Why the death of George Floyd sparked a new wave of protests

Police brutality and endemic racism is not a Minnesotan problem; it’s an American problem. 

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One week ago today (25 May), George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A grocery store employee called the police after Floyd tried to pay with what was believed to be a counterfeit $20 bill. For this, a police officer held a handcuffed Floyd down on the ground, with his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, until Floyd stopped breathing. (“I can’t breathe,” he warned. “Don’t kill me.”) 

We know that this is what happened in no small part because a 17-year-old by the name of Darnella Frazier recorded the moment, and the video of Floyd’s killing went viral. Black death and pain should not need to be caught on camera to be believed or cared about; too often, however, that is what happens. Consider, for example, that in March a young woman named Breonna Taylor was shot by the police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky. There was no video for people to watch or share. Over two months later, people are still calling for justice.

Floyd was killed on a Monday. On that same day, a white woman called Amy Cooper threatened to call the police over an avid bird watcher named Christian Cooper (no relation) because he, a black man, politely asked her to put her dog back on its leash. There, too, there was a video. It, too, went viral. At first, there seemed to be far greater attention paid in mainstream and social media, and in comment pieces, to the case of Cooper, which could have resulted in a man’s death, than the case of Floyd, which did. Perhaps this is why Amy Cooper got her comeuppance almost immediately; she lost both her job and her dog. 

But Floyd’s killing didn’t drop out of the public eye. People kept sharing that video. And there were more videos, too, because people in Minneapolis kept protesting. This was not a one-off or one bad cop (though he did have 17 complaints against him). This was not the first black man to die at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in recent years. And eventually those images and those videos went viral too. 

By Thursday, Americans were debating whether images and videos of people “looting” a Target store discredited the protests against the killing of Floyd. So, too, were they sharing links to the Minneapolis Freedom Fund, sending money for bail to those arrested while protesting against Floyd’s killing. Eventually, the fund received so much money that activists asked for donations to be redirected. On Friday, the officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. That cannot be divorced from the national attention, the virality, that Minneapolis attracted. But that national attention can, in turn, not be divorced from relentless protest.

Similarly, what happened on the next three nights – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – cannot be separated from the stage already set in the United States of America. People did not take to the streets in New York, Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and abroad (London, Berlin and Copenhagen) because of social media, but because what they saw on social media – and traditional media, too – resonated with them. Police brutality and lack of accountability is not a Minnesotan problem; it’s an American problem – and a global one. Racism and systematic racial inequities exist in every state in the country. It is about justice for George Floyd, yes, but it’s also about justice denied every day across the US. And it’s happening in a country that’s already full of anger and grief, with over 100,000 people dead from Covid-19 and 40 million (14.7 per cent) unemployed, the highest level since the Great Depression. 

And each protest contained within it some video or picture that was bound to attract national attention. A police officer in New York threw a young woman to the ground with both hands; elsewhere in the city, a police officer drove a car into protesters. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, like the Minneapolis Freedom Fund, received so much money that they asked people to spend elsewhere. A photojournalist in Minneapolis was blinded in one eye by an officer’s rubber bullet. A black congresswoman was pepper-sprayed in Columbus, Ohio. The protests against police violence were met with police violence, stories of which spread and begot more protests and more violence. 

The protests started because an act was caught on camera in conditions against which people were ready to push back. They spread, and will continue to spread, for the same reason. At some point, they will probably stop. At that point, either changes will be made to address police brutality and promote true racial equality, or they won’t. If they aren’t, all of this will happen again. A country just waiting for its next violent, viral moment.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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