By Jovane Marie
George Floyd: Life and Death
Floyd’s last moments – recorded for the world to witness – set off a series of events that have further propelled the conversation of police brutality and systemic racism to the forefront of the national conversation.
His death made an indelible mark on the world. But his life made a mark, too. Family and friends of the father of five describe him as a gentle giant and hard worker who moved to Minneapolis with eyes on a new beginning.
Although not exempt from mistakes and the hard lessons of life, the 46-year-old was on a journey to be the best father, provider, and man he could be.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, protests erupted as the Black community, echoed by their fellow citizens of all races, national leaders, and the global village, decried the senseless violence and demanded justice.
“When I first heard about what happened, I was emotionally overwhelmed by anger, sadness, and a sense of disbelief,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive officer of the historic National Urban League, which works to provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities, and a guarantee of civil rights to the underserved in America.
“Even though we know Black men are proportionally brutalized by police, it was still a shock to see these officers, fully aware that they were being recorded, treat a life with such casual disregard.”
The four Minneapolis officers involved were promptly fired. However, it was four days before the first arrest was made. Chauvin, the most senior officer, has since been charged with an upgraded count of second-degree murder, while the other three are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
Memorial services for Floyd, paid for by boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, were held in both Raeford, North Carolina (where he was born) and his hometown of Houston (where he was laid to rest next to his mother).
Both services drew thousands, including prominent community and national leaders, activists, celebrities, professional athletes, and – most notably – the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Botham Jean, and Pamela Turner. The outpouring and noted names in attendance signified the impact of the moment.
“He once said he wanted to touch the world,” recalled Jonathan Veal, Floyd’s longtime friend, in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. Then teenagers, they were discussing what they wanted to do with their lives.
“That comment, back in the eleventh grade, was prophetic in nature,” he added. “He is literally having a global impact.”
In Houston, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, joined by Illinois Governor JB Pritzer, officially declared the day of his burial – Tuesday, June 9 – as George Floyd, Jr. Day.
“We must never forget the name George Floyd or the global movement he inspired,” Hidalgo shared in a statement. “It has taken far too long for us to get here, but we must lean forward and work to make meaningful change in our nation.”
The series of events – emotionally charged and heavy – was unfortunately not an anomaly.
Floyd’s name joined a chorus of others on an ever-growing list of Black lives lost to violence perpetuated by a system of institutional racism and bias.
Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor
In the months and weeks leading up to Floyd’s killing, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and (to an initially less publicized extent) Breonna Taylor caught the nation’s attention.
On February 23 in Glynn County, Georgia, 25-year-old Arbery was out jogging when he was chased, cornered, and gunned down by father and son duo Gregory and Travis McMichael, both white. Video of the shooting, leaked at the request of the elder McMichael – a former police officer and DA investigator – went viral and elicited immediate outrage. Recusals in two district attorney offices, however, contributed to a two-month delay in their arrests. They were finally arrested on May 7, and on what would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday four days later, tens of thousands across the country commemorated his memory with a 2.23-mile run.
On June 24, both men, including a third who joined in the pursuit and recorded the footage, were indicted on nine counts, including malice murder, felony murder, and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Memorial Service For George Floyd Held In MinneapolisLess than a month after Arbery’s killing, 26-year-old emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers executing a “no-knock” warrant. Initially drawing little media attention, publicity on her case erupted as activists pushed to include her name in the narrative and a social media campaign to #SayHerName went viral.
The three officers involved in the shooting were placed on administrative reassignment, but it took until June 23 – more than three months later – for just one termination to be made. In response to the tragedy, the Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Council unanimously passed Breonna’s Law, which outlaws “no-knock” warrants and requires officers’ body cameras to be turned on before and after every search.
Separated by a razor thin margin of occurrence, the murders of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd were a painful reminder of the injustices that Black Americans have endured for far too long.
“The pain that the Black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of Black people in this country is raw and spilling out into streets across America,” said Floyd’s family in a statement. “We need Minneapolis and cities across the country to fix the policies and training deficiencies that permitted this unlawful killing – and so many others – to occur.”
Protests and demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been ongoing for years. Since the birth of the movement in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, dozens of names have been added to the list of Black lives snuffed out by racial prejudice and state-sanctioned violence.
But the seemingly back-to-back killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – compounded by disturbing video footage of the Arbery and Floyd murders and initial delays in charges being brought in all three cases – proved to be the boiling point.
In the days following Floyd’s murder, streets in almost 4,000 cities and towns on four continents swelled with protesters marching, chanting, and demanding justice.
And while the message – Black Lives Matter – was the same as all the years before, these protests were markedly different in both size and scope. Within weeks, support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from polling and analytics company Civiqs.
The increase overwhelmingly included white people who had been previously silent about, blind to or critical of the existence and prevalence of systemic racism and the reality of police brutality among the Black community.
“The protests themselves are very similar to the ones that followed other police shootings and fatal assaults of unarmed Black men, such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, with one notable exception – the rising involvement of white protestors,” said Morial. “What has made these protests really different is the way they have been received by the broader public.”
“Now, the world is paying attention. Congress is paying attention. Corporations are paying attention,” he added. “The message is finally breaking through.”
Members of prominent organizations, such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the Movement for Black Lives, Color of Change, and the National Action Network, weren’t the only voices leading the charge and standing on the front lines, either.
