What Killed George Floyd and Spurred a New Protest Movement? Culture

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything

For the past two weeks, I have been asked a couple of questions repeatedly:

“What the heck is going on with all of these protests and looting?”

“Do you think this has anything to do with our culture?”

The short answer to both questions is, yes, these events have everything to do with our culture.

Video Shows Us Police Culture

Let’s start by remembering that culture, whether in our organizations or in our society, is defined as the beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions and rituals that bind us together.

We are all witnessing what it looks like when a small group of people, a minority by definition, is joined by a larger group of people in order to bring about needed change in a culture while many in positions of power are willing to accept the status quo. The status quo is no longer acceptable for a growing number of people.

On May 25, George Floyd was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, placed face down next to a police car, while officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead.

Floyd was repeating “I can’t breathe” and other statements of distress for approximately the first 6 minutes until he passed out, and Chauvin still kept his knees on his neck for almost another 3 minutes. The video is gruesome but important to watch, as it reveals important clues about the culture that Chauvin was a part of.

Revealing behaviors:

  1. Chauvin knows that he is being recorded, yet continues to look at the camera as if he is doing nothing wrong. This is either because he truly believes he is doing nothing wrong or he feels he can act with impunity because he has been taught so by his culture or subculture. This is reminiscent of lynchings, historically. After the African-American victim was lynched, often by hanging, the people responsible would take a picture with the victim, facing the camera, as if to show pride that they had done something that should be remembered and celebrated.
  2. While Chauvin is kneeling on Floyd’s neck, suffocating him, he has his hands in his pockets, very casually, as if he is simply waiting for Floyd’s ultimate demise. He does not appear stressed or tense or needing to defend himself. He does not budge or respond to any of Floyd’s pleas. He is indifferent to them. This is a real-life example of what research has proven: Power makes humans less empathetic toward one another.
  3. Court filings of one of the three other ex-officers recently arrested indicate this officer told Chauvin, “Should we roll him over?” and “Should we stop now?” Chauvin ignored both questions. You see, Chauvin was the training officer for the other three junior officers. He was inculcating them into the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department – the beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions and rituals. If you believe that Chauvin was acting alone or independently, I would ask you to consider point #1: He was behaving as if he were doing nothing wrong, and that the department chose him as a training officer. He was a representative of their culture. Remember, culture is created by not only the behaviors that are required but also the behaviors that are allowed. Chauvin’s behaviors were allowed or he would not have been teaching them to junior officers.

The Status Quo Is Changing

No one that I know supports theft or the aimless destruction of property. At the same time, I would urge you to consider the following:

  1. MLK stated, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” African-Americans have been subject to the legacy of slavery – including law enforcement’s abuse of force – for generations. In every country and civilization, the oppressed will push back against their oppressors.
  2. Hurt people, hurt people. The current culture values “whiteness” over all other colors, races, ethnicities and nationalities. Rep. Steve King stated, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He is not the only person in authority that believes so. Leaders that support these beliefs and their followers ignore the problems of those unlike themselves – black and brown people. Looting can be seen as a way for the oppressed, who feel powerless, to hurt the oppressor, who is in a position of power.
  3. There is a criminal element in every organization, discipline and movement. Enron, Tyco and WorldCom are all large organizations that behaved illegally. Banking, finance, medicine, law and other fields all have trained professionals who end up on the wrong side of the law. Day after day, as these protests have grown, a greater number of people, with diverse ethic and cultural backgrounds, have been joining the protests. And the violence and looting has all but stopped. If “A riot is the language of the unheard,” then listening and empathy are the salve. If you want to learn more and listen more, start with this powerful 9-minute video.

Apparently, the status quo of a culture that allows people to be killed unjustly isn’t good enough anymore. As challenging as these times are, we are all lucky to be alive right now.  Why? Because we have an opportunity to not only to witness the transformation or the American culture but also to shape it. Which side of history will you be on?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!