The killing of George Floyd has snowballed into what some call legitimate anger and others describe as opportunism. Clearly, there is no one and easy way of describing it - an opinion piece about the events has already cost James Bennet, NYT Opinion editor, his job. In this article we will try to deconstruct the story of George Floyd and its significance.
On May 25th 2020 a black man, later identified as 46-year-old George Floyd was begging for his life while a white police officer held him down using his knee.
“Please, I can’t breathe”, Floyd was heard saying as passers-by tried to intervene.
The gruesome spectacle which is recorded on camera, lasted for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Finally, Mr. Floyd was driven to the hospital and pronounced dead. Four police officers involved in his arrest were fired the next day. Derrek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground was later charged with second-degree murder as the autopsy confirmed asphyxia as the cause of death.
The case drove people to the streets - since May 26th protests have not ceased neither in Minneapolis nor in the rest of the country. On the contrary, they have gone as viral as the video of George Floyd’ death. Police cars and stations were vandalized, local shops were looted and burnt to the ground and neither protesters, nor law enforcement officers shied away from violence.
Looking at the events unfolding, it seems that Black Lives do finally Matter. But there are many questions surrounding the cause.
That is the question many unfamiliar with the subject might quite legitimately ask. Why was
George Floyd, a former rapper with a criminal record turned into a symbol of racial justice? There are at least two reasons: Mr. George Floyd was not the first African-American to die in police custody but he was the one to be recorded on camera - his name, his story and his plea for his life attain a symbolic meaning, uniting other African-Americans who were killed by police officers over the past years.
“Say Their Names” is the message actively spread on social media by Black Lives Matter, a movement founded back in 2013 when Trevon Martin, 17, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Sanford, Florida. Since then, the movement has tried to uproot white supremacy in the US, UK and Canada, as well as give context and names of Black people who died at the hands of police officers. The names, it turns out, are many. You can see some here.
The protests have yet again showcased the deep-set divide in the American society. Some have been quick to assert that All lives, as opposed to Black ones matter and white Americans have also died following police brutality - Daniel Shaver, a white man also pleading for his life is an example.
Others, most notably, conservative (and African-American) activist Candace Owens in her video, have distanced themselves from George Floyd, labelling him as a criminal.
“His family deserves justice but I do not support George Floyd”, Owens claims, pointing out that Black Americans tend to turn “the bottom of our society” into “martyrs”. She also calls police brutality on racial grounds non-existent. Although research on the topic varies, dismissing it altogether is debatable - racial disparity does exist in the law enforcement system, as well as in other aspects of public life. To what extent and why, are the questions Americans should face.
Some protesters, as said, have resorted to violence. Lootings, arson and vandalism have prompted President Donald Trump to blame radical leftists, such as the notorious Antifa, whose membership is confusingly white and anarchic, for disrupting law and order in the country. Following these claims, some conspirators have blamed George Soros for funding Antifa and radicalizing African-Americans.
Other protesters choose peaceful gatherings and education over violence, spreading awareness campaigns, endorsing black activists, artists and other members of the community.
It is still not clear how far the protests will go in terms of confrontations. While the majority of Black Lives Matter supporters try to remain peaceful, blood and notably that of a Black police officer has been spilled - Federal Protective Service Officer Patrick Underwood was shot dead from a passing vechile during the protests in Oakland. His sister expressed her condolences for George Floyd’s family and urged the public to abstain from further violence.
“The actions of a few are dividing us as a nation.” she said during her address to the Congress,” At a time when we should be coming together and uniting for the well-being of all people, we will never solve injustice with looting, burning, destruction of property, and killing in the name of justice.” She also urged the Congress to make “a change” in her brother’s honor.
Meanwhile, politicians have also had their say. While Trump is actively supporting the idea of far-left being behind it all, the Democrats have turned the events into a controversial election campaign - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues kneeled for almost 9 minutes in silence while draped in Ghanian Kente cloth.
"The significance of the kente cloth is our African heritage and for those of you without that heritage who are acting in solidarity," Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus explained. The performance outshone the new Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which aims to limit police immunity, no-knock warrants and chokeholders among other things. The presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden addressed the public at George Floyd’s funeral claiming that it is time to end racial injustice in the country.
And yet, it feels like we have seen this before. More precisely, back in 2014.
Back then, Eric Garner, 48, with previous brushes with the law, was arrested for selling unlicensed cigarettes in New York. The African-American man was put in a chokehold by the white police officer Daniel Pantaleo. (The chokehold had previously been banned by the New York Police Department.) The incident was caught on camera by a witness. Pinned to the pavement Garner pronounced these exact words: “I can’t breathe.” He died before his ambulance reached the hospital.
The death of Eric Garner sparked nationwide protests where words “I can’t breathe” were chanted repeatedly, while anger was expressed at police brutality. Sounds familiar? Well, it took the NYPD 5 years to finally fire Pantaleo in 2019. No federal charges followed.
In 2020 we are facing the same outrage. Some people are genuinely angry, while others profit from the unrest; politicians both on the left and right point fingers and promise justice, whatever the word might mean for them.
Meanwhile, Floyd’s family has met with Eric Garner’s. As they stand together with stories so similar, one can not help but wonder what, if anything, will change in America.