It was seven days ago, on May 25th, that George Floyd was pinned to the ground, as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck as he pleaded for his life. 8 minutes and 46 seconds later, George died – making him yet another black man killed wrongfully by police in America. The next day, all four officers directly involved were fired, and America erupted in anger, anguish and the need for change.
Over the past week, there have been over 100 simultaneous protests, in both America and worldwide – many of which have escalated to the point of rioting, looting and the use of police defence methods, such as tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. Protests began in Floyd’s hometown of Minneapolis the day after his death, as people marched to the Minneapolis Police Department’s third precinct to demand answers and justice. Just 2 days later, on May 28th, that same precinct was burnt to the ground.
However, the protests were not initially violent. People were upset and angry, of course, but never intending to escalate the situation outside of simply demanding answers. I spoke to Anna*, who attended the protests midday on the 28th, while the precinct was still standing. “When I went, people were there chanting and collecting supplies for the protesters. I saw the Target had burnt down, and some other stores had been looted, but the protest itself was peaceful. We knew the cops were ready to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas whenever, but that didn’t happen while I was there”. Mayor Jacob Frey had declared a state of emergency in Minneapolis earlier that day, while 500 Minnesota National Guard troops had been deployed to the Twin Cities area – the police presence was undeniably felt. With the threat of such forces being used, Anna acknowledges protesters were trying to keep the situation calm, away from escalation. “I remember one guy in the crowd threw a water bottle at the police, and everyone got mad at him, saying “stop throwing stuff” “don’t be violent” – and that’s really important to note. There are obviously always one or two people [building tensions], but for the most part, everyone there was trying to keep it peaceful and non-violent.”
When I asked Anna if she felt media coverage has been accurate or fair, she recognised much of the focus was placed on the violence occurring at the protests. While physical uproar and disobedience may be more newsworthy, some have become concerned by the possibility mainstream media’s focus on violence may paint black people as instigators; as though they’re looking for conflict, when this is the very opposite of what they want. Anna has noticed that there has been a shift in some reporting, saying “I’ve seen a lot of media outlets drawing attention to the fact that it is not just black people there – [the turnout] is almost 50/50 white and black people, and there’s a lot of white people being violent.” Social media has been alight with videos of white people looting, smashing windows and vandalising properties, as black organisers and protesters yell at them to stop. One of the main issues with this is that white crime is overlooked. This behaviour will be ignored and excused thanks to their white privilege, while black people will face big losses and consequences for even the most minor of crimes – or in many cases, no crimes at all.
Anna herself isn’t black, and therefore knows she can’t speak on behalf of their communities, but also knows she must amplify voices and stand against these repeated acts of injustice. “This is a breaking point for people. [Racism] has been going on for 400 years – yes, slavery ended, but other forms of violence have replaced it. People are becoming more aware – especially because of the rise in technology as a lot of racist incidents, especially those involving police officers, are caught on tape. People are getting sick of it. It’s totally understandable, that after centuries of blatant racism against African Americans in this country, people want to see change.”
People are scared and definitely angry, but most of all, they’re really empowered. That’s what’s keeping people out on the streets.– Anna
And its no surprise that black people are tired. That parents are tired of burying their children, friends are tired of saying goodbye, innocent people are tired of feeling scared and hopeless while trying to go about their day-to-day lives. But aside from this tiredness, resilience and strength shines through. “Everyone is feeling a lot of emotions right now. People are scared and definitely angry, but most of all, they’re really empowered. That’s what’s keeping people out on the streets. The empowerment of the crowd, of everyone chanting together and fighting for one cause – I think that is the overall feeling of everyone I know right now.” Anna has watched her friends attend protests, has seen people she knows being shot at or blinded by the gas canisters thrown by police, and yet they continue attending and fighting for change.
