Floyd’s murder sparked international protests and forced police reform onto the political agenda. A year on, where does the fight for racial justice in the US stand?
46-year-old George Floyd was by all accounts an ordinary Black man in America. But on May 25, 2020, one violent act would trigger the “American Spring,” as a diverse protest movement channeled their anguish by flooding streets across the country – and the world.
Those excruciating nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds that then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin fatally knelt on Floyd’s neck shook the country to its core and dispelled the idea that Black people in the US were any safer from police brutality than they were in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
From that moment on, the willingness to accept that things could continue the way they were was shattered. There was a clarity to Black America’s collective response: Enough.
Floyd’s dying words – “I can’t breathe” – painfully resonated with Black Americans who similarly felt they’ve been suffocated by police violence and systemic racism on a daily basis, eventually becoming the rallying cry for an international racial justice movement.
“In his death, Floyd was able to transcend barriers and elevate important conversations around race in this country which were long overdue,” Kimberly Gordon, who is part of a coalition of activists in Los Angeles that organise with Black Lives Matter LA to advocate for police union reform, told TRT World.
The nationwide protests that followed continued the trend from Black Lives Matter protests from five years ago. They’ve been multiracial and enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans, even after the burning down of a police precinct in Minneapolis.
“And before you knew it, the momentum kept building until it exploded all over the world. For a moment in time, everyone was Black,” Gordon recalled.
The massive protests in the US would quickly inspire demonstrations against racism and police brutality in other countries. While they raised people’s awareness, it hit roadblocks when it came to structural change.
Following mass demos across the UK in June 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to create a commission to study inequality. The report published in March was slammed for downplaying the role of institutional racism.
France’s Black Lives Matter protests were propelled by both events in the US and by prominent cases at home, but the country's powerful police unions have repeatedly resisted reforms.
Black Lives Matter protests across Australia highlighted the targeting of Aboriginal Australians by the country’s police, which the government had a sceptical response towards. Prime Minister Scott Morrison went as far to even deny the history of slavery in Australia (which he later retracted).
Back in the US, with growing societal cleavage amid a raging pandemic that was coursing through the country’s bloodstream, nationwide protests agitated for radical demands to reimagine the machine of American policing.
Some cities were pushed in that direction; others have fought to maintain the status quo. Conservative politicians and police unions duly weaponised the otherwise polarising ‘Defund the Police’ movement.
There seemed to be sparks of change: Corporate America, Hollywood, sports leagues, and politicians – for a moment at least – centred the value of Black life and made public declarations of their commitment to anti-racism.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced to Congress, as the fallout from Donald Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic and seething political discontent led to Joe Biden being elected to the White House.
Also witnessed was the murder trial of Chauvin, in all its heart wrenching testimony, and his ultimate conviction in a justice system that rarely convicts police for killing Black people.
But was it justice or basic accountability?
Between Floyd’s murder and Chauvin’s guilty verdict on April 20, 2021, police had killed 203 Black people in the US.
“The scar of racism is deep. It’s built into the fabric of American society and after Floyd’s death a window opened for us as a country to grapple with it head on,” Gordon said.
“Progress is often birthed from a painful place.”
So has the past year of protest and push for police reform brought the US any closer to justice for all?
The slow march of progress
During his election campaign, President Biden promised to make tackling systemic racism central to his administration. But activists’ hopes for sweeping federal reform embodied in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is currently at an impasse.
After passing the House but now stuck at the Senate, the bill would among other things ban chokeholds, end qualified immunity for law enforcement, prohibit racial profiling, and create a national police misconduct registry.
While Congress debates federal legislation, there have been more concrete instances of change at the state level.
Lawmakers across nearly every state at the local level have introduced more than 3,000 policing-related bills, and more than thirty states have passed new police oversight laws, such as updates to use of force and de-escalation rules and expanded body camera policies.
Some jurisdictions have done more. The law in Colorado now allows officers to be sued for up to $25,000. But some states like Georgia have reacted in the opposite direction, setting limits on cities and counties that try to slash police budgets.
Police departments are also responding to the pressure. Charlotte has updated its early intervention system by using machine learning to analyse 2,000 risk factors and flag officers with the highest likelihood of having negative encounters with individuals.
At least 20 large US cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, adding up to $840 million according to data from the progressive group Interrupting Criminalization. A further 25 have ended contracts with police operating in schools.
In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council slashed $8 million from its police department and reinvested $2 million in community-based violence prevention programs and a new mobile mental health team.
The Texan city of Austin has made some of the most dramatic changes, cutting roughly $20 million from the police department. Previously it spent 40 percent of its budget on policing; it now spends 26 percent.
Many supporters hope it’s the start of a process to halt a decades-long trend of increased police spending in the US to reimagine public safety. But some critics note that crime has escalated since the cuts, with police training experts deeming them counterproductive.
The backlash from the right has seen an attempt to posture as defenders of the police (represented in the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter) – and by extension, law and order. The perils of critical race theory have become a fashionable talking point and denial of the existence of structural racism commonplace in the Republican party.
While Gordon believes technocratic interventions are important, she believes the diagnosis ultimately calls for a much more radical interrogation from white America.
“New laws and policy reforms are unquestionably needed, but this is a teaching moment too. Having those uncomfortable conversations with your co-workers, friends or family members is a crucial step before we can truly begin to heal as a nation,” she explains.
“Being woke and claims of allyship isn’t enough. We need folks to buckle down and do the hard work of building new networks of solidarity across communities, which can only happen when people understand the depth of structural racism and how it pervades every corner of their lives.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with what civil rights icon Malcolm X poignantly said back in 1964:
“If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.”