We might actually see real police reform. Analysts, commentators, and some elected politicians have been pushing for years to address institutionalized racism, place greater emphasis on deescalation, curb the power of police unions, and scale down police departments. It kept not happening.
But now Minneapolis, where an officer killed George Floyd, is considering whether to disband and rebuild the police department. Louisville banned no-knock warrants after police serving one shot and killed Breonna Taylor. Colorado passed a package that bans chokeholds, makes body camera footage public, and requires officers to intervene against one of their own using excessive force. Many states and cities are passing or considering similar changes. Democrats introduced a national police reform bill in the House, which might not pass this year, but will presumably become part of their governing agenda if Joe Biden wins in November.
One reason is Black Lives Matter activists, who built a movement around that slogan starting in 2013. They’ve spent the years since police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (August 2014) organizing and making their case — some have been advocating for police reform for a lot longer, just using different slogans — and when this moment came, they were prepared. Their efforts help explain why demonstrations have been large, sustained, and mostly peaceful. Today’s protests built on existing architecture rather than having to do everything from scratch.
But why is this instance of police officers killing a black person prompting real change in a way previous cases didn’t? Two contributing factors:
1. The George Floyd Video
George Floyd is the perfect Black Lives Matter case. The eight minutes and 46 seconds of Floyd’s murder are so unambiguous, it takes so long, and his death was so avoidable that the usual arguments against acting in response to police killings don’t apply.
Self-defense, resisting arrest: Evidence indicates Michael Brown had a physical altercation with the police. An Obama-era Justice Department investigation concluded that Brown reached into a police vehicle and hit officer Darren Wilson, who then tried to draw his gun. Brown tried to grab it and fired a bullet that grazed Wilson’s hand. Brown moved away but turned back, and was moving towards the car when Wilson shot him.
By contrast, George Floyd was on the ground, handcuffed, with multiple officers on top of him. He wasn’t struggling or trying to kick them. He clearly posed no threat.
Heat of the moment: Philando Castile (Minnesota, July 2016) had a gun. Yes, he was a licensed carrier, and yes, he volunteered the information to the cop who pulled him over. But Castile reached for something. It was probably his license and registration, but the officer couldn’t know that at the time. You don’t know how you’d react in that situation.
Same argument applies to Tamir Rice (Cleveland, November 2014). Yes, he was 12 years old, and yes, it was a toy gun. But the cops were responding to complaints of someone brandishing a firearm. The officer thought Rice was drawing a real gun and took defensive action.
This logic fits notable pre-Black Lives Matter cases as well, such as Amadou Diallo (Bronx, February 1999) who was shot 19 times by four police officers as he took out his wallet. One mistook it for a weapon and yelled “gun!” All fired in response (41 shots total).
But heat of the moment arguments don’t work with Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin suffocated him for more than eight minutes. Chauvin had plenty of time to think about it. He heard pleas from Floyd and bystanders. It’s all on video.
You might not know what you would do if you had to make a quick decision under threat. But you know you would, at the very least, take your knee off George Floyd’s neck sometime in those eight-plus minutes, right?
Couldn’t Have Known: Eric Garner (Staten Island, July 2014) was choked to death by officer Daniel Pantaleo while pleading “I can’t breathe” in a case that now looks like an eerie precursor to Floyd’s. Garner was selling loose cigarettes — hardly a capital offense — but resisted arrest, pulling his arms away. The officer who choked Garner wrestled him to the ground, the suffocation didn’t last as long, and Garner was still alive when Pantaleo let go. The chokehold was the main factor in Garner’s death, but asthma and heart disease played a role. Officers couldn’t have known about his medical conditions.
The Floyd case doesn’t have any of those complicating factors. And the Garner case was still straightforward enough that it prompted protests (albeit not on the same scale as Floyd).
A few bad apples: When other defenses don’t work — when people acknowledge that cops did something genuinely wrong — there’s a fallback: It was an isolated incident, and the offending officer is an outlier among police.
Policing isn’t an easy job, and many undoubtedly try to do the right thing. But the main criticism is not with individual officers per se, but with the police as an institution — how training, use-of-force rules, and institutionalized racism lead to violent escalation; how police culture and the justice system protect rather than root out “bad apples” — and the Floyd case highlights the problems.
