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The Death of George Floyd Reignited a Movement. What Happens Now?

Audra D.S. Burch
·10 min read
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George Floyd had been dead only hours before the movement began. Driven by a terrifying video and word-of-mouth, people flooded the South Minneapolis intersection where he was killed shortly after Memorial Day, demanding an end to police violence against Black Americans.

The moment of collective grief and anger swiftly gave way to a yearlong, nationwide deliberation on what it means to be Black in America.

First came protests, in large cities and small towns across the nation, becoming the largest mass protest movement in U.S. history. Then, over the next several months, nearly 170 Confederate symbols were renamed or removed from public spaces. The Black Lives Matter slogan was claimed by a nation grappling with Floyd’s death.

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Over the next 11 months, calls for racial justice would touch seemingly every aspect of American life on a scale that historians say had not happened since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

On Tuesday, Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who knelt on Floyd, was convicted of two counts of murder as well as manslaughter. The verdict brought some solace to activists for racial justice who had been riveted to the courtroom drama for the past several weeks.

But for many Black Americans, real change feels elusive, particularly given how relentlessly the killing of Black men by the police has continued, including the recent shooting death of Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb.

There are also signs of backlash: Legislation that would reduce voting access, protect the police and effectively criminalize public protests has sprung up in Republican-controlled state legislatures.

Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said to call what had transpired over the past year a racial reckoning was not right.

“Reckoning suggests that we are truly struggling with how to re-imagine everything from criminal justice to food deserts to health disparities — we are not doing that,” he said. Tuesday’s guilty verdict, he said, “is addressing a symptom, but we have not yet dealt with the disease.”

Moments before the verdict was announced, Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, called Floyd’s death “a Selma, Alabama, moment for America.”

What happened in Selma in 1965 “with the world watching demonstrated the need for the passage of the 1965 Voting Right Act,” he said. “What we witnessed last year with the killing of George Floyd should be the catalyst for broad reform in policing in this nation.”

The entire arc of the Floyd case — from his death and the protests through the trial and conviction of Chauvin — played out against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which further focused attention on the nation’s racial inequities: People of color were among those hardest hit by the virus and by the economic dislocation that followed.

And for many, Floyd’s death carried the weight of other episodes of police violence over the past decade, a list that includes the deaths of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor.

In the months after Floyd’s death, some change has been concrete. Scores of policing reform laws were introduced at the state level. Corporations pledged billions to racial equity causes, and the NFL apologized for its failure to support protests against police violence by its Black players. Even the backlash was different. Racist statements by dozens of public officials, from mayors to fire chiefs, related to Floyd’s death — perhaps tolerated before — cost them their jobs and sent others to anti-racism training.

And, at least at first, American views on a range of questions related to racial inequality and policing shifted to a degree rarely seen in opinion polling. Americans, and white Americans in particular, became much more likely than in recent years to support the Black Lives Matter movement, to say that racial discrimination is a big problem and to say that excessive police force disproportionately harms African Americans.

Floyd’s death, most Americans agreed early last summer, was part of a broader pattern — not an isolated episode. A New York Times poll of registered voters in June showed that more than 1 in 10 had attended protests. And at the time, even Republican politicians in Washington were voicing support for police reform.

But the shift proved fleeting for Republicans — both elected leaders and voters. As some protests turned destructive and as Donald Trump’s reelection campaign began using those scenes in political ads, polls showed white Republicans retreating in their views that discrimination is a problem. Increasingly in the campaign, voters were given a choice: They could stand for racial equity or with law-and-order. Republican officials once vocal about Floyd fell silent.

“If you were on the Republican side, which is really the Trump side of this equation, then the message became, ‘No we can’t acknowledge that that was appalling because we will lose ground,’” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “‘Our worldview is it’s us against them. And those protesters are going to be part of the them.’”

Floyd’s death did, however, drive some changes, at least for now, among non-Republican white Americans in their awareness of racial inequality and support for reforms. And it helped cement the movement of college-educated suburban voters, already dismayed by what they saw as Trump’s race-baiting, toward the Democratic Party.

“The year 2020 is going to go down in our history books as a very significant, very catalytic time,” said David Bailey, whose Richmond, Virginia-based nonprofit, Arrabon, helps churches around the country do racial reconciliation work. “People’s attitudes have changed at some level. We don’t know fully all of what that means. But I am hopeful I am seeing something different.”

