Timing is a big part of it. The population has been in a pressure cooker for most of this calendar year. Additionally, his death triggered a response simply for what was done to him: there is video showing the officer (Chauvin) kneeling on him for 9 minutes while three other officers looked on as he begged for mercy. The duration of the filmed event, the posture of Chauvin, and the inaction of bystander officers was deeply traumatizing for many observers. Anxiety has been high as we spent 2 months under quarantine or other restrictions, watching people lose jobs, seeing unemployment increase while media reports that economic recovery could take ten years. We sat at home, getting more anxious and feeling less secure.
People of color have had enough. For almost 10 years now, people have called for a valuing of black lives, with a majority of protests being peaceful. Black Lives Matter (BLM) started in 2013 and has been trying to promote change for 7 years. They have had a policy agenda the entire time, yet they are often criticized as having no solutions. It is difficult to feel ignored and misjudged. Remember that, like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the 2020 protests started under the banner of police brutality but are really a reaction to so much more. People are fed up with racial inequalities in all our social systems.
Even before the pandemic, sociologists like Dana Fischer saw things changing for 2020. (Links to an external site.) Social demonstrations like the Women’s March and the March for Science normalized protesting for the current generation of white Americans, especially among women and people with higher levels of education. The effect was that a larger diversity of Americans felt they could and should join the May/June 2020 protests.
We need a human face. There is a historical tendency among the public to choose a face or a martyr that ignites their cause. This is a pattern across many social movements and in many parts of the world. Sometimes the person is a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. Other times they are victims like Matthew Shepherd or George Floyd. Studies show that social movements choose martyrs when they have an established group unity and the killed person embodies the shared group identity. Certainly, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has an established unity and George Floyd embodies the racial identity of the issue.
For those pointing to Floyd’s criminal record: No one at the core of the protests or the Black Lives Matter movement is saying George Floyd has never committed a crime. He may have been breaking the law. But our core American values maintain (1) that of innocent until proven guilty and (2) that neither the state (government) nor its agents (including peacekeepers) can kill citizens for committing a crime. especially a low-level or nonviolent crime. In this way, George Floyd’s criminality is not relevant for protesters. The problem they have is with an “extrajudicial killing.”
The debate over how protests should be handled is ongoing in the African American community.
Some people explain that these are not protests but acts of desperation, rage, and frustration. They ask us to think about what is causing so much desperation and to address that aspect of society.
“I think that riots, rebellions, uprisings are not demonstrations. This is a visceral expression of rage and frustration. And what we have to do is understand why it's happening and do something about the conditions that led to its eruption because it's too late to say, oh, is this a good thing or is this bad thing? People are on the streets, and they're angry, and they have a right to be angry. And so the response is, what are we going to do about the conditions that create this level of rage?” - Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, via interview with NPR (Links to an external site.)
Others have expressed concern that looters are overshadowing or ruining peaceful protesters’ message. Many in Minneapolis have outright condemned the violence and looting (Links to an external site.).
On top of everything else, there is still confusion over who is committing crime in the name of protests. Some say it is a few bad apples who come out at night. Others claim it is ANTIFA, though there isn’t much evidence to support that (Links to an external site.). This AP article (Links to an external site.) looked at records for those arrested in Minneapolis protests and found that 85% of the protesters were local and those arrested for looting and more illegal activity beyond curfew violations tended to have a criminal record.
There may be evidence that white supremacist groups are showing up (Links to an external site.) as provocateurs or to engage in criminal activity to make the protesters look bad. In Nashville, where the historic city hall was burned down, police found a Civil Rights plaque inside had been vandalized before the fires were set. They arrested 25-year-old Wesley Somers, who is white and has a criminal history (Links to an external site.) that includes domestic violence, child neglect, and driving under the influence. Similarly, the man charged with taking equipment from and then exacerbating the fire burning in a police precinct in Minneapolis was also a white male in his 20s. (Links to an external site.)
There appears to be at least some bad actors willing to take advantage of the situation. It isn’t as simple as saying ANTIFA or BLM is behind it. In fact, evidence suggests they are not. As more information becomes available, we will eventually begin to see what’s going on more clearly.
Finally, we should remember that riots and revolts are a part of American and world history, used by protestors and counter-protestors alike. For further reading, look for these books, essays, and articles:
Brown, Scott. 2015. “Sometimes Rioting Works.” The Washington Post. May 1, 2015.
Blain, Keisha and Tom Zoellner. 2020. "The Establishment Always Frames Change as Dangerous." The Guardian. See link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/10/protest-black-lives-matter-police-activism (Links to an external site.)
Gamson, William. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.
Harris, Daryl. 1998. “The Logic of Black Urban Rebellions.” Journal of Black Studies. 28(3): 368-385.
McAdam, Doug. 1999 . Political Process and the Development of the Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. University of Chicago Press.
Porta, Donatella. 2008. “Research on Social Movements and Political Violence.” Qualitative Sociology. 31: 221-230.
Ture, Kwame (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton. 1992. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. New York, NY: Random House.
Thompson, Heather – any book in the series “American Social and Political Movements in the 20th Century. (Links to an external site.)”
