As of today, protests condemning George Floyd's murder by police officer Derek Chauvin have taken place in all 50 U.S. states (more than 750 U.S. cities), and in more than 60 countries. American newspapers feature stories of police defunding initiatives that are cropping up throughout the country. Already, the Minneapolis City Council has vowed to dismantle their police department. Los Angeles will redirect funds in their policing budget, and in New York City, activist groups are vigorously planning their way forward towards police abolition, as the Mayor vows cuts to the NYPD. Other cities are considering similar changes.
George Floyd Uprising and Anti-Racist Culture Change
A demand tied to hard-left activist groups and decarceral intellectuals, police abolition, or defunding, is now being considered by mainstream politicians. Even Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, is delicately walking the line between his opposition to police defunding and calls to meet the demands of a historic uprising against police brutality. While police defunding proposals are beginning to meet resistance, the fact that they are being widely considered at all is a sea change. In three weeks, we have witnessed what even the most fervent anti-police brutality activists watch with surprise: the rapid crumbling of public support for the police as an institution.
Given this history, the George Floyd protests are not aberrations but rather a culmination of decades of struggle.
We are seeing other signs of shifts in public attitudes and behavior in the U.S. Sales of anti-racism books have skyrocketed. Though an empty gesture, the NFL now supports the right to peaceful protest among its players, years after banning the practice and Colin Kaepernick for the same. Bail funds to support protestors have been flooded by donations. And demographic data on the Floyd protests show that many more white people participated now than in past anti-racism protests - in some cities they have been the majority of crowds. Let's be clear about what these trends mean - the George Floyd's killing and subsequent protests have stirred a dramatic, long-needed, response among white Americans.
For decades, anti-racist activists and policy advocates have argued that until anti-racism is a priority for whites - including the well-meaning, non-racist types - systemic anti-racist policy change would continue to be thwarted. Has that moment arrived? As we enter a low boil phase in unrest about racial injustice, there is a sense that a window of opportunity has opened for lasting change. The anger and despair that was channeled through massive uprisings, now mingle with hope and possibility. A return to status quo appears to no longer be politically viable.
The Black Lives Matter Movement Building for this Moment
The George Floyd protests seemed to follow a despairingly familiar script. A video of police killing an unarmed black man ripples through social media, setting off a wave of protests calling for decisive police accountability. Officers are put on leave pending investigations, as protests unfold over the course of a few days. Officials respond slowly, reluctantly, magnifying the sense of injustice. Legal proceedings unfold in the background, as protests wane and the wider public settles (even if not the most committed organizers), knowing that the cycle will repeat. But this is the first time that the aftermath of the police murder of an unarmed black man deviated from the script. The special dynamics that have been playing out with the George Floyd protests will be the subject of much analysis in the months and years to come. Still, already, we can point to the convergence of direct, mid-range, and ultimate causes.
The ultimate factors of systemic racism have been dissected with painstaking detail and depth by race scholars since Fredrick Douglas and W.E.B. Dubois. (Some primers that chronicle the foundational racism of American policing can be heard here and here.) Resistance against racial oppression, and anti-racism social movements have been continuous and deeply embedded in America's history. Given this history, the protests are not aberrations but rather a culmination of decades of struggle. While the George Floyd protests harken a new phase in the fight for civil rights in the U.S., the moment belongs to the Black Lives Matter movement.
BLM built power and cultural salience in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Ferguson, Missouri teenager, Michael Brown.
Mid-range, June's protests have been building up at least since 2012, with the murder of black high schooler Trayvon Martin, and subsequent protests in 2013 when Black Lives Matter movement was born. Trayvon was killed not by a police officer, but a man enacting a policing ethos that renders black people as suspect. Protests over the acquittal of Trayvon's killer saw the symbolic deployment of Skittles bags and hoodies. The ordinariness of a black teenager's things centered Trayvon's humanity and innocence. Along with slogans like "We are all Trayvon Martin" and "Will they shoot me too?", these symbols highlighted the ways danger follows black people even in the most pedestrian routines. This fact is ever-more evident today, as cases of black women and men killed by police in their homes - Breanna Taylor, Botham Jean - show how state violence reaches into all corners of black lives.
BLM built power and cultural salience in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Ferguson, Missouri teenager, Michael Brown. The Ferguson protests were primarily local, but after a grand jury did not press charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown, protests spread nationally and globally. The Ferguson uprising anticipated today's mobilizations in terms of its emotive force and reach. In another parallel to the George Floyd protests, the Ferguson protests were met with a military-style police response, facilitated by the transfer of equipment to police departments through the Defense Department’s Excess Property Program. In the weeks before George Floyd's murder, images of Ferguson police in their tank-like vehicles and military gear were juxtaposed with images of the calm, non-responsive police guarding government buildings from armed white anti-lockdown protestors. Ferguson prepared today's protestors to hit the streets, and for the aggressive police tactics that would follow.
