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Throughout America’s long history of racial violence, certain names have stood out as markers of the struggles of a particular period in time. Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955 drew attention to the brutality of the pre-civil rights era in the South. The beating of Rodney King and acquittal of the officers involved sparked the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the national consciousness.
They were, of course, not the only black people to be lynched, beaten or killed in those eras. But a combination of circumstances, timing and the context of the moment turned them into enduring figures. George Floyd’s name will almost certainly join that list given the extraordinary nationwide reaction to the way he was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
Floyd’s death was part of a string of recent controversial killings. Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by a white father and son while jogging through a suburban Georgia neighborhood. Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by police who busted through her apartment door late at night in Louisville, Ky. Tony McDade, a black transgender man, was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Fla.
Each of these incidents drew some level of national response, as have other killings in the past few years. But Floyd’s death is what ultimately sparked a movement that will likely be remembered as one of the pivotal moments of the decade.
Why there’s debate
Perhaps the simplest answer to what made Floyd’s case unique is the circumstance of his death. The vast majority of the roughly 1,000 people killed each year by police are shot. Floyd died after having an officer’s knee pressed into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Shootings often unfold so quickly that they can leave room for uncertainty over what took place and whether lethal force was justified. Multiple videos taken of Floyd’s death, including graphic footage filmed by bystanders, provide a detailed look at what happened.
Major events don’t occur in a vacuum and are often the culmination of an escalating trend. Floyd’s death may very well have been the tipping point of anger that had been building over the incidents involving Arbery, Taylor, Garner and so many others. This may be especially true for Minneapolis, which has had several controversial police shootings.
The incident also can’t be separated from the larger context of the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which have affected black Americans at a disproportionate level. Discontent over months of lockdown measures, combined with President Trump’s incendiary tweets in response to early protests, may have been the tinder that caused the anger in Minneapolis to spread across the U.S.
It’s unclear when the demonstrations in cities across the country might come to an end, but ongoing court cases are likely to keep the issue of police violence in the news. The officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers who were on the scene face charges of aiding and abetting in the killing.
Three men involved in Arbery’s killing have also been charged with murder. There are currently no charges filed in connection with McDade’s and Taylor’s deaths.
Floyd’s death was the spark for a country already on the brink
“So many things make America combustible right now: mass unemployment, a pandemic that’s laid bare murderous health and economic inequalities, teenagers with little to do, police violence, right-wingers itching for a second civil war and a president eager to pour gasoline on every fire.” — Michelle Goldberg, New York Times
The video showed the senselessness of Floyd’s death
“History has long shown that a single death can spark a revolution. In the case of George Floyd, however ... it was more than just his death. It was the way he died, in front of our eyes, on video everywhere, pleading for his life, that had angry people spilling into the streets of cities across this country.” — Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press
The weight of systemic racism became too much to bear
“The realities of illness, unemployment, polluted air and water, unequal access to education, and mass incarceration — compounded with the fear of being killed by one of your fellow Americans or by a mysterious and still unchecked disease — has life feeling particularly fragile and the world particularly dire. Many are fed up.” — Sean Collins, Vox
The political stakes of the upcoming election created a sense of urgency
“To be honest, some of us are tired of it. Indeed, to listen to some African Americans these days — to hear their anger, their deep exhaustion, their cynicism, their emotional disinvestment in this country — is to sense America is running out of time to be what America is supposed to be.” — Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald
Activists have successfully shifted public opinion on police violence in recent years
“In 2014, people were building and understanding, we were still convincing people of all races that this was an issue. Now it’s like, okay people are ready, they know the right and wrong, but they don’t know how to fix it.” — Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson to Time
The president has fueled outrage with his response to the protests
“President Trump has seized on the cascading violence in Minneapolis to do what he does best: inflame, divide and, most of all, distract — even as so many Americans reel from the ravages of disease and unemployment.” — Editorial, Washington Post
The arc of history is always marked by single events that become major turning points
“There are moments when the crushing weight of history comes crashing down on one person in a single moment. In that moment, such a person becomes a symbol of something much larger. George Floyd is now one of those people.” — Chauncey DeVega, Salon
Police violence carries an extra weight in Minneapolis
“In the past five years, the Twin Cities area has seen three other controversial police shootings. ... Like the COVID cases that emerged in Seattle at the beginning of the year, Minneapolis is a study in the importance of foresight and planning, and an example of what happens when neither of those things occurs.” — Jelani Cobb, New Yorker
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