“You’ll always be in jail, nigga, just minus the bars.” - Jay-Z on “A Week Ago” circa 1998.
This won’t be the first time I tell you that J. Alexander Keung, one of the four cops convicted in the slaughter of George Floyd back in 2020. The first time I told you this was five months, ago, after Keung and former officer Tou Thou, were handed their extremely-light federal sentences for their roles in the violation of Floyd’s civil rights as he lay dying under another deranged cop’s knee on the Minneapolis pavement.
Back then, I wrote about why I thought the sentence was unfair, to Floyd, to his family and to all who were on the scene that day and held at bay by Thou while Derek Chauvin took Floyd’s life. I wrote about “excited delirium,”, a medical-sounding term that no actual doctor recognizes but which cops use to great effect to get away with just this kind of crime. It was a term that the judge who sentenced Keung and Thou used in his explanation for handing down the sentence he did, which was less than prosecutors asked for. And everything I wrote then I still believe today, but I have an admission to make: I didn’t tell the full truth.
I was brought back to my full truth today by seeing the news that Keung had finally received his sentence on state charges in Floyd’s killing—3.5 years in prison on a guilty plea for aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter—so I came back to this space to admit to what I left out, and why. I believe J. Alexander Keung should spend the rest of his life in prison, and I believe that solely on the basis that Keung is Black.
That was a difficult sentence to type because I know the criticism it opens me up to as a writer, and as a human. I’ve spent a good bit of my career, and a whole lot of the past year at The Root, writing about things like racial disparities and the insidious ways in which the criminal justice system harms Black men for no other reason than their race, and I know that openly advocating for harsher treatment by the judicial system for one person is antithetical to much else I’ve committed to words. I’ve decided I’ll take whatever criticism comes with that, because J. Alexander Keung should never see another free day on earth.
Actually to say that he shouldn’t because he’s Black isn’t entirely accurate. Keung is actually biracial, born to a white mother and a father from Nigeria. But he lived his life—he was 26 when he helped George Floyd meet his end—in a body that he and the rest of America regards as distinctly Black. His defense attorney and his own siblings described him as Black in interviews since the case happened.The New York Times wrote about how Keung told his family he was joining the Minneapolis Police Department because he wanted to work to change the department from the inside.
But Keung’s life experience should have taught him, like those of every living Black American’s should, that such changes don’t come from people who wear badges. Sure, ‘good cops’ exist, but police violence is systemic; putting on a badge and patrolling communities of color as a condition of earning a taxpayer-funded living is more likely to change the individual than the individual is to change the profession. And so, Keung arrived on the scene in May of 2020, and instead of confronting Chauvin, instead of physically removing him from Floyd’s back, instead of deploying his Taser or drawing his weapon or calling a supervisor or imploring any of the other three officers who were present to do something—to do anything—to prevent another Black man from succumbing to the badge, to Chauvin’s power trip, he just watched.
For that, he’ll do a few years on his federal beef and a few on his state charges and then he’ll be free, at least physically. Truth is, if he’d been sentenced to 1,000 years, it wouldn’t be enough.