One of the striking things about the Floyd video is the three other police officers who do nothing to stop the killing, who ignore Floyd’s “I can’t breathe,” who dismiss bystanders’ exhortations, who don’t even bother to tell Chauvin to move his knee. It took over a week of public anger before prosecutors charged those officers with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. And videos of police reacting violently to peaceful protesters — for example, pushing 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground in Buffalo and leaving him there as blood came out his head — showed the public there are enough bad apples to spoil the barrel.
The point is not whether you find any of these defenses of police killings convincing, but whether they give a rationale to people who want one.
None of the rationales apply to the George Floyd case. It is such a clear example of police treating a black man’s life like it doesn’t matter that it’s swayed public opinion. A Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans see Floyd’s killing as “a sign of broader problems in treatment of black Americans by police,” which is 26 points more than a comparable question in 2014.
Additionally, 74 percent of Americans say they support the current protests, including a majority of Republicans. This time looks different.
2. The Coronavirus
The pandemic is a global event, and the protests are now part of it. They focus on longstanding problems, they weren’t prompted by anything COVID-related, and they’re the first thing to push the pandemic from the headlines since March. It’s an event entirely on its own. But it’s intertwined with coronavirus in ways both clear and not.
Floyd’s murder came at the end of a 2.5 month quarantine, as various states were starting to lift restrictions. Perhaps more people saw and reacted to the video or coverage of it because they were stuck inside. Perhaps they’re extra frustrated seeing police break the rules after spending 2–3 months following the rules themselves, staying home to, in essence, protect and serve their communities. Perhaps they’re reacting to something out of their control that’s killed over 115,000 Americans by trying to address something that kills Americans and might be within their control. National lockdowns may have been necessary, but they’re strange, traumatic events, with psychological, societal, and political effects we barely understand.
The pandemic’s economic damage and the likelihood that the economy won’t quickly snap back are settling in. People are feeling cooped up, uncertain, unsettled, worried, angry. That’s affected the energy of the protests, as well as who participates in them. Some people are probably staying away due to virus concerns, but many are coming out despite it.
And not just in the United States. George Floyd protests have taken place in over 60 countries, with many thousands gathering throughout Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. They chant about Floyd, Black Lives Matter, policing in the U.S., and racism in their own countries — a mix of global and local that also characterizes coronavirus.
The protests show that we’re in phase 2 of the pandemic. In phase 1, everything that could be shut down was. In this phase, we’re learning how to live with the virus, which means people can go out in certain situations. Many individuals, including some medical professionals and influential pundits, see the protests as worth it.
That, in turn, has stirred anger among people who opposed lockdowns, especially strict measures such as the inability to hold funerals, visit dying loved ones, or make their own decisions about businesses. As Oliver Traldi argues in Arc, those who said coronavirus was so dangerous that public gatherings had to be kept to a minimum, and then made an exception for protests against police violence, blurred political opinion and public health recommendations, undermining their credibility as impartial.
Many prominent health experts, such as Anthony Fauci, haven’t done that. But those who did effectively communicated “you can’t do non-essential things you deem important, but if it’s important to me, then it’s okay.” If there’s a big second wave and officials recommend another lockdown, fewer Americans will accept it.
The protests also provide a natural experiment for outdoor COVID-19 transmission in warm weather. There’s close proximity to strangers, shouting, teargas, and other things that raise risks. If we don’t see outbreaks in a few weeks in cities with big protests — after any who caught COVID have had time to transmit it to others — then outdoor spread is not especially risky, at least in warm weather. (Indoor spread is another question).
If none of the protests become superspreader events — if decent but incomplete mask coverage and many sick, elderly, and immunocompromised individuals choosing to stay home ends up keeping transmission low — that means most outdoor summer activities can go ahead at relatively low risk.
If there’s minimal COVID spread, that would be great, but it’s also possible there’s a lot. And if there’s a lot, it’ll be hard to pinpoint the cause. Footage from reopened Vegas casinos and New York bars show that Floyd demonstrations are not the only gatherings going on, and the protests might have better mask coverage. But no matter what happens, attitudes towards coronavirus have changed.
The pandemic helped shape the protests and the protests are reshaping the pandemic. Real police reform could make the additional health risks worth it. But few things would be more frustrating than giving away some of the gains of quarantine without getting anything in return.