What is the goal of a protest? Is it to resist the status quo? Is it to force changes to specific policies? Is it to raise national awareness? Against any of those objectives, the ongoing protests in the US opposing police brutality towards black Americans are working.
The protests started in Minneapolis on 26 May, the day after a police officer killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Demonstrations then spread across the country. In many cases, they were peaceful; in some, they were violent. This led to warnings from commentators on both the liberal left and Republican right that violence undermines peaceful protests, and that real political change comes from voting, rather than from direct action.
Such arguments have already been disproved. Derek Chauvin, the police officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck, was charged with murder in the second degree. The three other officers who assisted Chauvin have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Police officers accused of assaulting or killing black people in the US are seldom punished. So it seems unlikely that Chauvin and his colleagues would have faced such swift justice had the killing not been filmed and had people not taken to the streets with the tenacity and persistence that they did.
Then, on 7 June, news broke that the Minneapolis City Council was to disband the police department. “Here in Minneapolis and in cities across the United States it is clear that our existing system of policing and public safety is not keeping our communities safe,” the city’s council president Lisa Bender said. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed.” The city will now invest in community-led public safety efforts.
It is not just in Minneapolis that change has come as a result of large and sustained political mobilisation. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced on 3 June that he would cut $100m-$150m of the LAPD’s budget; his announcement came after activists protested outside his home. Some California district attorneys have called for a ban on police union donations or endorsements in their campaigns. Meanwhile, over 40 city council candidates in New York City are arguing for the NYPD’s $6bn budget to be reduced by a billion dollars over four years.
But just as significant as police reform is the extent to which the entire US is now bearing witness to police violence.
The widespread adoption of social media from the mid-2000s helped to change the national conversation about police brutality. White Americans could no longer ignore the beatings and execution of people at the hands of officers. Footage of recurrent violence and constitutional disregard – enacted with impunity by those asked to “serve and protect” – was there for all to see on Twitter and Facebook.
But the beatings, deadly chokeholds and the crushing of necks were overwhelmingly being used against black Americans. According to the website “Mapping Police Violence”, which collects information from the country’s “three largest, most comprehensive and impartial databases”, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the US than white people. They are also 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Non-black Americans were watching something happen far away and to somebody else.
Now, though, the whole country is watching as police departments have responded to protests with excessive force. Last week, a 75-year-old white man demonstrating in Buffalo, New York, was shoved to the ground by police officers clearing a square. The police claimed that he had slipped. But the moment had been caught on video, and we all saw it. We have seen the NYPD throw a young woman in Brooklyn to the ground, and a police SUV drive into a crowd of protesters. We watched videos from Philadelphia, where officers beat a group of peaceful protesters, hitting them with batons and pinning them to the floor. We saw a police officer drive a car into a protester in Los Angeles. In Huntsville, Alabama, another policeman was recorded getting out of his car and firing pepper spray at a crowd.
These instances of aggression are now being experienced by people across the country. They are then shared on Twitter and picked up by news agencies such as CNN and NBC, and we watch them.
Acts of police violence are not just happening in one part of the country, and they’re not just happening to rioters and looters (which is not to say that violence excuses police brutality, but that officers have been caught, repeatedly, disturbing the peace, rather than keeping it). They’re happening to people of all ages and races and in all locations.
These protests, and the response of the police, have shown to the whole of the US that black Americans have been telling the truth about police brutality. It should not have taken this, and should not have taken so long, but it’s finally happened. That is the historic achievement of these protests. What is done with that achievement – what particular policies are passed, or how much the police are defunded, or how different parts of the country respond – will not be dictated by protesters or decided on the streets alone. It will require the hard slog of capturing the institutions of state through elections so that policies and laws reflect real justice.
These protests are provoking significant changes that are both tangible and intangible. This doesn’t mean that those who worried about violence undermining the message of Black Lives Matter were ill-intentioned. But it does mean that they were wrong.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt