In July 2014, a black man suspected of a petty crime was pulled to the ground by New York City police and choked on the pavement as a witness videotaped him crying out, “I can’t breathe.”
The death of Eric Garner touched off protests across the city and around the country, energizing a budding project called Black Lives Matter, which swelled a few weeks later with the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Propelled by those events, and the deaths of other black men and women in police custody, the movement helped bring about a national reckoning on police use of force and other law enforcement tactics seen as targeting minorities and the poor.
But for all the change that has come as a result of that effort, it has not been enough to stop the deaths or disparate treatment, or to break the fear, repression and resentment that millions of Americans feel about the way they are treated by their police and their country.
Those emotions have exploded once again, this time at a level not seen in decades, triggered by a disturbingly familiar event: the death of a black man suspected of a petty crime choked by a white police officer in Minneapolis, captured on video as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”
Protesters in dozens of cities, homebound for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, have taken to the streets to condemn the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Businesses have been looted and burned. Police have opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas. Scores of protesters and officers have been injured. A dozen states have activated their National Guards.
The unrest and chaos is reminiscent of riots that convulsed the nation following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1992 acquittals of Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
“You’re looking at a different kind of anger that you’ve never seen before,” said Cedric Alexander, the former public safety director in Dekalb County, Georgia, and former police chief in Rochester, New York, who now advises law enforcement agencies on improving community relations. “And this isn’t over. The rioting will stop but the powderkegs will continue to sit there.”
Alexander served on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed in the wake of Brown’s and Garner’s deaths to recommend ways to improve trust between police and the public. Its final report, delivered in March 2015, made recommendations that were embraced by many police departments. But the document was essentially set aside by President Donald Trump and his attorneys general, who have reigned in attempts to oversee troubled police departments and have criticized protesters as undeserving of police protection.
“Somebody needs to pull that task force report out of the garbage can, dust it off and open it back up,” Alexander said.
He, along with protesters and civil rights activists, said that the current wave of unrest is not just a response to Floyd’s death, or about the divisive things Trump has done, but a reaction to several recent events that highlighted the enduring racism of American police and society.
The first was on Feb. 23, when a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, was shot to death in Brunswick, Georgia, after being chased by a former police officer and his son, an attack captured on video that was released May 5. The second was the March 13 killing of EMT worker Breonna Taylor in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by police executing a “no-knock” warrant targeting her former boyfriend. The third was a videotaped May 25 confrontation in New York’s Central Park between a black bird watcher and a white woman who, caught walking her dog off leash, called police to report that “an African American” was threatening her.
Later that day, Floyd, 46, was accused of passing a suspicious-looking $20 bill at a Minneapolis grocery store. Officers approached him, and while he was being put in a squad car, he fell to the ground. As passersby videotaped the encounter, one officer, Derek Chauvin, put his knee on Floyd’s neck, and left it there for nearly 9 minutes, while Floyd complained he couldn’t breathe and cried for his mother.
All four events happened while much of America was under lockdown for the coronavirus outbreak, which has exacerbated the country’s racial and economic divides: Black Americans, and the poor, are more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and are more likely to lose their jobs and homes in the financial fallout. In some places, black people are disproportionately cited by police for violating social distancing orders
“We’re in a peak of a pandemic first off, so everyone is rattled with fear. Everyone’s been locked up for the past few months. And now in the middle of a pandemic, the black community especially has to deal with their lives being a risk,” LiIly Camp, who joined protests in Atlanta, told NBC News.
She added: “I know that this is going to be painted as like, ‘African-Americans are violent. This protest is dangerous. It’s not doing any good.’ But I would just like to say that the people who are doing this are doing this because they’re afraid and they’re tired and we have no right to tell people they shouldn't be violent and should only do things in peace when the government is only using violence and fear in us as well.”
Civil rights advocates have also expressed frustration with a resistance within many police agencies — including officers’ unions — to some aspects of reform, such as civilian oversight and more effective disciplinary systems. In many parts of the country, minorities are still stopped, and arrested and killed, at disproportionate rates. And the number of people killed by police each year remains steady.
Many of the cities coping with violent protests are dealing with their own crises of police trust. They include Louisville, still reeling from Taylor’s death; Philadelphia, where several officers were caught last year making racist posts on Facebook; Chicago, whose long history of scandals includes the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald; Cincinnati, which has tried to reform its police department since 2001 riots; and Ferguson and the neighboring city of St. Louis.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said violent protests and riots are the result of a broken justice system that has disregarded the voices of black Americans for decades, breeding a sense of neglect and hopelessness.
“What we have witnessed over the last couple of nights is the explosion of pent-up frustration not only because of the police violence, but the lack of opportunity that many African Americans see in all walks of life,” Johnson said Friday on MSNBC.
The size, scope and violence of the protests has fueled speculation of outside influences. Depending on who is talking, the culprits might be the radical left, the far right, white nationalists, anarchists, anti-fascists or members of the anti-government “boogaloo” movement that promotes civil war. But there’s little evidence that those groups are significantly driving the demonstrations.
Some activists have pointed out that before the Floyd protests, another group of Americans — mostly white, some armed, and many of them Trump supporters — converged on state capitols to protest government restrictions on daily life to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Trump encouraged those protesters on Twitter while calling the Floyd protesters “thugs.” And police generally showed restraint with the lockdown protesters, while the Floyd protests have been marked by violent clashes.
“It makes clear to me that we are fighting both a coordinated attack on our lives that is physical and we are fighting a coordinated attack on our lives that is about misinformation and disinformation,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights nonprofit.
He added that it was important to keep in mind the changes that have already come as a result of social justice campaigns that intensified after the 2014 killings of Garner and Brown.
Some of the changes are political, such as the focus on Democratic presidential candidates’ criminal justice records and the growing number of prosecutors elected on promises to make the system fairer for minorities and the poor. Others are cultural, such as people being quicker to use their phones to record and share racist incidents and police violence. Robinson also said he saw progress in how quickly the Minneapolis Police Department fired Chauvin and the officers who stood nearby without intervening. Chauvin was charged on Friday with murder and manslaughter, less than a week after Floyd’s death.
Many of the changes made by local police agencies since the summer of 2014 have come about as the result of work by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit that develops policies to strengthen public trust. That has included quickly releasing officer-worn body camera footage, using de-escalation techniques to avoid force, holding officers responsible to step in when they see misconduct and admitting when an officer or department has made a mistake.
Chuck Wexler, the forum’s executive director, said he believed the widespread protests had much to do with the video of Floyd’s death, which he called “egregious and painful to watch.” It is “completely understandable to be angry about the brutality in the video,” Wexler said.
But he worries about the impact of the current anger on all the effort that has gone into improving American policing in the last six years.
“The frustration on the policing side is that people will look at this video and think nothing has changed,” Wexler said, “and that’s tough because a lot has changed.”
The waves of unrest roiling the nation at the moment say that the change has not been enough.
“If someone were to ask me, ‘Where do we go from here to build relationships,’ I’d say that’s the wrong question to ask right now,” said Alexander, the former police chief and author of a book called “The New Guardians: Policing in America's Communities For the 21st Century.”
“Because after you just ran me down in the street and shot me, after you shot me in the middle of the night on a b.s. warrant, after you lied in a park that I assaulted a woman, and after you choked me in the street after I begged for my mama, where do you begin a conversation with someone about building relationships?
“But we’ve got to figure it out.”