Some wore masks and tried to observe public health protocols for social distance. Some carried gas masks.
Some broke windows of storefronts and looted stores.
Last night, police evacuated an area station that had been set on fire.
Protests about police violence, really racialized police violence, really, violence against Black people, spread to more than a half-dozen other cities, sometimes resulting in violence against property and people.
Racial justice issues, always percolating in American life, are again prominent, and we have to wonder: why this time? will it matter?
Police violence, particularly against Black men, isn’t new. Across the United States, people can recite a list of names of local men who had been victimized. Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a name and a case goes national, and becomes a chance to think about the larger cause. Vigorous and visible protest helps that happen.
So what about the killing of George Floyd?
- Floyd’s killing comes documented in graphic videos which show gross brutality and the absence of a threat to officers’ safety. Widely circulated on social media, it’s too easy to hear Floyd’s cries for help and to hear people in the crowd pleading with the police to get off his throat.
- The kneeling torture readily evoked contrasting images of football player and philanthropist Colin Kaepernick, who knelt only on grass in protest of racialized police violence, but engendered massive national criticism–including harsh and hostile comments from Trump. Kaepernick’s gesture cost him his athletic career. The resulting meme (above) was almost too obvious.
- The killing follows in short order the video of armed men chasing down Ahmaud Arbery in a truck, resulting in another killing. The killers were arrested and charged two days after the video was circulated, more than two months after the killing.
- The protests followed months of shutdown in response to the novel coronavirus, and extensive documentation showing that Black people were more likely to be exposed to the virus, and once infected, more likely to die.
- The not quite national quarantine meant that more people were watching more social media; they were more likely to see the video quickly. And everyone is frustrated at being isolated and stuck at home.
- The killing in Minneapolis follows the killing of Breona Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, who was shot 8 times by police in her home. There is no video of the police executing a search warrant, purportedly looking for drugs. They didn’t find drugs.
- The killing in Minneapolis follows a viral video from Central Park, which showed a white woman fabricating a charge in a call to police. She said she felt threatened by a Black man bird watching, who asked her to leash her dog–in accord with park rules. He was carrying binoculars and doggie treats.
- The protests follows a month of very extensively-covered (and apparently effective) open up protests scattered across the United States. Those protesters were overwhelmingly white, sometimes armed, and often aggressive and confrontational. In difficult circumstances, police demonstrated restraint and tolerance. (I have seen no reports of arrests or police violence at those demonstrations.)
- Likely most importantly, the protests come in the midst of a hyper-partisan political environment, in which the president wants to proclaim that he’s not a racist while signalling to his supporters that he is.
It feels like a time to take sides. Effective protest makes people take sides.
When asked about the video of the killing in Minneapolis, Trump replied that it wasn’t good, that he hadn’t spoken with George Floyd’s family, and then turned to talk about China. Later, he tweeted that he was ready to assume control in Minnesota, and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The quote was borrowed from a racist justification of police violence from Miami’s police chief in 1967. Twitter hung a warning on the tweet, recognizing that it encouraged violence.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, not among the most eloquent presidential candidates in recent memory, was much sharper, tying Floyd’skilling to systematic racial discrimination in policing and the criminal justice system, calling for calm and conciliation–and also for justice. Biden also reached out to Floyd’s family, trying to offer some comfort and display concern.
Pop superstar Taylor Swift, rarely political, took to Twitter as well, charging Trump with “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism,”and vowing to vote him out in November.
The case, horrific as it is, has become a symbol of a much broader cause. But the American justice system–at its best–handles cases, not causes.
Shortly after the first Floyd video circulated, the Minneapolis Police Department fired the officer who kneeled on his throat, and three other officers who apparently stood by as it happened.
At this writing, after days of protest, Hennepin County announced the arrest of the officer who knelt on Floyd for nearly 9 minutes, charging him with third degree murder. Almost everyone hopes the arrest will take some of the edge out of the protests.
Would the officer have been charged without the protests, disruption, and threats of more?
I’m more confident that redressing systematic racial inequity will require more than the judicial system, including more protests.