In cities large and towns small, everyday citizens – from high school and college students to blue collar workers and stay-at-home mothers – stepped up to the plate, organizing protests and rallying other supporters. Harnessing the crucial power of social media, these novice activists collectively added thousands of new and powerful voices to an already resounding call for justice.
The call has not just manifested vocally. Poignant art, including drawings circulated on social media, murals paying tribute across the country, and “Black Lives Matter” painted on main streets in cities including Washington, D.C., New York City, Sacramento, and Seattle, have accompanied and amplified demonstrations.
While protestors have been largely peaceful as they march and demand accountability, occasional bouts of rioting and looting, perpetrated at least in part by white participants unattached to the movement (evidenced by multiple videos posted to social media), have peppered demonstrations. Peaceful marches have also been marred by video evidence of excessive police force and misconduct, with at least 40 lawsuits being brought by protestors across the US.
Despite these obstacles, protests have maintained a clear vision of their foundational goals: to demand police accountability and reform, to stand in solidarity with the families of the fallen, to dismantle institutional racism, and to declare that Black Lives Matter.
More and more, this declaration is permeating the population and drawing increased support. According to a recent national Civiqs poll, more than half (52 percent) of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond the streets, that support has manifested into millions upon millions of dollars in donations and financial pledges to justice and Black-centered organizations, including Black Lives Matter Global Network, the NAACP, the ACLU, The Bail Project, and Color of Change.
Solidarity has also come in the form of celebrities, professional athletes, sports leagues, and community influencers contributing their voices and leveraging their massive platforms to demand change, condemn racism, and amplify Black voices.
The NFL, in a surprising reversal, has backtracked on their criticism of player protests and clearly stated their support for #BlackLivesMatter.
In droves, businesses and corporations have taken public, official stances proclaiming their support for Black Lives Matter and promising to take action steps to enhance representation and diversity within their ranks.
The Confederate flag, decried by many Americans as a relic of hatred and racism, has been banned from display on Navy bases, Marine Corps installations…and even NASCAR.
The centering of Black voices, commitments to internal restructuring, and pledges of far-reaching financial support have set the stage for transformational change. Now, the work to bring true equality and justice for all must commence in earnest.
And we’ll have to work together to bring it to pass.
Several factors have contributed to the reach, sustainability, and impact of protests following the murder of Floyd; the horrific footage, the convergence of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and overwhelmingly, the growing number of non-Black supporters joining the fight and aligning themselves as allies.
Alongside large multi-racial cities, citizens in small, mostly white towns (including Vidor, Texas – once a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan), organized and took the streets. Viral videos showed white protestors physically placing themselves between Black protestors and police officers to create a barrier. White celebrities, influencers, and politicians handed over their Instagram accounts to Black creators, journalists, and activists in an effort to amplify their voices. And sales of anti-racist books by thought leaders such as Dr. Ibram Kendi (How to be an Anti-Racist) and Dr. Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) have skyrocketed.
The journey to become an authentic and effective ally for people of color is not an easy one. Adherents must commit to centering Black voices and truly listening, educating themselves on systemic racism and its effects, speaking up within their areas of influence, and sitting with the discomfort of admitting their own biases and prejudices.
It is, however, of the utmost importance to get involved. In the fight for justice and equality, everybody has a role to play.
There is a long road ahead in the fight for justice for all. While the destination, a society free of institutional and systemic racism that truly values Black lives equally, is one most all agree on, there are a number of proposed routes.
But our feet are on the road.
Cities across the country are re-evaluating their police policies and tactics, with the local governments and law enforcement agencies of at least 23 cities completely or partially banning the use of chokeholds and carotid restraints. Some departments have committed to additional training and increased transparency.
In Washington, D.C., House Democrats have unveiled the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” comprehensive legislation aimed at overhauling policing. It includes a chokehold ban, creation of a national registry to track police misconduct, and a grant program to fund independent investigations of misconduct.
The call to defund the police has also gained momentum, presenting itself as a controversial solution to the call for justice. Advocates argue that reducing police funding to instead reinvest in Black communities and reallocate to social programs (such as mental health, poverty, and homelessness) is the best way forward.
“Our focus should be on communities that have been deeply divested from, that may have never felt the impact of having true resources,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. “What we’re asking for is a reinvestment in how we understand what’s needed in our communities. Why is law enforcement the first responders for a mental health crisis? Why are they the first responders for domestic violence issues? Why are they the first responders for homelessness? Those are the first places we can look into.”
The final solutions, whatever forms they take, will be influenced not only by the voices in the streets but also by one of the most important actions of all: voting for change.
“The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice…but eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices – and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands,” said former President Barack Obama in an essay posted to Medium.
“The bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
Gianna Floyd, the six-year-old daughter of George Floyd, doesn’t know all of the details of her father’s untimely death. What she does know, as she hears his name chanted in the streets and sees his face plastered on posters, is that he has made an undeniable impact. In her very own words, “Daddy changed the world.”
She’s not wrong. We’ve protested about police brutality and systemic racism before. But today’s demands – amplified by the traumatic footage of Floyd’s murder, the uncertainty and inequalities of a viral pandemic laid bare, and the rallying cry of the global community – are reverberating louder than ever and demanding immediate and impacting change. Despite the rage and heartache, Gianna’s daddy has become a catalyst in our collective journey toward justice.
“As Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” said Morial. “Sometimes we take one step back, as we have seen with the spike in hate crimes and racially inspired violence over the last several years. But for every step back, we take two steps forward.”