Thus, the George Floyd protests build on social infrastructures, narratives, and demands honed by activists mobilizing both locally and on social media, in the way of BLM's decentralized organizing structure. Even as public attention to police brutalities ebb and flow in response to the perennial killings of unarmed black people during encounters with police, anti-racist community activists have been sharing tactics, crafting policy positions, and pushing tangible concessions from elected officials and police chiefs. If not the full replacement of police with more humane, community-centered systems of public safety, activists have called for police reform concessions like equipping police officers with body cameras, greater police accountability, implicit bias training, cultural competency tests, removing bad cops, and improved transparency through data access. These demands for reform have been more politically viable than outright police defunding. But the American public is now coalescing around one theme - reform is not enough.
White People & Systemic Change
The adoption of policies that radically tackle the roots of anti-black violence requires the recognition of structural racism. Policies to address entrenched racial inequities lag, despite the near universal acceptance of principles of racial equality, including among whites. While racist politics are more readily linked to white conservatives in the U.S., race scholars argue that whites on either side of the political spectrum harbor anxieties about becoming minorities, and about how demographic shifts may change the power balance that currently benefits them. Over the past 40 years, declining numbers of whites see continued racial discrimination as a cause of racial inequality. But the picture is messy.
What we are seeing with the George Floyd protests is a convergence of the anti-Trump protest movement and the Black Lives Matter movement that preceded it.
However, since 2014 we've seen a counter to this trend. Kaufman argues that liberal, college-educated whites actually express the most concern over race, reflecting that whites are divided along educational, generational, and ideological lines. Notably, white liberals in the U.S. recently became the only demographic to have a pro-outgroup bias. With whites divided about the causes and consequences of racial inequality, one of the trends to watch after the George Floyd protests is how the gap in public opinion between liberal and conservative whites will change. To be sure, the outcome of November's elections will be a clear indicator of how the ideological tug of war among whites plays out.
Already, we are seeing signs that the George Floyd protests is eroding support for Trump. The change in his approval ratings is primarily attributed to changes in white voters' opinions. While some conservative whites may be turning on Trump, liberal whites have been lockstep with non-whites in absolutely rejecting Trump. Since Trump was elected, participation in political protests has increased across the board, with affluent, highly-educated whites making up a large part of these numbers. Part of a "Great Awokening", this increasing participation in protest among privileged whites touches on a number of issues, not just race, but are largely a response to Trump. So, while past protests against police brutality took place in black communities with primarily black protestors, protests against the Trump regime over the last three years have been multiracial, if not in some cases, majority white. What we are seeing with the George Floyd protests is a convergence of the anti-Trump protest movement and the Black Lives Matter movement that preceded it.
Next Steps Towards Lasting Change
For a nation already distressed by Covid-19 lockdowns and the rolling counts of the dead - a count disproportionately black, Latino, and Native American - the George Floyd protests were not so much a release, but a necessary refuge into rage. Protests unfolded with a tragic pandemic as a backdrop. Though public health researchers have long pointed out that blacks die younger and suffer excess chronic diseases as compared whites, the pandemic highlighted these disparities in stark terms. Even before the protests forced a national reckoning about race, Americans were increasingly talking about the structural inequities revealed by Covid-19. In the context of the pandemic, racism wasn't just political and economic, it was a matter of life and death. Again, this is not new to health disparities researchers, many of whom were the first to point out the contrasting responses to the crack epidemic of the 1980s (mostly black and brown victims) and the opioid epidemic of today (mostly white victims). While the crisis of opioid addiction has been deemed a public health emergency by even Trump, the crisis of crack addition was met with a 'war on drugs' that heralded an age of black mass incarceration.
A problem with the public health frame, a broader challenge for anti-racist movements, is that it compartmentalizes the problem of systemic racism
It makes sense to frame matters of life and death in public health terms. The language of health was already implicit in one of the most poignant phrases of the BLM movement - "I can't breathe". Eric Garner and George Floyd's dying words took on new meaning in the context of Covid-19, which rendered patients breathless. The Covid-19 pandemic has familiarized people nationally, indeed globally, with dysfunctional political and public health systems. In many ways, the George Floyd protests have done the same about systemic racism. We see in the responses to both the pandemic and police brutality, maps, with all its pathways and barriers, to lasting cultural change - the coupled shifts in ideational, relational, and institutional systems.
In a sign of one way the institutional responses to the George Floyd protests may go, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, Massachusetts declared racism a public health emergency - 3 months after members of Boston's city council pushed for this declaration. Treating racism as a public health crisis is effective in a number of ways. Such a frame neutralizes the reactionary notion that anti-racism and BLM movements are nothing more than political correctness run rampant. It recognizes, as with other public health emergencies, the need to mobilize institutional resources. It marks racism as a scourge that entangles all, even as some groups suffer disproportionately from its effects. It can call forth behavior change public health models, rather than merely targeting beliefs and values. But it has its limits too. A problem with the public health frame, a broader challenge for anti-racist movements, is that it compartmentalizes the problem of systemic racism to one domain; a domain that, especially in this country, is still regarded as an individual rather than collective responsibility. Here too the massive mobilizations of the past several years have transformative potential: conditioning the American public to think and act in collective terms.