Protesting the George Floyd killing: A moment or a movement?
‘It feels like we’re on the cusp of something’
THE BURST OF protests across the country following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer are demanding dramatic reform of policing practices. But are we on the verge of seismic change from a movement unleashed by his killing, or witnessing a brush fire of dissent that will soon only smolder and then go out?
People have taken to the streets throughout US history seeking a “redress of grievances,” as provided for by the First Amendment. Many such moments end up fading away without appearing to be catalysts of great change. But sometimes a groundswell of sustained protest forces a major reckoning, such as the Voting Rights Act and other measures adopted under the pressure of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
With no sign yet of any let up in the current protests, growing anger at police violence against blacks has combined with the angst and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and a president intent on promoting conflict and division, not easing them, to create “a perfect avalanche,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. “Everything conspires to raise the temperature,” said Gitlin, an early president of the radical activist group Students for a Democratic Society and author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
Though Gitlin says there are echoes of the upheaval of the 1960s in today’s protests, he said it’s hard to know in the midst of events where they will land in history. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of something, but I’m not sure what we’re on the cusp of,” he said.
Former president Barack Obama credited the Black Lives Matter movement with laying the groundwork for the mass demonstrations now taking place. In an online town hall last week on police violence with young black activists, he invoked Martin Luther King’s hopeful claim that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It doesn’t do so on its own, Obama said. “We bend it,” he said. “All of you have bent it over the last four, five, six, 10 years, and we are seeing the fruits of those labors in the degree of awareness that is out there.”
Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan, said despite the long, aching history of violence against blacks, certain moments seem to “hit a collective nerve,” pointing to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, widely seen as a pivotal moment in the launch of the civil rights movement.
What’s hard to shake from the video showing police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes is his calm demeanor, which appears no different than if he had been writing a parking ticket. It seemed to recall Hannah Arendt’s controversial description of what she witnessed in Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution: the banality of evil.
David Gergen, who served as an advisor to four US presidents, calls Floyd’s death “a naked moment when you see through the fog the essence of a problem.” He likened it to public safety commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs and fire hoses in 1963 on civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama, or the shooting of unarmed students by National Guard soldiers 50 years ago at Kent State University.
“When you saw a murder committed right in front of your eyes based on race,” Gergen said of the Floyd killing, “you can’t help but feel, my God, there’s an evil among these police. And three of them stood there and didn’t stop him.”
Unlike earlier fights for voting rights, school desegregation, or equal access to public accommodations, today’s protests — telegraphed in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement itself — are centered are primal questions of life and death, a grim reality that makes it easy to question the progress from those past struggles.
Gergen said finding a positive way forward feels particularly challenging with such a divisive figure in the White House. “What we’re seeing from Trump now is what we might’ve expected from a George Wallace had he been elected president,” he said. Trump is taking a page from Richard Nixon “as the president of law and order,” said Gergen. “He’s race-baiting. Everyone knows what’s going on.”
Trump’s own former defense secretary, General Jim Mattis, declared the president singularly unfit for the moment in a remarkable rebuke last week in The Atlantic. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis said. “Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
For all the ways Nixon “was a behind-the-scenes racist and a criminal himself, the structures of government around him and the social milieu in which he operated served as a check on those more base impulses he felt personally,” said Thompson, the University of Michigan professor, who won the Pulitzer Prize in history three years ago for Blood in the Water, a history of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. “Trump has succeeded in just shattering that social compact and frayed the social fabric in this country, and so if he is still in the White House [next year], I don’t know what that means. One would imagine that it would not be pretty.”
“This is the first time in a while I went back and read Yeats again about whether the center can hold,” said Gergen, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I think it’s more ominous than what we faced in ‘68,” he said of the year Martin Luther King’s assassination set off riots in many US cities, Robert Kennedy was gunned down, and the Democratic National Convention disintegrated into mayhem in the streets of Chicago.
While Gergen is worried, Obama voiced a very different sentiment in Wednesday’s town hall. The young activist energy that is blossoming, he said, “makes me feel optimistic.”
Obama, who was born in 1961, said although he was young during the discord of the 60s, “I know enough about that history to say there is something different here.” He said the protests in recent days have included a far broader cross-section of the population than the battles for civil rights of the 1960s.
“People who traditionally don’t find themselves engaged in social protest feel the need to do something, they feel outraged,” said Power-Greene, the Clark University historian.
The question now is whether the protests that have sprung up in communities across the country will continue, and what do they mean for concrete policy change and engagement with the political order.
Though he spent 35 years in the Massachusetts House, Rushing was an organizer before that, in the early 1960s, with the Congress of Racial Equality. He said it would be a mistake to abandon protest and focus solely on specific policy changes and legislation.
“You really have to stay out in the street,” said Rushing. “If this ends next week, the whole thing is over, you’ve lost the moment. I don’t think there’s anybody in white leadership that’s paying attention to this except that it’s out in the street.”
Obama, the one-time Chicago community organizer, seemed to agree. “Just remember: This country was founded on protest,” he said in last week’s virtual town hall. “It is called the American Revolution. And every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable.”
Obama rejected the idea of having to choose between protest and traditional political engagement. There’s been a lot of talk since Floyd’s death “about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action,” he said. “This is not an either/or. This is a both/and. To bring about real change we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented and [that] we can monitor.”
He pointed out that a lot of the change in policing will have to happen at the local level, driven by municipal leaders and prosecutors who are elected by voters.
Gitlin, the Columbia professor and 1960s student leader who is now 77, said he sees some hope for that kind of dual focus and pointed to a national effort called the Movement Voter Project, an organizing drive that seeks to mobilize greater voter participation without dampening the activist energy that sends people into the streets. He cited as an example the huge women’s marches coinciding with Trump’s inauguration, which Gitlin said fed directly into the big gains Democrats made in recapturing the House in the 2018 midterm election.As for whether the current protests will be sustained and generate broad change, Gitlin said, “I’m sort of guardedly optimistic with a whole bunch of asterisks.”
“It is an existential kind of moment we are at. Are we going to let this kind of slide by or see this as a national opportunity?” asked Rushing. His sense is that the arc is bending the right way. “I don’t know any activists who are not optimistic about what’s going on,” he said.