual layers over everything else, aggregating their effects and making any surprise at white supremacy’s staying power disingenuous.
Ed Sinclair is a public servant in Texas, currently working in the field of behavioral health financial policy. He previously worked for the Texas Legislature as a criminal and juvenile justice researcher. Ed lives in Pflugerville, Texas, with his wife, Kanika, and their three kiddos. He is writing for Pipe Wrench in a personal capacity and not a professional role.
Edited by Catherine Cusick & Michelle Weber.
Fact checked by Matt Giles.