George Floyd’s killing has opened the wounds of centuries of American racism

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Protesters rally on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on May 30. | Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests, explained.

The death of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has sparked protests across the country. It has reignited a centuries-long conversation around racism in America and the horrendous ways black people are often treated by police. And it came amid a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting people of color.

On May 25, Floyd, who had recently lost his job as a restaurant bouncer due to coronavirus-related closures, died after being pinned down under a police officer’s knee for several minutes. That officer, Derek Chauvin, ignored Floyd’s pleas of distress as three other officers looked on and bystanders begged Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck.

A video taken by a bystander and posted online spread quickly on social media. It shows that by the time Chauvin stopped holding Floyd down, he was silent and motionless. According to a criminal complaint filed against Chauvin, an officer on the scene checked for Floyd’s pulse before Chauvin removed his knee and could not find it. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Chauvin and the three other officers involved in the incident were fired on Tuesday, and on Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.


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Protesters gather in Harlem in New York City on May 30.

The incident has rightly prompted outrage across the country, and thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Minneapolis — and in cities across America. While many of these protests have been peaceful, some have turned violent, with police clashes, burning buildings, and looting.

The protests have been focused on policing, but come during a 2020 that has been acutely painful for people of color. The coronavirus crisis has disproportionately affected black and Latino Americans, who have become sick and died of Covid-19 at higher rates than whites. The economic turmoil brought on by stay-at-home measures has also hit people of color especially hard — they’ve lost more jobs, and they were less likely to be financially stable in the first place.

Add to that a cascade of headlines of black Americans whose lives have been cut short by white violence and by police in recent weeks — Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, most recently, Floyd. As Americans were grappling with these tragic headlines, a video went viral of a white woman feigning her life was being threatened by a black man bird-watching in New York’s Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog. It was a reminder that beyond concerns over state violence, systematic racism creates potentially dangerous situations for black Americans doing even the most mundane things.

The protests spawned by the deaths of Floyd and others are hardly a new development in the United States — the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and countless others have led to significant public outcry in recent years. Four years before Floyd’s fatal arrest in Minneapolis, Philando Castile was shot to death during a traffic stop in a nearby Minnesota suburb. Floyd told the officer who kept his knee on his neck, “I can’t breathe,” echoing the words of Eric Garner who died after being held in a chokehold in a police encounter in New York in 2014.

If it feels like we’ve seen this crisis before, it’s because we have. And still so many things haven’t changed.

Floyd died on a Monday; Chauvin was charged the following Friday

Floyd grew up in Houston and moved to Minneapolis in 2014 to look for work, according to CBS Minnesota. He got a position as a security guard at a Salvation Army store downtown, and then later began to work two jobs as a truck driver and a bouncer. He had a 6-year-old daughter who still lives in Houston with her mother. In the weeks before his death, he’d been laid off due to Minnesota’s stay-at-home order.

Vox’s Catherine Kim explained the circumstances of his May 25 encounter with police following a purchase at a convenience store and, ultimately, his death, as shown by video footage captured of the incident:

Although the video doesn’t capture the moments leading to the arrest, the Minneapolis Police Department said they were responding to a call that a man was trying to use a $20 counterfeit bill, according to the Star Tribune. In a statement, the police department said officers arrived at the scene to find Floyd — who matched the description of the suspect — sitting on a car and appearing to be intoxicated. They added that Floyd physically resisted the police and seemed to be “suffering medical distress,” which is why they had called for an ambulance.

The police’s excessive use of force seemingly has no excuse: The department does not permit the technique that was used to pin Floyd’s head to the ground, according to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

The four officers involved were fired on Tuesday, May 26, and the next day, Mayor Frey called for Chauvin to face criminal charges. Local officials on Thursday said they were investigating Floyd’s death “as expeditiously, as thoroughly, and as completely as justice demands” and asked for patience from the public. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, and the Justice Department said it would investigate Floyd’s death as well. Chauvin’s wife has filed for divorce, and his bail has been set at $500,000.

The day the officers involved were fired, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis said in a statement that all video of the incident should be reviewed, and called for waiting on the medical examiner’s report. “Officers’ actions and training protocol will be carefully examined after the officers have provided their statements,” the federation said.

According to the criminal complaint against Chauvin released on Friday, Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds during which Floyd was “non-responsive.” Officer J.A. Keung — another of the four officers fired tried to find Floyd’s pulse shortly after he became unresponsive, and could not.

The county medical examiner’s preliminary autopsy findings say there were “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation” and said that the “combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions, and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.” An independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family determined that he died of asphyxiation because of neck and back compression that cut off blood flow to his brain.

Whether the other officers involved will face charges is unclear. On Sunday, George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon said the other officers should also be in jail. “They’re at home right now sleeping in their bed, relaxing,” he said. “[Chauvin’s] in jail, he’s only one. The other three need to be in there. My brother — he’s in the morgue. That’s not right. I want justice now. He deserves that.”

The network then connected him with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo who was speaking to reporter Sara Snider at a protest. She asked him whether the other officers would be arrested.

“Being silent or not intervening — to me, you’re complicit. So I don’t see a level of distinction any different,” Arradondo said. “So obviously the charging and those decisions will have to come through our county attorney’s office. Certainly, the FBI is investigating that. But to the Floyd family, I want you to know that my decision to fire all four officers was not based on some sort of hierarchy. Mr. Floyd died in our hands.”

The reaction to Floyd’s death has been massive

The public reaction to Floyd’s death has been swift and enormous.