But even among Democratic leaders, including mayors and President Joe Biden, dismay over police violence has often been paired with warnings that protesters avoid violence too. That association — linking Black political anger and violence — is deeply rooted in America and has not been broken in the past year, said Davin Phoenix, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

“Before Black people even get a chance to process their feelings of trauma and grief, they’re being told by people they elected to the White House — that they put into power — ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Phoenix said. “I would love if more politicians, at least those that claim to be allied, turn to the police and say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’”

The protests that followed Floyd’s death became part of the increasingly acrimonious American conversation over politics. Most were peaceful, but there was looting and property damage in some cities, and those images circulated frequently on television and social media. Republicans cited the protests as an example of the left losing control. Blue Lives Matter flags hung from houses last fall. When support for Trump boiled over into violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, conservatives expressed anger at what they said was a double standard for how the two movements had been treated.

Biden took office in January vowing to make racial equity central to every element of his agenda — to how coronavirus vaccines are distributed, where federal infrastructure is built, how climate policies are crafted. He quickly made changes any Democratic administration most likely would have made, restoring police consent decrees and fair housing rules.

But, in a sign of the unique moment in which Biden was elected — and his debt to Black voters in elevating him — his administration has also made more novel moves, like declaring racism a serious threat to public health and singling out Black unemployment as a gauge of the economy’s health.

What opinion polling has not captured well is whether white liberals will change the behaviors — like opting for segregated schools and neighborhoods — that reinforce racial inequality. Even as the outcry over Floyd’s death has raised awareness of it, other trends tied to the pandemic have only exacerbated that inequality. That has been true not just as Black families and workers have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, but also as white students have fared better amid remote education and as white homeowners have gained wealth in a frenzied housing market.

In a national sample of white Americans this year, Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College, found that even the most racially sympathetic were more likely to endorse limited, private actions. These included educating oneself about racism or listening to people of color rather than, for example, choosing to live in a racially diverse community or bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials and policymakers.

Still, historians say it is hard to overstate the galvanizing effect of Floyd’s death on public discourse, not just on policing but also on how racism is embedded in the policies of public and private institutions. Some Black business leaders have spoken in unusually personal terms about their own experiences with racism, with some calling out the business world for doing far too little over the years — “Corporate America has failed Black America,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at PepsiCo, Ralph Lauren and Square — and dozens of brands made commitments to diversify their workforces.

Public outcries over racism in the United States erupted across the world, spurring protest in the streets of Berlin, London, Paris and Vancouver, British Columbia, and in capitals in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. White Americans unfamiliar with the concept of structural racism drove books on the topic to the top of bestseller lists.

The protests against police violence over the last year were more racially diverse than those that followed other police shootings of Black men, women and children over the past decade, said Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian of protest movements at the University of California, Los Angeles. And unlike in the past, they propelled defunding the police — the most far-reaching demand to transform policing — to the mainstream.

“We had more organizing, more people in the streets, more people saying, ‘It’s not enough to fix the system, it needs to be taken down and replaced,’” Kelley said.

Organizers worked to turn the energy of the protests into real political power by pushing vast voter registrations. By the fall, racial justice was a campaign issue too. Mostly Democratic candidates addressed racial disparities in their campaigns, including calling for police reform, the dismantling of cash bail systems and the creation of civilian review boards.

“We will forever look back at this moment in American history. George Floyd’s death created a new energy around making changes, though it’s not clear how lasting they will be,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. “His death pushed racial justice to the forefront and brought a multiracial response like never before, but we must remember this is about making Chauvin accountable and the work of making systemic changes.”

One clear policy outcome has been changes to policing. More than 30 states have passed new police oversight and reform laws since Floyd’s killing, giving states more authority and putting long-powerful police unions on the defensive. The changes include restricting the use of force, overhauling disciplinary systems, installing more civilian oversight and requiring transparency around misconduct cases. Still, systems of policing are complex and entrenched and it remains to be seen how much the legislation will change the way things work on the ground.

“America is a deeply racist place, and it’s also progressively getting better — both are true,” said Bailey, the racial reconciliation worker in Richmond. “You are talking about a 350-year problem that’s only a little more than 50 years toward correction.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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