Taking Stock of Lessons Learned After George Floyd's Death

·5 min read
Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images

As a journalist who writes about political organizing, this past year following George Floyd’s murder has been especially poignant to me. My work prioritizes grassroots activists who have spent decades tracking police violence, analyzing the systems of police power, and imagining alternatives. I continue to see the ways in which the life’s work of longtime organizers enters into the national conversation around race and policing.

In the middle of overlapping crises, Floyd's death set in motion a chain of events that continues to reverberate across the country. Though much remains unchanged, ripples from the year's uprisings have disrupted the tides of normalcy. A poorly managed global pandemic and growing white supremacist attacks on democracy provided the right combination for collective action and outrage. Any reflection on the past year cannot assume that we operate in a vacuum of police violence and protest alone.

The national conversation on policing took on new layers. What started with the killing of Black people by law enforcement quickly expanded to a broader discussion of systemic racism, white supremacy, and oppression. Many advocates and progressive organizers have spent years arguing the intersection of issues impacting Black and other communities of color. This last year proved why political organizing and advocacy cannot be relegated to traditional election cycles alone.

The advocacy and righteous anger that drove continuous action in the weeks and months after Floyd's death provided an opening for a long-overdue national conversation. As happens in all national conversations, language shimmied, shifted, and changed, a continual dance between longtime activists and politicians, reporters, and public officials invested in the status quo. “Reimagine public safety” emerged as a euphemism for reform, an alternative to the movement's demand of defunding the police.

But also, my conversations with friends and colleagues deepened my understanding of the political shift around policing. Each interaction explored the need to build systems of care, replacing the harm inflicted by a punitive system exemplified in modern policing and the "justice" system as a whole.

One of those conversations was with Tracey Corder, the deputy campaign manager for the Action Center on Race and the Economy, as part of a project for Yes! Magazine and Public News Service. In that conversation, Corder said that organizers, particularly those operating within an abolitionist framework, have spent years laying the groundwork for shifting power away from police.

She also explained the shift as breaking out of a paradigm of limiting people to only what society thinks they need to survive and, instead, ensuring that people can thrive. "We have an abundance to give people," said Corder.

Reimagining safety and security is one of those terms of art that have been adopted by a wider audience this year. It means that we apply a holistic approach to what communities need to be and feel safe. The Action Center on Race and the Economy's report was grounded in the premise of budgets as moral documents, applying an invest-divest framework to public spending. Public funds would be redirected to resources and support that directly uplifts people instead of increasing funding for policing.

By the time uprisings began taking hold in cities across the country, organizers long in the trenches had struck a new tone. Because simply reimagining public safety without a clear framework and policy prescription grounded in justice and equity would merely lead to more creative ways to fund policing.

But though these terms have entered into the public lexicon in a new way, this past year has not seen substantive reforms in Minneapolis or other cities where groups have pushed to reimagine the police. It’s frustrating, but expected. Even as we remember Floyd and reflect on the past year, some elected officials pay lip service to change and justice while still supporting harmful practices and policies.

As a movement journalist, I recognize the long road ahead in changing systems of harm. Part of that work is uplifting narratives and conversations that challenge traditional understandings of policing. That means highlighting the pattern of brutality in a group of state troopers in northern Louisiana and challenging the reporting of “contradictions” between police reports and actual evidence of brutality. The pattern and practice of community harm is clear. Resolving those harms cannot be accomplished through the old ways of wheeling and dealing. These have always had detrimental impacts on Black and other communities. Yet, there are still those within the higher ranks of national leadership who cling to antiquated notions of unity and bipartisanship. Trying to appease "the other side" ultimately does not benefit the masses. Conceding power to special interests and powerful political elites only derails justice and equity.

Beginning last summer and continuing through this year, the collective power of folks hungry for justice and equity has broken through the noise. The power of empathy and mutiracial and multiethnic organizing channeled energy from the streets into expanding how people engage in civic life.

The tide changed with the 2020 election. Georgia voters flipping not one but two U.S. Senate seats happened as a direct result of people clearly saying, "We deserve better." And that demand for better continues as people grapple with holding elected officials accountable for the promises they make. Even with a “friendly” trifecta in the federal government, the fight for justice continues.

It’s not enough to say that George Floyd should still be alive. That life should not be taken with such cavalier attitudes and blatant disregard for personal liberty is an understatement. Calls for justice must meet the current conditions and times.

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