Of course, this has never been more relevant than it is right now. During times like this, it’s almost easy to forget we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Despite the risk of catching COVID-19, protesters remain marching through streets across America – not because they’re ignorant to the illness, but because black lives matter, and their voices need to be heard. Anna never meant to attend the protest on Thursday but instead went to drop off supplies, though the drop-off station was in the middle of the protest itself. She wore a mask and tried to remain 6 ft away from others, though this is increasingly difficult in a protest. Protesters recognise its not safe, and those attending were seen to be taking at least some kind of precaution, with most wearing a mask themselves. “It’s a tough situation – I get why people are still there, but at the same time, it’s scary because the coronavirus isn’t gone. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a rise in infections.” Many officials have expressed their weariness for the protesting, stating how those involved must know they’re putting both themselves and others at risk. However, many of these calls have been met with backlash. Retail stores and businesses have been able to reopen in Minnesota, while June 1st will allow bars, restaurants, salons and gyms to re-open under certain restrictions. If the majority can risk their lives by going out for food or shopping, why can’t protesters risk theirs by standing up for their human rights?
Many find it frustrating – being unable to protest out of concerns of catching coronavirus – but these protests prove that many are prioritising this need for change. I asked Anna what she would like to see come from these protests: “I think that people would like to see government officials and those in the CJS come up with solutions that address our system’s injustices. They need to sit down with activists and grass-root organisation leaders to talk about what can be done about police brutality, and the fact that black people being murdered at alarming rates.” Research done in 2019 found that police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States, and there has been a repeated trend in such deaths going undealt with and unanswered for. Anna also wished to see all four police officers involved in Floyd’s death arrested and charged with murder. While Derek Chauvin has been charged with third degree murder, Minnesota statute recognises this as being ‘without intent’, which many feel lacks true accountability for Floyd’s death. “It’s not just George. There have been hundreds and hundreds of black individuals who have been wrongfully murdered by police, who have not been arrested nor faced any repercussions. George Floyd is just the start – any police officer who has murdered someone wrongfully should face jail.”
For those of us in the UK, it can be easy to overlook what’s happening. This isn’t on our doorstep; it’s not our family or friends being killed. But to ignore the deaths of innocent black people and the systematic racism that places a target on their back, places us at the highest point of privilege – one where we can overlook our own system’s failures and discrepancies. To ignore the deaths of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille and countless others, is to embrace and accept a racist society that persecutes innocent people over the colour of their skin. Just because we aren’t being killed, doesn’t mean we couldn’t be – nor does it mean this isn’t our problem to address. I asked Anna what she considered to be the best way for people to support not only protesters, but the overall cause, particularly if they can’t attend protests themselves. “It’s important for people to talk about this, by either posting on social media or talking to family and friends. Starting conversations is the first step.”
However, Anna also recognised that our own internal biases must be addressed before we can change others. We all contribute to racism in some way, at some point in our lives, and we must identify our own ignorance and take ownership of that. Anna notes that she too had to work on herself and her understanding of the world, the protests only serve as a reminder that we all must address our biases before we make a wider change. Quarantine offers the perfect time to read more, expand your understanding and talk to others about their experiences. “You have to do the work. If you’re going to sit and pretend there’s not a problem, you’re just as much in the wrong. We can’t just baby people and pretend nothing is happening because it is.”
Finally, she acknowledges the importance in donating. It was through Twitter that I found Anna, as I saw tweets where she asked for donations to provide supplies at the protests. The people of Minneapolis have come together to open food banks, after the three major grocery stores in their area were looted and burnt down. Protesters require bail to get released from jail, and donation funds have been made to ensure they’re supported. Non-profit organisations constantly need funding so that they can continue supporting their communities. And if you can’t donate, spread the word. “There has been an overwhelming amount of support from around the world. I’m just one person and I raised $900, and I only posted one tweet about collecting donations. If I can do that, then everyone has the potential to reach an audience – whether you have 10, 10,000 or a million followers, you have people listening to you, you’re still doing something. If everyone helped just one person, think about how much of a difference that would make.”
If you would like to donate, sign petitions or learn more about this issue, please visit this site for further information. Black Lives Matter.
*Identifiable information has been removed to protect protesters.
Featured image credit: Getty Images / Stephen Maturen