Politicians, celebrities, athletes, and multiple other public figures have spoken out. Former President Barack Obama released a lengthy statement calling for the country to work for a “new normal” for black Americans. “This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America,” he wrote. He also released a lengthy post on Medium about the way forward.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called the moment a “national crisis” and one that necessitates “leadership that will bring everyone to the table so we can take measures to root out systemic racism.” President Donald Trump expressed his condolences to Floyd’s family and said he spoke with them.

Even members of law enforcement spoke out condemning the circumstances in which Floyd was killed. “To be honest with you, it was very difficult to watch,” Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith told local news outlet WBRC. He continued, “It degrades the trust in all law enforcement, not just one area. When things like this happen, it spreads throughout the country. It makes all of us go back and check our relationships and make sure we are doing things the right way.”

Protests have been ignited in Minneapolis — and across the country — as people express their outrage not only about Floyd’s death, but about the underlying racism and inequality that renders being black in America dangerous, particularly at the hands of police.

Minneapolis has seen days of unrest. There have been a number of peaceful protests, but some businesses there have been looted and vandalized, and police stations and other buildings burned down. Demonstrations have become increasingly volatile as local officials have asked the public for peace. The governor called for the full mobilization of the Minnesota National Guard.


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Demonstrators protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Los Angeles on May 29.

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Police in riot gear met protesters with force in Atlanta on May 29.

Uprisings have also spread across the country. On Friday, protests in Atlanta grew tense and violent — cars were set ablaze, and windows at the CNN building were smashed in. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms pleaded with protesters for calm: “If you care about this city, then go home,” she said at a press conference.

Rapper Killer Mike, in a speech at the same press conference, struck a similar tone. “I am duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn down your own house for anger with an enemy,” he said.

Protesters and police also clashed in Brooklyn on Friday evening and over the weekend. Cars were set on fire and windshields were smashed, and both protesters and police were harmed. According to ABC 7, there were more than 200 arrests reported on Friday alone. Some disturbing videos emerged online of the evening, including one of an officer pushing a woman to the ground and another of a police car door hitting a protester.

In San Jose, California, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and dozens of cities across the country, protests and arrests are taking place. Crowds of protesters have gathered outside of the White House as well. Police and even some protesters have targeted journalists covering the demonstrations.

Some of the details of the protests have been a little bit murky, including whether some protesters who destroyed property traveled from other areas. There has been some suggestion that white supremacists or cartels may be involved, but that hasn’t been confirmed.

“Let’s be very clear, the situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” Walz said on Saturday.


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People begin cleaning up the sidewalks outside a burned Walgreens store in Minneapolis on May 30.

New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who took part in the Brooklyn, New York, protests on Friday, noted he saw “non-black allies in particular” escalating the situation. “That decision should not be yours to make,” he warned. He also spoke out about the “heavy police presence” at the outset of the protests on Friday, before anyone was outside. “We are dealing with people who are grieving and who are angry. The response to that cannot be a show of force,” he said.

Some states have mobilized the National Guard to respond, and mayors have enacted curfews to try to tamp down demonstrations. It is not clear how effective these will be at stemming the protests — a Friday night curfew in Minneapolis was ignored by many, for example.

President Trump isn’t exactly helping the situation. Overnight on Thursday, Trump tweeted out an apparent threat to protesters declaring, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” mirroring language used by segregationist law enforcement officials during the civil rights era. In the same tweet, the president called demonstrators “THUGS.” Twitter put a warning on the tweet saying it glorifies violence, fueling the fire of the president’s battle with the social media platform.

Trump later walked back the tweet, saying he was trying to warn that looting could lead to shootings because it intensifies the situation.

Into the weekend, the president weighed in online on the protests, suggesting they’re driven by antifascists and the “Radical Left,” and lashing out at CNN for its coverage of the demonstrations. He also commended the Secret Service for protecting him from White House protests — and suggested Saturday night should be “MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE.” He has blamed demonstrations on ANTIFA and sought to cast protesters as terrorists, in a call with governors on Monday urging “retribution” and saying the country is perceived as “weak.”

This isn’t about the protests, it’s about what the protests are about

Beyond the debates about the tactics demonstrators are using and who is and isn’t involved, there is a much deeper issue here that must remain in focus: the way black people are treated in the United States.

As Vox’s Dylan Scott put it, violent protests aren’t the story right now, police violence is:

Of course the protests are about George Floyd’s death. Political leaders fear violence at the protests — and any destruction of property or bodily harm is, of course, worrisome — but their concerns actually demonstrate the fundamental asymmetry that the protesters are pushing back against. The state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, and it is often directed at young black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice — the list goes on. When they die, the police officers responsible too frequently face no repercussions because they are protected by the law. If the men who killed George Floyd go to prison for their actions, they will be exceptions that prove that longstanding rule.

As Scott lays out, there are countless data points on how black Americans are targeted and mistreated by law enforcement. Black men have 1 in 1,000 odds of being killed by the police. Black people are twice as likely as whites to be pulled over by police, and they’re likelier to be searched. When they’re murdered, their murders are less likely to be solved. They’re sent to prison more often, and they are given longer prison sentences.

And for black Americans, these aren’t data points — they are real and lived situations each and every day.

And racial disparities are not just limited to criminal justice. Inequities are present in so many aspects of American life. Just look at the coronavirus crisis: The disease is disproportionately sickening and killing people of color, and it’s hitting in areas where minorities live harder. That’s true in Minnesota, where Floyd lived. Women of color are disproportionately essential workers who are putting themselves at risk, often for low-paid jobs with no health insurance. Black and Hispanic people are likelier to be laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. That’s what happened to Floyd.

In the flurry of news around the protests of Floyd’s death, on top of everything else, it can be easy to lose sight of the real problem: The centuries of racism in the bedrock of American society continue to do enormous damage. And that damage is borne in large part by black Americans.


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