Activists see progress after George Floyd's death but say more must be done

Chivona Newsome remembers the lonely Black Lives Matter protests for Eric Garner in 2015 attended by only a dozen or so people. She spent five years pleading for lawmakers in New York to ban police chokeholds, to no avail, after the 43-year-old father of six was killed while being arrested for allegedly selling cigarettes.

But weeks after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while being pinned by a white Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, Newsome was leading protests at Times Square with 25,000 people as other demonstrations erupted across the country. Lawmakers in New York and several other states and cities passed legislation to ban police chokeholds.

While the recent support feels good, Newsome is still waiting for more sweeping changes.

“A whole lot more needs to be done in terms of investing in the (Black) community," said Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York.

Tuesday will mark three months since Floyd's death, which sparked nationwide social justice protests that put pressure on city, state and federal officials to consider police reform and renew calls for racial equality.

Many activists said recent efforts by lawmakers – including plans to defund or disband police, empower civilian review boards, take down Confederate symbols, foster inclusion in the workplace and paint Black Lives Matter murals – show progress. But much more must be done to undo centuries of systemic racism, they argue.

Thomas "Detour" Evans and Hiero Veiga's mural of George Floyd helped kickstart the artists' "Spray Their Names" initiative.
Thomas "Detour" Evans and Hiero Veiga's mural of George Floyd helped kickstart the artists' "Spray Their Names" initiative.

Black Americans still face inequalities in housing, education, health care, food security and jobs, activists say.

Many say Black lives are still not valued

On Sunday night, protests erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after graphic video surfaced on social media showing a police officer shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back several times as he was walking to a car. Blake was in serious condition as of Monday morning.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, demonstrators gathered this weekend to demand that Mayor-President Josh Guillory resign after Trayford Pellerin, a 31-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police Friday.

And in Portland, Oregon, protesters have clashed with police for weeks and set a police precinct on fire late Sunday.

Meanwhile, demonstrators and activists continue to call for the arrest of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot at her apartment on March 13 by Louisville police officers serving a no-knock warrant.

Activists say police brutality against Black people is a systemic problem that requires more than just banning chokeholds.

Floyd's death – which went viral after video surfaced of the officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes – magnified the disparities Black Americans face.

Demonstrators are calling for reforms that would outlaw voter suppression, create jobs and close the wealth gap. They also want government officials to invest money into poor communities of color toward quality education systems, access to affordable housing and health care.

“Politicians thought we would stop when they started talking about police reform," Newsome said. “We truly believe that as much as we love to protest, as much as we love to fight, nothing happens to marginalized people unless there is legislation in place.”

Lawmakers have so far shied away from taking transformational steps to dismantle systemic racism.

During the Democratic National Convention this week, the campaign for Joe Biden, the party's presidential nominee, said little about the reforms protesters are demanding. Biden said he opposes cutting law enforcement resources and instead wants to allocate more money to community policing.

President Donald Trump has defended the police while calling the Black Lives Matter movement a "symbol of hate" and suggested its protesters were "terrorists." During the mostly peaceful protests, some people have looted stores and vandalized buildings and police cars.

Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies protests, said lawmakers moved fast on proposing legislation this summer because the protests didn't die down. But the changes, she said, aren't aggressive enough, and the nation needs action from federal leadership.

“The problem is that what we are seeing is a patchwork response," Fisher said. "And when you have a patchwork response, where you see varied responses from different municipalities, it’s very hard for that to do anything more than be a band-aid.”

Major changes in policing are stalled

Some lawmakers said the protests motivated them to move fast on police reform, but they are running into red tape.

In June, the U.S. House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would end certain police practices, such as the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Republican-controlled chamber will not take up the legislation.

McConnell has also resisted bringing the newly renamed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which looks to stop the racial discrimination of voters, up for a vote.

In Minneapolis, the City Council passed a resolution in June that promised to disband the city’s 152-year-old police department. The city would replace it with a Department of Public Safety and Violence Prevention that would have a law enforcement division.

But the proposal, which requires approval from voters, has been halted by the city’s charter commission, which extended its review by 90 days, meaning it won’t make the November ballot.

Minneapolis Councilman Jeremiah Ellison said the council will now pursue the measure for 2021.

“We are committed earnestly to pursuing it,” Ellison said. “It might take years, but I think it’s worth it and I think we owe it to our constituents to make sure that residents like George Floyd aren’t murdered by our police department."

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a New York-based civil rights advocacy group, said divesting and downsizing police and increasing funding for poor communities is key to ending systemic racism within law enforcement.

“I think the movement has tremendous momentum right now, and what we are seeing is us running up against entrenched power that would like to put band-aids on things so we go away," Robinson said. “But the movement is very clear that we need structural change.”

Texas football players listened to teammate Caden Strerns speak at the end of a team march to the Capitol on June 4 to protest the killing of George Floyd.
Texas football players listened to teammate Caden Strerns speak at the end of a team march to the Capitol on June 4 to protest the killing of George Floyd.

In Seattle, the City Council approved a 1% cut, or just over $3 million, to its police department budget despite pushback from police unions and Police Chief Carmen Best, who resigned after the vote. The budget reduction will eliminate as many 100 officers from the 1,433 on the force and cut salaries for the police chief and command staff.

Seattle Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda wants to invest that money in affordable housing, child care, food security and schools for marginalized Black and brown communities. Protesters have asked the city to defund police by 50%, she said.

“We had to act with urgency,” Mosqueda said. “For decades we’ve been seeing Black men and women, people of color, dying on camera. We’ve been seeing month after month here in the city of Seattle and across the nation, excessive force used (by police).”

Lawmakers turn to civilian review boards

Some cities are empowering or reinstalling civilian review boards.

Miami-Dade County officials will vote this month on a plan to revive its independent civilian review board, which will investigate allegations of police brutality, misconduct and discrimination. The panel was eliminated during the 2009 Great Recession and proposals to reinstate it in 2016 and 2018 failed, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan said.

Jordan said that if Mayor Carlos Giménez supports it, the panel could be up and running by 2021.

“Without the community being home and seeing the effects of what happened to George Floyd, we would not have had the success that we have had even though we have had multiple setbacks,” Jordan said. “It’s because of what happened to George Floyd that the community is now demanding it, as well.”

The Rev. Susan Wilder of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Va., prays at the police line as demonstrators gather June 3 to protest the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington.
The Rev. Susan Wilder of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Va., prays at the police line as demonstrators gather June 3 to protest the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington.

The Atlanta City Council passed legislation to increase the Atlanta Citizen Review Board’s budget by $427,000; expand its membership to include people ages 18 to 30, and mandate a third party to review disagreements between the board and the police department.

“It was more than just the killings, I think that it was the community’s response to the killings,” the review's board executive director Lee Reid said. “It’s just a collective ‘I can’t believe what’s happening’ that everyone decided now is the time.”

Miski Noor, co-director of the Minneapolis-based Black Visions Collective, an organization that advocates equality for Black people, said many activists feel encouraged by all the conversations around police reform and Black Lives Matter across the nation. Noor said that before Floyd’s death, it seemed only activists were talking about these issues.

“All of these things are progress, they are moving us closer to the world that we deserve,” Noor said. “Whether it is the mural or the calls to defund the police all over the country that are helping to shift the narrative, I think all of these things are progress.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black Lives Matter reforms stalled 3 months after George Floyd's death