George Floyd: Catalyst for Social Change?
Fear is a powerful motivator for white Americans.
By Phillip | 6/1/20
Race is inherently arbitrary, but has very tangible consequences in America’s political and social system. Humans have been divided into different groups based on superficial characteristics such as skin color, eye shape, hair color, and more, despite the fact that we are all fundamentally the same. With this group identity has come a battle of us vs. them for superiority, which happens with all human groups, from nationality to sporting teams. White Americans have fought to maintain their place at the top of the racial hierarchy since America’s founding and they have succeeded.
Over the past week, racial tensions exploded into massive protests after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer. Derek Chauvin, the officer, had previously received 17 complaints, shot, and fatally shot other suspects, though then prosecutor Amy Klobuchar declined to bring charges against him in favor of a grand jury. Floyd was not a threat to the officer, yet Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as onlookers begged him to relent. Count the seconds: 1 mississippi, 2 mississippi, 3 mississippi, 4 mississippi, 5 mississippi… 526 mississippi.
The rallying cry is “I can’t breathe,” as George Floyd’s words echo Eric Garner’s which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement (along with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman). These protests have a distinctly different feel than others in the past: there is more fury and indignation that nothing has been done about racist actions, some of which are degrading and others which have the power to kill black people. White and rich people, who are the dominant group and only ones able to yield power, are afraid, which means that change might come.
Racial tension has been steadily building for the last decade. Time after time, police shoot young black people, with their whole lives ahead of them, and get away with it. Over and over, so-called “micro aggressions” degrade and stress minorities’ lives. During the current pandemic, black people have had to deal with racism on all fronts. Black Americans have disproportionately been sickened by the Coronavirus due to crowded housing conditions, inability to work from home, lack of access to health care, and stress due to racism. Months passed after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by a white man (while being cornered and trapped by two others), but finally massive outrage led to three charges. In Central Park, Christian Cooper, a black man, asked Amy Cooper, a white woman, to leash her dog. She called the police and accused him of “threatening [her] life.” Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician, was shot in an investigation of two other men who may have been selling drugs and lived far from her. The murder of George Floyd was not a uniquely disturbing case, but rather its normality may have been the shocking realization that inspired many to action. How many black men has America killed that we have two, only six years apart, on video, uttering the exact same phrase when they were being murdered?
The differences between our government’s response to Anti-Lockdown protests and police brutality protests has been stark. When Anti-Lockdown protesters brought guns into the Michigan State House, including high powered assault weapons, there were no repercussions and Donald Trump tweeted his support for liberating certain states (definition of liberate: set (someone) free from a situation, especially imprisonment or slavery, in which their liberty is severely restricted). When mostly unarmed police brutality protesters go to the streets, they are met by threats of bringing in the army and tear gas and rubber bullets. The story for the fearful privileged is overwhelmingly about looting and violence, not the fact that many Americans are willing to be struck by rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas during a pandemic in order to protest injustice.
The vast majority of protesters are peaceful and we still don’t know who the rioters are and what their agenda is. There is also a difference between destroying property in defiance of huge corporations and taking advantage of the chaos to steal from stores for personal profit. Destroying property is against our social contract, but so is state sponsored police killings (Trevor Noah). Why should black Americans follow the rules in a rigged system that perpetuates degradation and despair in black communities? Corporations, billionaires, and pharmaceutical companies have caused huge damages to the American people, and I believe that retaliation against corporations in the name of protest is more justifiable than looting or destroying small businesses. On the other hand, taking advantage of the chaos to get some free Gucci is unacceptable. Whether you think rioting is just or not, the story of property damage should not eclipse the story of damage to our fellow humans.
Non-violent protests may encourage political engagement, but have not achieved the goals of systematic change that are demanded and deserved. Another problem is that many “common sense” police reforms, such as wearing body cameras and diversifying police forces, simply don’t affect officer behavior for reasons unknown to researchers. Solutions that may work, such as demilitarizing the police force (so that officers feel less like soldiers and more like protectors of the community) and tighter restrictions on the use of force, have not gained traction. Instead, individual civilians are seen as enemies of the state and protesters (when they aren’t white) are seen as inciting rebellion. Trump doesn’t need to send in the military, because our own police have forgotten to protect and serve in favor of treating civilians as foreign combatants.
This moment may be a turning point for racial change in America because of this new fear that the white people are feeling, which can be a powerful motivator. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded through moral appeals to white Americans in power. America has made progress since the 1960’s, when the way we treated black Americans was even more appalling and thoroughly mocked by other countries, but we still have more to go. The problem is that most of white America does not openly acknowledge or feel guilty for the more subtle racism of the 21st century: 63% of Americans believe “black [people] who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition”(Vox). Instead, white people implicitly know and manipulate the rules of our racial reality: Amy Cooper knew what would happen to Christian Cooper when she called the police on him (Trevor Noah).
Instead of guilt, fear may be the new motivator driving change. On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” That sounds like the sort of bluster designed to hide cowardice; indeed, last Friday, Trump hid from the protests in an underground bunker. I live and move in very white and rich circles and there is a low humming of fear. With a glimpse of the terror that black Americans deal with everyday, maybe white Americans will be forced into action.