With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Two Years After George Floyd: What Next?

“SOMETHING IS HAPPENING,” I thought, as I watched coverage of hundreds of people flood the Minneapolis streets in response to the murder of George Floyd. It was three days after his death on May 25, 2020, and two days after widespread circulation of a bystander’s video showing police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. On the evening of the 28th, protesters seized control of the Third Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department and set it on fire. Before the end of the week, the governor of Minnesota activated the National Guard. As someone who studies histories of anti-racist protest and social movements, I knew there had been similar explosions of rage in American cities in the 1960s. As someone who has tried to organize opposition to police violence, I had never seen anything like it. I had never witnessed such a direct attack on a symbol of police power.

Something was happening. By June 6, protests had spread to more than five hundred cities and towns across the country. About half a million people were in the streets that day, according to estimates by the New York Times. Protests continued that summer throughout the country—in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Louisville, Phoenix, and in Columbus, Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan; and even smaller towns such as Auburn, Alabama (where I lived at the time), and my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Polls suggested between fifteen million and twenty-six million people had joined the protests. The Times reported these figures in July under the headline “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.”

It had been a tough spring. In addition to living in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, I seethed at the news: the lynching of twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in February, Amy Cooper threatening to call the police on birder Christian Cooper in Manhattan the same day Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, and revelations about the Louisville Police Department’s killing of twenty-six-year-old ER technician Breonna Taylor. It all stirred the secondary trauma and psychic pain that accompanies living as a Black man in a nation that seemed unwilling to reckon with its racist past.

Now, a few years after participating in frustrated efforts in Ann Arbor to hold the local police department and the city’s elected officials accountable for the November 2014 killing of forty-year-old Aura Rosser, I truly felt anti-racist activists and organizers, and the Movement for Black Lives generally, had taken a leap forward. The protests represented the greatest collective instance of political education around racist police violence of my lifetime. The uprising led to more non-Black Americans engaging in protests and inspired many—including vast numbers of young, white suburbanites—to learn more about the United States’ histories of racism and colonialism.

And, as demonstrations continued, the protesters took wider aim at the vestiges of structural racism. They started pulling down Confederate monuments and statues of reviled historical figures. Recalling the days of the Occupy Movement, demonstrators in Louisville and Columbus appropriated public spaces to set up bases for protest and organizing. Louisville protesters also put up a memorial in honor of Breonna Taylor. In Seattle, radical activists took the Occupy tactic the furthest by establishing a police-free autonomous zone, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.

Minneapolis activists’ calls to “defund the police” announced the agenda of the second wave of Black Lives Matter protests. In June 2020, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to replace the police department with a more “holistic” system of public safety. Demanding cuts to police budgets, and even calls to abolish law enforcement institutions, were not new. But the new political moment allowed people to hear these calls. Suddenly one could see signs with “defund the police” at protests in cities throughout the country. Television pundits, columnists, and public officials debated the merits of the demand. Even the reliably center-right New York Times published an argument by organizer Mariame Kaba that affirmed, “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.”

With the winds of change swirling, corporations and public officials scrambled to declare solidarity with the protests, often to the consternation of more radical grassroots activists. Corporations such as Apple and Intel threw millions of dollars at initiatives to address racial inequality, while dozens of institutions of higher education, such as Brown, Northwestern, and the University of Alabama, released statements condemning racism. Local leaders emblazoned “Black Lives Matter” on city streets, and some went so far as to pursue cuts to police budgets, even if they were meager and temporary. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress drew up the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would use federal funding to encourage police departments to end the use of chokeholds and carotid holds, as well as provide resources to law enforcement agencies for training and to community groups exploring alternative approaches to policing.

Then came the backlash.

Read entire article at The Baffler