I was sitting in our family room the first time I saw the horrific, videotaped police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I watched, jaw hanging, as Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, mercilessly kneeled on Floyd’s throat for nearly nine minutes as Floyd called out, “I cannot breathe! I cannot breathe!”
When a visibly suffering Floyd cried out “Mama! Mama,” I broke down. I sobbed as he died on my television screen.
My heart ached as if I knew him personally. Floyd was tall and strong like the men in my family. He could have been my brother or my cousin or my friend. On that day, I cried for him and for every innocent, unarmed man whose life ended under the knee — literally and figuratively — of law enforcement.
Days later, as my sadness turned to anger, I watched as both my hometown of Washington, D.C., and my adopted city of Philadelphia burned under the fury of outrage from people demanding better.
Two years ago, the protests following George Floyd’s death were among the largest in American history. It was a deeply unsettling time as America grappled with police brutality amid the backdrop of the crippling COVID-19 pandemic and President Donald Trump’s racially divisive reelection campaign.
But afterward, when the protesters took home their signs and cities around the country began to clean up, it felt as if a new America were on a dizzying precipice of something revolutionary.
We were hopeful. We thought change was finally going to come as authorities scrambled to tear down offensive statues (including the long-overdue removal of Philly’s monument to known bigot Mayor Frank Rizzo) and our leaders made promises about police reform. Since then, about half of all the states in America have since passed some sort of police reform.
But now, two years later, instead of continuing forward, America has slipped backward into a period of racial retrenchment fueled by widespread white resentment. We were promised a radical racial reckoning in 2020 and yet, here we are: In 24 months, we’ve gone from having national conversations about criminal justice reform to hearing about “replacement theory” and how minorities are overtaking white people, an idea that upset an alleged white supremacist in Buffalo so much that he reportedly slaughtered 10 innocent Black people at a grocery store this month.
Instead of applauding the teaching of America’s true racial history, the right has demonized it. Critical race theory, which isn’t even taught in elementary or high schools, has become the new Willie Horton. Book banning, particularly those written by Black and LGBTQ authors, has reached new heights.
Closer to home, Council leaders have gone from freezing police spending to backing a plan to add more funding and cops to the force.
“Most Americans didn’t even know what critical race theory meant two years ago,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the author of Long Time Coming: Reckoning With Race in America. “What we saw in Buffalo is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of sentiment, in terms of outlook, and in terms of passion in this country two years after George Floyd.”
The fact that so little progress has been made after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, feels like yet another missed opportunity, another confirmation that America will never undo the systemic racism that has kept its knee on so many of our throats for generations.
Dyson says that going forward, the challenge is for the masses to keep that same energy going when “‘it’s not sexy anymore. It’s not in the news anymore. It’s not the thing that everyone thinks they should do on social media.”
In other words, even after the nation’s attention shifts, we must keep pressing forward. We need to be relentless in our quest to dismantle systemic racism. That’s easier said than done, especially since with each news cycle, a new crisis competes for our attention and our outrage. In the last few weeks, we’ve endured the Buffalo shooting, the leaking of a draft of a Supreme Court opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, and Tuesday’s heartbreaking mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two adults.
Earlier this week, I was sitting around, feeling morose about the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. I decided to ask Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who spent years defending demonstrators who had been arrested, what he thought about our lack of progress.
“I view all of this as being part of a decades-long process in which there is zagging backwards, but hopefully we can continue to zig forward,” he told me Tuesday. “You cannot expect to achieve something big without pushback. This is a somewhat terrifying moment because unless we save democracy, which is crucial, we could see the pushback win. But I think that American history is generally pretty hopeful. Even when we have been doing terrible things for a very long time, change is possible. It does come about, but it takes a while.”
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to review and revise policies on the use of force and the creation of a database to track police officer misconduct, among other things. It’s no substitute for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which failed to pass the Senate, but at this point any step in the right direction feels like a victory. Meanwhile, we will keep pushing for more, because wholesale change is the only way to save the next George Floyd.