Every couple of decades, a generation-defining moment happens. It becomes the question that people ask each other years later: “Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?” In the 1960s, it was the assassinations of Kennedy and Dr. King. In the ’80s it was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The 2000s were defined by the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
For the current generation, their moment happened two years ago when news and a horrifying video spread of the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by then-police officer Derek Chauvin as he pressed the life out of Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds. With his knee pressed into Floyd’s back, the officer pinned the 46-year-old man to the ground as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”
An undeniable tragedy and a historic moment
Floyd’s death was tragic and horrific, but it sadly was not unique. In just the years before Floyd’s murder, many stories had spread through protests, news and social media, documenting the unjust killings of Black people by police or vigilantes. Just weeks before Floyd’s murder, the killers of Ahmaud Arbery were finally arrested, and the family of Breonna Taylor filed a civil suit against the Louisville Police Department.
Both were cases that had initially been swept under the rug by local prosecutors in Georgia and Kentucky. And on the same morning that Floyd died, Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper had been threatened with police by an angry white woman in New York’s Central Park in a recorded incident that quickly went viral.
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with no vaccine or effective treatment at the time, virtually all of us were sitting at home, physically cut off from work, friends and even family. With little to do other than read the news or peruse social media, it was the ideal time for stories like Arbery’s murder or events like Cooper’s encounter to go viral.
Even so, Floyd’s murder, recorded by a teenage bystander and uploaded the day it happened, rapidly and uniquely captured the collective consciousness of the country. We watched his life slowly leave his body under the knee of Chauvin and the indifference of the other offices on the scene.
And as the whole country seemed to watch the video that day, an amazing thing happened — we all joined together in collective outrage. Politicians across both sides of the aisle and pundits of all political leanings agreed to the tragedy and injustice of Floyd’s killing. The Black Lives Matter movement resurged, not only in the U.S. but around the world.
The singular demand for justice for Floyd quickly grew to a wide-ranging set of demands for justice for past and present racism, oppression and violence. Elected leaders vowed to seek justice; private corporations pledged to promote racial equity and ordinary people around the country adopted the Black Lives Matter slogan that had been widely condemned and derided in prior years.
The more things changed, the more they've stayed the same
After years — decades, really — of fits at provoking widespread moral outrage over racism and violence and pushing for systemic change, it looked as if a real moment of transformation was beginning. As the country seemed to come together in an increasingly rare moment of unity around the horror and injustice of Floyd’s killing, this moment in the summer of 2020 felt different. But, it wasn’t.
In retrospect, the thought that outrage over Floyd’s murder was going to lead to genuine systemic reform was built on desperate hope and naïveté rather than an objective view of the situation. But, there were some genuine changes. The New York Times reports that 140 police reform or oversight bills passed in 30 states in the months after Floyd’s death. Some of these laws required police body cameras or banned the type of no-knock warrants that led to Taylor’s death.
But most of the changes we saw were symbolic instead of substantive. Statues were removed, but the people who revered the segregationists and enslavers depicted by those statues kept their same desires to return to the good old days and make America great (for them) again. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben stopped embodying syrup and rice, but white people continued to reminisce on how their Black maids had been like one of their family members.
The NFL acknowledged that Black lives — like those of most of its players but few of its coaches and none of its owners — mattered. The league pretended that it hadn’t blackballed Colin Kaepernick for trying to tell them this, even as pro football continued to blackball him anyway. Two years later, Kaepernick still sits at home while lesser quarterbacks take the field and several Black coaches are suing the league, alleging that the policies that seek to diversify head coaching jobs are sham processes that continue to pass over qualified Black coaches.
"Power concedes nothing without a demand"
But imagine that every major sports league had hired a few more Black coaches or even sold a team to some Black multimillionaire over the past two years. Imagine all the offensive caricatures and monuments to racists having been taken down. Imagine every business declaring BLM in their windows, Twitter profiles and HR handbooks.
All of that would not have fixed the systemic racism and disdain for Black lives that killed Floyd, Arbery and Taylor. Those same forces have gone on to kill Daunte Wright, Amir Locke, Walter Hutchins, Patrick Lyoya and so many more, including ten people shopping for groceries in Buffalo this month.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of the failure to actually act after the killing of Floyd was the defeat of the reform act that bears his name. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made promises and pleas to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but it was defeated in the Senate after clearing the House.
Politicians like Biden and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) took turns blaming each other for the failure of the bill. But its failure was not only a setback or a result of a closely divided Congress. It was a manifestation of a system that would make symbolic gestures but balk at substantive reforms. By the way, the same divided Senate that would not pass police reform voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
By now, it is clear that these cosmetic gestures did not lead to true change, much less a systemic overhaul. How could they? I’m reminded of the words that Frederick Douglass once spoke about the long struggle against slavery.
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
I said before that in the end, the moment that followed the murder of Floyd wasn’t any different. That does not mean, however, that this moment wasn’t important. I’ll return to Frederick Douglass, who followed his observation above with advice.
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
As the famed abolitionist indicated, change doesn’t come because those in power start to feel guilty or have a change of heart. It comes when those denied power and justice refuse to accept the status quo any longer and fight — engaging in long, hard struggles. And so Floyd’s horrible murder did not ultimately convince the folks in power that they should finally offer justice to Black America. But his death helped convince us that we cannot stop demanding justice — through our votes, our protests, our purchases and more — until those in power have no choice but to acknowledge that our lives truly matter.