George Floyd’s slaying sparked a demand for change around the world. His death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, was the final straw for multitudes outraged over racist police brutality. It was not the first to set off protests. Widely publicized local demonstrations took place after the murders of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina (2015), and unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (2014), to name only a few.
But Floyd’s case set off an explosion.
Despite the Black Lives Matter movement which had kicked off in 2013, cop violence continued. Too often the victims were vilified and the offenders exonerated. Trump’s racist and pro-blue rhetoric added fuel to community anger. Also, Floyd’s death hit in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that worsened conditions for the precarious. Outrage over his slaying gave voice to the fury of young working-class Blacks. Women played a crucial leadership role in what became the largest civil unrest in U.S. history.
Lighting rebellion around the world. Floyd’s desperate cry, “I can’t breathe,” resonated with millions globally who chafe under racism and the heavy hand of the law. His case set off an international outcry that spread to more than 60 countries.
In the U.S., the response was swift. Within a week, up to 26 million people hit the streets, covering 40% of counties. The demands of the movement made it into the mainstream. First, was the cry to stop police violence. Added to this were calls to defund law enforcement, charge killer officers with murder, and fire the brutish for misconduct.
In the summer of 2020, people were inspired to stand up for Black lives, and more. Demonstrators also denounced violent bigotry against Asians and Asian Americans, immigrants, Jews, and transgender folks. Feminist, environmental, and LGBTQ+ activism recharged.
The labor movement responded as well. In June 2020, a campaign initiated by several public employee unions expelled the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild from the county labor council. The Guild was notorious for using union protections to defend the bigoted actions of its members.
Anger over racism on the streets was reflected in the workplace, especially over the lack of Covid protections. Frontline workers, many of whom are people of color, initiated labor actions. In a historic drive led by Black workers, a New Jersey warehouse broke the anti-labor embargo at Amazon. In Yakima, Washington, Latinx farm workers, with no union, mobilized their community and supporters from across the state to demand safe housing, work breaks, and hazard pay. Workers in meat and vegetable packinghouses, fast food joints, Starbucks coffee shops, and graduate schools unionized.
The balance sheet. Unrest by masses of multi-racial young people drew a reaction. It was led by Republicans with ineffectual opposition from Democrats. Reactionaries passed racist legislation for voter suppression, increased funding for law enforcement, and bans on teaching ethnic history in schools. This was followed by attacks on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Unfortunately, when the crowds went home after the 2020 uprisings, no national democratic organizations had been built to stop these rollbacks or to grow the movement. Yes, the eyes of the public were opened to the problem of policing in the US, but progressive change stalled.
Cops continue to kill without restraint and get away with it. In June 2022, officers in Akron, Ohio fired at unarmed Jayland Walker, hitting him 46 times. In a gruesome insult, his body was delivered to the coroner handcuffed. A few weeks later, a jury decreed that Seattle police were justified in shooting pregnant Charleena Lyles in 2017 in her apartment after she called for help. She was holding a paring knife.
The other side of the story was predicted by Floyd’s young daughter when she said, “Daddy changed the world.”
Derek Chauvin, whose knee choked the life out of Floyd, will spend decades in prison. This rare conviction will hopefully increase the number of those found guilty in criminal courts.
The spark of rebellion lit by Floyd’s murder is emerging in new civil rights battles. The youth-filled mass outcry for reproductive justice is the latest example. Vibrant young leaders are on the road to building a broad-based movement that is tackling systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny, and more.
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