Power Should Not Tell The Story

Journalism should question power, not parrot its narrative

Demonstrators hold George Floyd’s and Daunte Wright’s portraits, both shot and killed by police officers, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department in Brooklyn Centre, Minnesota, on April 16, 2021. (Image via Getty)

On May 26, 2020, Minneapolis police announced the death of George Floyd in a press release headlined, “Man Dies After Medical Incident After Police Interaction.”

Here is how the Minneapolis police describe Floyd’s death. Officers received a call of a “forgery in progress.”

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Yesterday, a jury convicted former officer Derek Chauvin on all charges in the murder of George Floyd.

In the 11 months since the police issued that statement, eye witnesses, including police officers and video footage, all revealed what a gaslighting load of garbage that initial statement was.

Officers “were able to get the suspect into handcuffs” means Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

“He appeared to be suffering medical distress” means he cried for help and received none as police officers watched him die.

The use of the passive voice is on full display in this press release. The person acted upon comes first, the actor’s role is obfuscated. The death is described without assigning responsibility. A suspect was handcuffed. A suspect died. What happens between those sentences is murder.

It’s not just George Floyd. The Washington Post wrote:

Louisville police listed Breonna Taylor’s injuries as “none” after shooting her eight times in her home during a March police raid that began with a no-knock warrant. And Buffalo police initially said Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester who was shoved to the ground and severely injured by officers, merely “tripped and fell.”

Police violence is always described in a passive voice. A person is arrested, but how and by whom, we aren’t told. A person dies. An officer is involved. How is that officer involved? Why did that person die? Questions scream out in between the black words of the text. Questions that are so rarely answered.

In the case of George Floyd, the video taken by Darnella Frazier did what no official press release did: it centered the violence of the actors.

The video allows no obfuscations. It has no passive voice. It contradicts the narrative of power and refocuses the story toward the truth.

When power tells the story, it’s never responsible for anything. When power murders, it’s “officer involved” and “a few bad apples.” When power tells the story, they use the passive voice and withhold information. When power tells the story, power is the victim. Even though in order to be a victim, you have to be robbed of your power. Power doesn’t like it when you think like that. When power tells the story, power has no power. A man dies. A girl dies. Things happen. Power was just there, powerless. Power should never be allowed to dictate the narrative.

Power wouldn’t be in power if the people who were supposed to question it actually did so. I remember at my last job being told to tread carefully or the people in power wouldn’t answer my questions. I remember saying that I’d rather have silence than repeat lies.

People who do not comply with power’s demands are punished. But compliance isn’t always about toeing the line and submitting questions in writing first. When journalist Andrea Sahouri was arrested while covering the Black Lives Matter protests, white journalists around her remained unharmed. Sometimes compliance just means being white or a man.

One of the reasons I believe in journalism is because, at its best, it challenges the narrative of power. It holds power to account for its obfuscations, for its sideways stories, its lies. Its outright lies.

At its worst, journalism has no questions for power. It uses government agencies as it’s only source for stories. It parrots and repeats what power says without question or pushback. Or maybe just a little pushback, but nothing serious. This is more than a rhetorical game; it’s life and it’s death.

More reading:

I've been thinking a lot about Josie Duffy Rice's essay from August about the abolition movement. Eugene Robinson wrote about how this verdict is a beginning and not an end. Read this beautiful essay about race, children, names and America. This interview talks about how murder and policing cannot be separated. The joy of decentering the official story in the CJR.

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