Surveillance video in Minneapolis shows the first moments of George Floyd’s police interaction.
From Portland to Pensacola, violent protests flared in more than 30 cities across the U.S. this weekend in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African American man who pleaded that he could not breathe after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest.
Why did Floyd’s death spark such widespread, visceral outrage, while three other deaths of African Americans this year – Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Tony McDade, a black transgender man killed by police officers in Tallahassee – did not?
An array of combustible issues converged to form a “perfect storm” of civil unrest after Floyd’s death and could lead to longer-lasting changes, experts and protest organizers said.
For starters, the coronavirus pandemic that has sequestered most Americans to their homes, forced millions into unemployment and has disproportionately infected African Americans already had many black Americans and white supporters simmering with rage and frustration, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“The depths of despair are enormous right now for black people in this country,” she said. “You pile on unchecked police violence and it makes for a perfect storm.”
Throughout the weekend and across the country, police cars and government buildings burned, the National Guard was deployed into major U.S. cities, and some cities instituted curfews. In one Midwest city, a person was killed and at least two more shot.
In Atlanta, protesters stormed the CNN Center while its mayor pleaded for calm, and in Washington, the White House went on lockdown after protesters massed outside. Protests also flared in Louisville, Philadelphia, Detroit, Austin, Charlottesville, Va., and Columbus, Ohio.
More than 1,400 people were arrested in 16 cities since Thursday. More than 500 of those happening in Los Angeles on Friday, the Associated Press reported.
Fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter after Floyd’s death. A bystander’s video caught more than eight minutes of Chauvin’s knee pinning Floyd’s neck as the suspect lay on the ground and pleaded for help before eventually passing out.
That video, which went viral, is another key reason his death has sparked so much outrage, said Keneshia Grant, a Howard University political scientist. The moments leading to Arbery’s death also were captured on video, but the footage of Floyd’s final moments – with the victim repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe and asking for his mother while irate bystanders pleaded with police to stop – caused a much deeper emotional wound in those who watched it, she said.
Also, President Donald Trump’s controversial response to the incident and the protests it sparked may have driven more protesters to the streets, Grant said. Trump in a tweet on Friday called the violent protesters “THUGS,” adding that he was ready to send in the military if things got out of control and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
“America does not have a leader to bring people together,” Grant said. “We didn’t get a tweet that told everyone to Kumbaya and hold hands. We got a tweet about looting and shooting.”
Calvetta Williams, founder of Mother’s Against Violence in Des Moines, Iowa, normally organizes small rallies of 100 or 200 people for local victims of gun violence. But when she saw the video of Floyd’s demise, she felt she needed to organize something bigger.
She posted an event invite on her group’s Facebook site, which garnered 400 “likes.” On Saturday, more than 1,000 protesters showed up for a peaceful march along University Avenue near downtown.
“It was beautiful,” Williams, 49, said. “It felt like I was part of a movement.”
For Williams, it was Floyd’s desperate pleas for his mother while subdued by police that struck a chord with her and prompted her to act. Another rally was scheduled for Sunday.
“It hit my spirit, my soul,” Williams said of the viral video. “I was angry. I felt I needed to stand up and show my support.”
The large-scale rallies that spread through nearly every major city in America over the weekend resemble the mass protests that materialized during the 1960s civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said Jill Savitt, executive director of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
Those incidents and the protests that followed led to significant policy shifts, she said. The murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists, in 1964 helped push the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she said. And the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, which dissolved into bloody confrontations with local law enforcement, helped propel the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Savitt said.
Similar policy and systemic changes could result from today’s protests, she said.
“You hate that you need tragedies like this for change, but history tells us that’s what happens,” Savitt said. “We’re having a societal shake of the lapels.”
Silas Lee, a sociologist at Xavier University of Louisiana, said he has also been impressed by the large number of white and brown protesters taking part in the rallies. Large-scale civil right protests don’t effect change unless widely supported by America’s diverse populations, he said.
“This is not just an African American issue,” he said. “It’s a white issue, it’s a brown issue, it’s a human issue.”
Grant, the Howard University political scientist, said the protests won’t work without widespread multicultural support. “White people have to figure out why they’re afraid of black people,” she said, “why they’re not appalled by these killings.”
She added: “Black people have been trying to do something for 400 years: Assert their humanity. And it hasn’t worked.”
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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