When future historians will look at the protests that took place in the aftermath of George Floyd’s assassination they will be astonished by the institutional reaction: the one from the White House that seemed to emerge from a rightwing conspiracy playbook, the one from Congress, as well as those of municipalities, governors and, yes, even some Police Departments. A hearing on police behavior held by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives took place fifteen days after George Floyd’s killing. This has not been the case for previous incidents. Changing some state and local rules for policing (NY governor Cuomo signed a series of bills), a national debate, a powerful shift in public opinion perception are the first positive results of this 2020 movement. Floyd’s brother, Philonise, civil rights activists and police officials willing to implement reforms – such as the Houston police chief, Art Acevedo, a Cuban refugee and a Republican – have all testified in front of the Judiciary Committee addressing the issue of police reform. Yes, Democrats hold the majority in the House, and yes, this is an election year and African American mobilization is crucial for Biden’s party, nonetheless such an institutional response has never been so rapid. Such a discussion did not happen in August 2014 when Michael Brown was killed or even a few months later, in November, when the policeman who shot him was not indicted.
If we can trust polls conducted during an emotional moment, even white public opinion seems to acknowledge that Police Departments across the US do not treat Black, brown and white people in the same way. Sixty nine percent of Americans say the death of George Floyd reflects a broader problem, compared with 29 percent who say it was an isolated incident. In 2014, after Brown’s death, only 43 percent of the sample believed police shootings reflected a broader problem and 51 percent said they were isolated incidents.
The protests that took place in all fifty States and drove also thousands of white people on the streets also appear to have bipartisan support — 87 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans say they support the demonstrations. Corporations and sport organizations seem to have read those polls, as we have seen almost every important brand stepping up and saying nice words about Black Lives Matter (BLM) – the NFL acknowledging that “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier” and encourage speaking-out is a (sort of) vindication for Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the protests among sport’s celebrities in 2014 and has been left without a contract since then.
This might be a historical tipping point comparable to the one that led to the approval of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. At that time many improvements were made but no legislation was passed to address the issue of police violence in Black communities. In 2020, the idea that Black Lives Matter has become more than a slogan used by Black activists and young, left-wing white militants, society as a whole seems to now care about the issue. How did this happen? The White House reaction seemed to strengthen the mobilization: tweeting about Antifa terrorists, scum and mob, Donald Trump did not help his cause, as it did the controversy around the military bases named after Confederacy generals has not helped the Republican party more generally.
The habit of using cellphone cameras as a tool to document incidents involving police is also a factor: if it were not for cameras, we would only have the police’s version of Floyd’s assassination versus that of the witnesses. History tells us that it is usually the police’s story that prosecutors tend to believe. A week of videos showing police brutality in full display against non-violent demonstrators – often white demonstrators – has shocked public opinion.
Another reason for the success of the movement’s most recent iteration might also be the impact of the Coronavirus. As Opal Tometi, founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, together with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, said to the New Yorker: “My belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on”. Tometi refers to the fact that this protest is coming after weeks of lockdown and the impact that the epidemic has had on Black communities.
Things do not happen only because a video goes viral. What has changed during these years is the way protests are organized. Since 2014 there have been organizers and militants working relentlessly, waiting for this moment, not only BLM, but countless groups and organizations big and small had joined the umbrella network, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) by the end of 2014. Since then the work of these activists was out of view of cameras and focused mainly in communities. They obtained results in cities, they connected with each other, they got access to the media. Many vocal Black intellectuals and sport’s celebrities spoke about the issues that BLM was trying to bring to the attention of American society on a larger scale. Seminars and conferences for organizers and black citizens were held, covering topics like media awareness and other training sessions. Take this conference program as one example of the work led by Assatta’s Daughters in Chicago, founded two years ago, which is a training and political education program for teenagers..
This organizing and training did not lead to the birth of strong national leaders but to a decentralized grassroots network: you don’t find names or pictures of individuals on the websites of these groups. M4BL has what it calls a “4-year plan” that aims at creating grassroots localized self-government in black communities, aimed at making policy recommendations, building a left-oriented electoral coalition that involves artists and communicators as a tool to spread the message. As Tometi puts it: «It has always been decentralized. We have tried various structures, but we have always said the power goes on in the local chapter because they know what is going on, and they are the ones familiar with the terrain. (…) I am getting e-mails where people are trying to set up chapters again, so there is always momentum, and ebbs and flows, and there is especially momentum when there is a tragedy like the ones we have witnessed in recent times. People want to create a chapter and rise up».
Shaping an effective movement
This is, at the same time, both already seen and new. Local involvement and self-reliance have always been central to radical Black activism – the Black Panthers themselves built their strength through community welfare and local organizing. Not all chapters work on the same themes: in Minneapolis the focus is on police brutality, while in Flint the poisonous water is still the core issue. In Chicago, My Block, My Hood, My City, which normally provides “underprivileged youth with an awareness of the world and opportunities beyond their neighborhood through meetings, tours, encounters with artists and visits to museums” is now engaged in collecting funds for small businesses that were looted during the first days of the unrest in the Windy City and helps provide elderly Black residents with sanitizer, health supplements, toiletries, and food.
The absence of strong leaders – though young charismatic figures are emerging at the local level – seems to be a new key difference with respect to the past. The strong presence of women in local and national groups seems also to be keeping the movement more even-keeled: this is a movement that promotes leftist ideas, but also seems to be less idealistic than past iterations that also saw young white people join the fight for Black rights, certainly more than in the Civil Rights movement from ’68 to ’71. As Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism at Columbia University and has written on movements in the Sixties, put to the New York Times: “I see strong signs of the new activists getting serious about registering voters, doing local politics, then turning to turnout in the fall. They want laws to change. They want policies changed”.
Fear of retaliation and the vulnerability of a movement without a clear hierarchic structure has also created the need to generate an informal web of voluntary medics, lawyers, and observers. The mobilization of women, it is worth noticing, has marked most of the political protests held during the Trump administration.
The fluidity of the movement can also be linked to the use of social networks by young activists, which seem to be in the majority (another novelty of these more recent protests): these tools allow organization without a central figure: demonstrations can be called by individuals. Not being an organization, however, also means not having the institutional tools to defend yourself: in 2014 the police did infiltrate BLM and this is why, in 2020, groups such as Freedom March NYC organizes trainings to “center the message, de-escalate situations that may occur, and equip [protesters] with resources to push policy reform” and helps “supply those on the frontlines with face masks, goggles, water, etc., equipment (megaphones, flyers, etc.), and travel”. The organization is pictured as a service tool and not as a political, tactical and strategic head of the movement. The group is also engaged in voter registration in a year in which voters’ rights might be at risk more than ever before.
Challenging public perceptions
What will all this activism and networking bring? It is difficult to say, but as previously mentioned, this time there are clear differences. Is it because American society as a whole reacted to what it saw in George Floyd’s death? Is it because young white people finally see their privilege as something unfairly gained?
In his book, How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibrham X Kendi, writes about “feelings advocacy” or shifts in public opinion that might mainly be emotional, and emotions tend to fade. When white people see a shocking video they donate money to a cause, march for it, and read books about the issue. These actions will soothe the individual’s guilt but will not change the broader issue. Being angry at an evil police officer murdering an innocent man is different than addressing larger issues such as inequality or access to healthcare. The shift in polls might be temporary, the outcome of an emotional reaction and public opinion might change again once decisions on policing and other steps to reduce racial inequalities in the US are discussed in more detail. Only the future can tell us if 2020 will bring meaningful, structural change or will just remain as some kind of sugar coating to make an indigestible cake look good.
Photo: Jim Watson / AFP
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