openMovements: Opinion

Why the George Floyd protests succeeded where others failed

A radical political demand has helped keep the movement’s momentum going.

Nara Roberta Silva
13 October 2020
Tens of thousands took to the streets in Los Angeles in June to protest the police killing of George Floyd.
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PA Images
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Grievances are commonly pointed out as great protest and movement sparkers. When protests erupted after George Floyd’s death, it was common to hear in news analyses and protesters’ testimonials that Floyd’s fate was “the last straw”. But while blatant racism certainly inspired the protests, it is crucial to consider other elements for a more accurate picture of their rise. 

The “last straw” argument is based on two factors. First, Minneapolis diligently adopted the Obama-era reform playbook following other high-profile police killings, including Jamar Clark’s in 2015 and Philando Castile’s in 2016. For five years, the city has implemented a range of measures including training officers in de-escalation tactics, the hiring of more African-American cops and early-warning systems to identify problem officers. But none of that prevented a white officer with a record of complaints from placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. 

Second, by late May, it was evident that the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic was distributed unequally. African Americans and Latinos are getting sick and dying at higher rates, even in areas where they make up a smaller portion of the population. In this context, the death of George Floyd was a strong symbolic representation of the scandalous disposal of racialised bodies in the current United States. 

The current struggle for racial justice does not imply that racism has gotten worse – even in light of the atrocious state-of-affairs. Floyd’s murder and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among African Americans could be considered sparkers, but what made the spark become a fire?

Preexisting networks

With the spread of the new virus, mutual-aid networks flourished across the country, especially in large cities and metropolitan areas. These networks offered immediate relief when lockdown measures and a surge in COVID-19 cases led to job losses, forced isolation, and, consequently, increased inability to provide for oneself. 

A distinguishing feature of the early summer demonstrations was how diverse the locations they occurred in were – from small towns to large cities, rural to urban areas. This suggests a hyperlocal presence and connections – the result of months of community organising. By addressing communities’ needs, mutual aid networks facilitated the work needed for and during the protests. For example, they provided a targeted audience to invite to the demonstrations, resources to take to the streets (from microphones and bullhorns, to signs and banners), and potential in-street support (like first-aid and de-escalation teams).

When demonstrations broke, several Slack channels, social media groups, and email lists started to share information about safety guidelines, coordinate to gather and distribute supplies for protesters, spread the word about bail fund initiatives and have calls to provide shelter or bathroom stops for those on the streets.       

The rapidness in putting a demonstration together is also inspirational. It is not a coincidence that numerous US teenage groups without protest experience or activist background have organized local actions independently. Furthermore, in places such as New York City, preexisting mutual aid networks helped overcome the challenges imposed by both the hesitation or inability to commute brought by the pandemic and the one-week curfew enacted when protests grew in numbers. Rather than concentrating in a few traditional locations, demonstrations turned to the neighborhoods and, in consequence, ignited impressive liveliness. By engaging with each neighborhood’s geographical references and identity, protests drew in even more people. 

A vision for the future

A proper assessment of the current struggle for racial justice must consider not only what triggered the movement – but also why it has lasted. In other words, this movement has not only taken people to the streets but also opened paths for organisation. The most important contributor to the enhanced capacity to organise was the demand to defund the police – and its embracement by a larger number of movement participants and supporters. 

Defunding the police has always been a central idea to contemporary abolitionist thinkers, circles, and organisations. But until now, this was a fringe proposal often sidelined by calls for police reform or broad criticism of racism. Police reforms’ constant failed promises of hindering racial disparities slowly undermined arguments for incremental change and paved the way for those who have repeatedly highlighted reformism’s weaknesses – or even naiveté. 

But the mainstreaming of this demand should also be understood in light of the pandemic. With cities scrambling to guarantee proper equipment for medical personnel and fighting numerous simultaneous crises, the disproportionate sum allocated to police departments across the country appears even more unjust and irrational. That funding could be potentially diverted to services such as physical and mental healthcare, housing development and preservation, youth and workforce development. 

Defunding the police means eroding the institution that has oppressed and killed people of colour regularly in the US – and, of course, in other countries – for centuries and has been extremely efficient as an arm of the prison industrial complex. And it offers a better position to contemplate restorative justice practices and deeply embrace abolitionism – a huge cultural shift. 

What makes the recent protests unique is not merely their size, the number of participants, or the spread of supporters. What is novel is the emergence of a particular strategic path provided by calls to defund the police — a vision of the future that places organisers in a better position to plan their work, make decisions, and assess potential alliances. While the Movement for Black Lives has had a comprehensive policy agenda since 2016, the restructuring of the conversation around defunding finetunes the argument on racism’s structural, institutional dimension, solidifying a position that goes beyond the “bad apples” explanation. 

A new phase

The struggle for racial justice initiated early in the summer has entered a new phase after a right-wing counteroffensive. A fast reconfiguration of activist circles is unfolding as groups and organisations resettle and adjust their campaigns. The loosely assembled movement now has the ability to keep the pressure on by hybridising its organising models. This ability is crucial as elections approach, and the debate on social and political matters is likely to become narrower in scope and the issues related to racial justice reduced to misrepresentations of movement confrontational tactics (e.g. property destruction). In fact, the calls to defund the police have already been swiftly mobilised to promote “red scare” among voters and even fracture Black communities.    

Public support or opposition to a certain demand does not follow a straight line and can increase or retract as the debate continues, policies are advanced (or stalled), and other issues get to the spotlight. But by having an eye toward the future, the movement can guarantee a smoother coordination of actions and bet on some meaningful transformation ahead. 

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