On 25 May 2020, police in Minneapolis were called to a store after a man named George Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit note to buy some cigarettes. In the ensuing arrest, Derek Chauvin, a police officer, pinned Floyd to the ground, pressing his knee on the man’s neck for at least nine minutes. Floyd screamed out for his mother. “I can’t breathe,” he said, before he died.
A teenage girl, Darnella Frazier, filmed the killing on her phone, and soon the country, and the world, saw what happened. In Minneapolis, and in cities across the US, protests amassed against police brutality. Some were peaceful. Some weren’t – windows were smashed, cars torched and buildings ransacked. “Let my building burn,” declared Ruhel Islam, the owner of a restaurant in Minnesota that protesters set alight. “Justice needs to be served.”
The police, armed with weapons and tactical gear appropriate for fighting a low-intensity war, responded with tear gas, doused protesters with pepper spray, and beat them with truncheons. Officials enforced city-wide curfews.
“You don’t need to protest,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said in June, addressing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. “You won. You accomplished your goal. Society says, you’re right, the police need systemic reform.” But the protesters weren’t calling for reform – some of them wanted to defund the police, redistribute the money, and reimagine public safety.
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser painted the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on a street near the White House. The DC chapter of BLM painted “= defund the police’’ next to it. But the operating budget for the city’s police department in fact increased by $8m in 2021. Indeed, across the US the percentage of general expenditures spent on law enforcement has gone up. Although Minneapolis announced it would disband its police department, Mayor Jacob Frey recently unveiled a plan to rebuild the city’s police staffing, while some council members have distanced themselves from their initial support for the idea. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once warned his son, who is black, to be careful around law enforcement, happily defended the police after footage caught an NYPD squad car driving into a crowd of protesters in May 2020.
America’s military power abroad is undisputed. The murder of Floyd was that power turned in on itself, along with a domestic history of state violence against black people, a testament to the imperial licence with which the police act towards black citizens. The events of last year – “from single cruelty to American crisis”, as Tobi Haslett wrote in a celebrated n+1 essay on the riots – also exposed the inequality between those we shoot to punish and those we do not.
In August, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot and injured a young black man named Jacob Blake. There were protests. Local militia groups came out, ostensibly in the name of protecting private property. Heeding their call, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, drove across state lines from Illinois and shot three protesters, killing two and wounding the other. He turned himself in the next morning and is now on trial. Contrast this with the ease with which black people are killed by police, such as 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, shot in her home in March 2020; none of the officers involved have been charged for her death.
Chauvin was put on trial, and in April was found guilty of murdering Floyd. On 11 April, close to where the trial was taking place, police pulled over a black man named Daunte Wright for having an expired driver’s registration. They shot and killed him. Within minutes of the verdict against Chauvin being announced on 20 April, a girl named Ma’Kiah Bryant was also shot and killed by police. She was 16 years old.
Some said justice was served by the Chauvin verdict. Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representative, thanked George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. “Your name,” she said, “will always be synonymous with justice.” But Floyd did not sacrifice himself. He was murdered.
The American republic cannot endure on legal justice alone; it also requires social justice. Chauvin’s crime should never have been so grimly predictable, and many Americans should not be so comfortable living in a system in which harassment, murder and lynching are the irrevocable conditions of the black experience.
Many commentators in the US said that the violence in Kenosha and the calls to defund the police would fatally undermine Joe Biden’s chances of beating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. But they didn’t. Indeed, Biden was quite fond of quoting George Floyd’s daughter, who told him, “Daddy changed the world”.
Floyd’s death did change some things. It galvanised people to come out onto the streets, it made politicians reflect (if only temporarily) on America’s unjust criminal justice system and the toll it takes on black America. While the protests did not change common attitudes on police funding, they did make Americans more sceptical about whether police officers used proportionate force and whether they treated people equally regardless of race, and more interested in holding officers accountable. Books with titles like Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, became bestsellers.
But after all the books sold, all the politicians’ statements made, and all the bromides aired about the virtues of an imperfect union, what has really changed in America a year after George Floyd died? A murder such as his could easily happen tomorrow. How would we react, and what would we change when it does? These are questions upon which the future stability of the republic may well rest.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism