George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Over the next weeks, as the world watched the video of his death, the reaction was stunning and without precedent. Literally millions who saw the images of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck felt it was impossible to remain silent.
But what was most remarkable about the June 2020 marches was how far they spread beyond Minneapolis and other big cities with histories of police brutality. In Norfolk, Nebraska, a small overwhelmingly white town of 24,000, some 300 people gathered on a street corner to voice their outrage. A march in a city with similar demographics — Sioux City, Iowa — triggered a confrontation with pepper-spraying police. In the Philadelphia suburbs, thousands of mostly white people — some pushing babies in strollers — marched down Lancaster Avenue through affluent Main Line suburbs, carrying signs like “White Silence is Violence.”
“I was shocked to see so many white kids out here,” Walter Wiggins — a 67-year-old Black man who’d been attending protest marches in his native D.C. since his parents took him to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington — told the New York Times, at a protest that researchers confirmed was majority white. “Back then, it was just Black folks.”
That remarkable spring, the same phrase was on many people’s lips: The world had never seen anything quite like this. And yet, more than 16 months later, the world also hasn’t seen dramatic changes from a global protest movement in which it is estimated some 15 to 26 million Americans took part by marching in solidarity.
To be sure, some cities — including Philadelphia — enacted some of the lower-hanging fruit of policing reforms, such as banning chokeholds or indiscriminate use of tear gas on protesters, and there are promising pilot programs aimed replacing armed cops with civilians responded to traffic violations or mental-health crises.
But the sweeping public-safety changes sought by activist leaders of the protests seem just as elusive as they were the day before Floyd was murdered. In Washington, a modest yet significant package of federal police reforms — which would have curbed the “qualified immunity” that shields officers from the consequences of brutality — collapsed as the din of the protest marches faded. And in cities across the nation, as the New York Times reported last week in a piece headlined “A Year After ‘Defund,’ Police Departments Get Their Money Back,” budgets for traditional policing are actually increasing — the opposite of what most marchers sought.
It’s too early in the struggle to say the Black Lives Matter protests inspired by Floyd’s murder were a flop. But the results so far stand in contrast to the civil rights victories of the 1960s — most notably, the 1965 Selma marches that led directly to the landmark federal Voting Rights Act — and this begs the question: Was the size and diversity of the 2020 marches more of a bug than a feature? Were the protests 3,000 miles wide, but only an inch deep?
Is the struggle for lasting results that would radically reinvent public safety in America a commentary on the nature of protest in the social-media age of the 21st Century? After all, the urban uprisings of the 1960s that rocked cities such as Newark or Detroit were the accumulation of day-to-day lived experiences by the residents of those neighborhoods, around police brutality or housing discrimination. And while this was also true for many young Black and brown leaders of the 2020 protests, what gave the George Floyd reaction its stunning breadth was folks in other communities, including privileged suburbs, reacting to the shock of a video that was nothing like their lived experience — yet compelled them to act.
I spoke this week with Dana Fisher, the University of Maryland sociologist who’s conducted in-depth studies of recent protest movements around Donald Trump’s presidency, climate, and George Floyd’s murder. It was Fisher and a colleague, the University of Michigan’s Michael Heaney, whose survey of June 2020 protests confirmed that a plurality and in some cases a majority of the marchers for Black empowerment were white and that an overwhelming number (82%, including 66% of Black marchers) held college degrees.
Fisher told me she’s about to publish a follow-up study looking at the motivations of the George Floyd protesters, and that she found a surprising degree of intersectionality — meaning, in essence, that marchers mostly cited racial injustice as their primary concern but also brought secondary issues out into the streets. Many of the female marchers, across racial lines, said they were also standing up for women’s rights. Latino and Asian-American marchers — who also took part in greater numbers than past Black Lives Matter events — said they were also motivated by immigration. “People are connecting these issues,” Fisher said.
The findings suggest that the size of the protests was driven not only by the murder of Floyd on video but a moment of wider discontent, in a time of coronavirus-driven layoffs and Donald Trump’s button-pushing presidency.
A return to inertia
When the initial tsunami of these protests inevitably subsided, the core of community activists and progressive politicians who favor radical police reform saw a return of the inertia that tends to block revolutionary change.
The visceral, extreme reactions to the Floyd video, which inspired the rallying cry of “Defund the Police” amplified by a news media that prefers shorthand over nuance, ran into more complicated views on crime and law enforcement in the neighborhoods where — unlike for many of the marchers — policing is a day-to-day issue. Ground Zero has been Minneapolis itself, where in the immediate aftermath a supposedly veto-proof majority of city councilors pledged to end policing as we know it, to be replaced by a new department of public safety.
That hasn’t happened, in part because of pushback from middle-class Black homeowners concerned about rising crime. Last month, the Minnesota Poll of city residents found that while police reform is generally popular, a whopping 75% of Black Minneapolis voters do not want to see fewer police officers (the comparable number for white voters is 51%).
That level of resistance from people who’d be more directly affected by radical police reform than many of those who protested in 2020 — as well as a spike in the national murder rate that seems more driven by COVID-19 lockdowns than the issues as stake in the George Floyd protests — has empowered the incumbent forces against change. That’s particularly true for rank-and-file cops and their powerful unions; in many cities, rising retirements by beat cops has trumped police reform as the immediate crisis in the eyes of mayors.
On Capitol Hill, these cross-currents made it easy for reactionary forces to kill the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, even though many reform advocates saw the measure — which would have banned choke holds and no-knock warrants nationally and ended qualified immunity — as just a first step. The ability of Congress to blow off the 2020 protesters stands in marked contrast to 1965′s Voting Rights Act, signed just five months after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” or 1968′s Fair Housing Act in immediate response to the uprising after King’s assassination.
The experience in Philadelphia after 2020′s protests has been fairly typical. A number of reform measures — the bans on choke holds and tear gas, a new Citizen Police Oversight Commission, efforts to send more mental-health professionals on crisis calls — have passed. But the 2021 city police budget was unchanged and arguably grew when one factors in some new anti-crime programs that will involve law enforcement.
City Council member Helen Gym, a leading local advocate for police reform and chair of the national progressive group Local Progress, told me she remains hopeful over both what has been enacted so far and by the broader shift in attitudes toward policing, especially among young voters, signaled by the 2020 protests. “Obviously, it’s going to be a long process,” said Gym, who understands the frustration of those wanting radical reform more quickly. Indeed, it might prove the case that remaking the American way of policing proves more of a generational battle — like the decades-long reform of marijuana laws — than the quick wins for the 1960s’ rights marchers.
But the crisis that inspired the George Floyd protests — U.S. killings by police officers — has hardly abated. The Washington Post tracker of such deaths shows 654 so far in 2021, at a pace only slightly lower than previous years. After 16 months, it seems reasonable to ask: If the largest protest in American history only barely moved the needle, what on earth would?
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