Last Monday George Floyd lost consciousness after a policeman in Minneapolis smothered him with his knee for nine minutes. The 47-year-old African-American had been arrested after officers received a call about a suspected forgery.
Floyd’s death sparked a social movement that has taken to the streets of the country — and some other cities around the world — denouncing the endogenous racism, race-biased police violence, and inequalities that have become even more visible during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the horrific video of Floyd’s death shocked the world, it is the latest chapter in an inhumane saga of law enforcement killings of people of color, which gave rise to movements like Black Lives Matter, and have been silenced by the news triage in the country.
Until last Monday, the nation seemed to have forgotten the death of teenager Michael Brown in 2014 that sparked the debate on police reform, and which followed the death of Eric Garner who, like Floyd, cried out for his life saying “I can’t breathe.”
Over the past few months, the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of two white men while jogging in Georgia and the death of EMT Breonna Taylor in her own apartment, have been just a few more episodes that have added to the anger of a community tired of abuse.
“What is true about this moment that was also true in 2014 is that these are the symptoms of a centuries-old virus of white supremacy in America,” said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of the Campaign Zero movement against police violence, to The Guardian.
“The expectation that black activists and organizers and writers and leaders alone were going to be able to solve this in six years is as insulting as it is unrealistic.”
“It’s unrealistic because it took us hundreds of years to get into this set of circumstances, and it’s going to take us more than six years to get us out. And it’s insulting because it’s actually the work of non-black people to uproot anti-blackness, and it is the work of white people to dismantle white supremacy, because it directly benefits them.”
The authorities’ initial response to Floyd’s death was to fire the four officers involved in the murder, but the 47-year-old’s family demanded more.
“He didn’t deserve what happened to him,” Floyd’s cousin, Tera Brown, told CNN. “They took a life — they deserve life.”
The echo of that call has been felt in the streets ever since, when protesters began to gather on the streets of Minneapolis on Tuesday chanting “I can’t breathe.”
As prosecutors continued to drag out the arrest and conviction of the officers — especially Derek Chauvin, who can be seen in the video choking Floyd with his knee — the anger in the streets grew, to the point where protesters set fire to the Minneapolis Police Department’s precinct station.
Soon, new spots of protest were springing up in New York, Denver, Phoenix, Columbus, and Louisville, not only to protest Floyd’s unjust death, but that of other African Americans like Breonna Taylor.
By Friday, and thanks to the fire fanned by President Donald Trump on Twitter where he called the protesters “thugs,” the National Guard was deployed in Minneapolis, and hundreds of videos and images of exacerbated police violence were interspersed with speeches and statements by protesters determined to change the status quo.
Activist Tamika Mallory’s speech in Minneapolis, for example, summed up national sentiment:
“This is a coordinated activity happening across this nation, and so we are in a state of emergency. Black people are dying in a state of emergency,” said Mallory, 39, who formerly worked with Al Sharpton‘s National Action Network in New York City.
“We cannot look at this as an isolated incident. The reason buildings are burning are not just for our brother George Floyd,” she said. “They’re burning down because people here in Minnesota are saying to people in New York, to people in California, to people in Memphis, to people across this nation, enough is enough.”
“We are not responsible for the mental illness that has been afflicted upon our people by the American government, institutions, and those people who are in positions of power.”
“I don’t give a damn if they burn down,” Mallory added. “I don’t give a damn if they burn down Target, because Target should be on the streets with us, calling for the justice that our people deserve. Where was AutoZone at the time when Philando Castile was shot in a car, which is what they actually represent?”
Referring to law enforcement officers who are paid by U.S. citizens’ tax dollars, Mallory argued that companies and individuals who are silent against the brutality of Black Americans are just as responsible for the violence happening on the streets.
“So if you are not coming to the people’s defense then do not challenge us when young people and other people who are frustrated and instigated by the people you pay. You are paying instigators to be among our people out there throwing rocks, breaking windows and burning down buildings,” she said.
“And so young people are responding to that. They are enraged. And there’s an easy way to stop it. Arrest the cops. Charge the cops. Charge all the cops. Not just some of them. Not just here in Minneapolis. Charge them in every city across America where our people are being murdered.”
Mallory demanded that elected officials and leaders do their jobs to ensure that America is the free country it claims to be for all Americans and not just an exclusive few.
“It has not been free for Black people and we are tired. Don’t talk to us about looting. Ya’ll are the looters!” Mallory shouted.
“America has looted Black people! America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you.”
“We learned violence from you! So if you want us to do better, then damn it, you do better!”