Tilley, Charles. 1975. From Mobilization to Revolution. McGraw-Hill.
Tilley, Charles. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge University Press.
*Many of these have been placed on eReserve (Links to an external site.) by our wonderful library faculty! (You many need to use your MyCT log in if you are off campus.)
Students are encouraged to look up each of the organizations active during these protests and look at their platforms and demands. Notice how the demands are stated broadly for national-level organizations while local organizations tend to have more specific policy demands tailored to their own community. From a social science standpoint, the policy goals that look at entire systems of inequality within each community will ultimately be more successful as compared to those solutions with a narrower focus on police training and rules for police encounters. There are a lot of organizations out there, so these are but a few:
For Color of Change, see their list of demands here: https://act.colorofchange.org/sign/state-emergency-black-people-are-dying?source=coc_main_website (Links to an external site.)
For #8cantwait, see: https://8cantwait.org/ (Links to an external site.)
For Black Lives Matter, see: https://blacklivesmatter.com/ (Links to an external site.)
Each BLM chapter will have a more specific list of policy demands relevant to their local area. See: https://blacklivesmatter.com/chapters/ (Links to an external site.) for each chapter web site and contact information.
Reclaim the Block (Minneapolis), see: https://www.reclaimtheblock.org/home/#petition (Links to an external site.)
ActionSTL (Action St. Louis) has four “campaigns” they are working on in their own community. You can see all 4 here: https://actionstl.org/ (Links to an external site.)
Students are invited to read more on these platforms, demands, and ideas and to form their own opinions.
Some proponents of this idea want a swift defunding and immediate restructuring of police departments. Other proponents of the “Defund Police” idea want to see gradual change over time wherein social services are funded more generously so that we can stop relying on police for every social problem we have. These folks believe it is unfair to communities – and unfair to police -- that we expect police officers to be responsible for so much that goes on in society. For example, researchers Edwards, Lee, and Esposito (2019, p.16796) state:
"Austerity in social welfare and public health programs has led to police and prisons becoming catch-all responses to social problems. Adequately funding community-based services and restricting the use of armed officers as first responders to mental health and other forms of crisis would likely reduce the volume of people killed by police."
This requires a change in our current way of thinking about public safety. See this discussion with sociology professor Alex Vitale on NPR for further explanation: How Much Do We Need the Police? (Links to an external site.)
Has this kind of “defunding” and restructuring ever been done in America?
Yes, but only a couple of times. One example took place in Camden, New Jersey in 2013 and continues to this day. You can listen or read more about it here: Interview with Scott Thompson, Police Chief in Camden, NJ (Links to an external site.)
A second example is in Eugene, OR. Their program is named CAHOOTS, and you can read about it here: How Social Workers and Police Share Responsibilities in Eugene, OR (Links to an external site.)
Q: What does “institutional racism” mean?
A: It means that racism is more than just the opinions or actions of a few racist individuals because racism is built into all our social institutions.
In order to understand how racism becomes institutionalized, students need to look at our nation’s history. Fortunately, there are a lot of good sources you can read to help you grasp this, including:
Aspen Institute Glossary of Terms: https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/RCC-Structural-Racism-Glossary.pdf (Links to an external site.)
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman and Littlefield.
JSTOR’s Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus https://daily.jstor.org/institutionalized-racism-a-syllabus/ (Links to an external site.)
Muhammad, Khalil. 2019. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Harvard University Press.
Roscigno, Vincent. 1998. “Race and the Reproduction of Educational Disadvantage.” Social Forces. 76(3).
Roscigno, Vincent, Dana Karafin, and Griff Tester. 2009. “The Complexities and Processes of Racial Housing Discrimination.” Social Problems. 56 (1).
Sage Publishing free resources on Structural Racism (Links to an external site.).
The legacy of residential segregation with maps in the Washington Post (Links to an external site.) (from 2018)
Q: There’s a lot of misinformation going around. How can I be sure what I am seeing and sharing is accurate?
A: Source literacy is very important right now. There are no simple answers, but we can offer a few good rules to follow.
Know that you are not alone. Studies show that most students are unable to determine what news is fake (Links to an external site.) and what is factual. This is a problem we all need to solve together.
Columbia College has a list of easy rules for students to follow to avoid reading and spreading misinformation (Links to an external site.). Here they are, reposted for you from the Columbia College Web Site (Links to an external site.):
Rule #1: Know which “news” sites tend to be unreliable.
Use online resources like Media Bias/Fact Check (Links to an external site.) to check the source.
Check out the Media Bias Chart (Links to an external site.), with source reliability and bias determined by a panel of people representing multiple political perspectives.
Rule #2: Look for common features that usually denote a fake or unreliable source:
Watch a WUSA9 video about "Facting-checking photos and claims from the nationwide protests" here.
For more steps to take, you can click on this image:
Rule #3: Get out of the bubble. Remember that algorithms create an echo chamber online and so you will be exposed to the same kinds of content over and over unless you actively seek out other voices.
If you have more questions, feel free to email your professor!
Remember to check out the readings on eReserve:
Clifford, Bob and Sharon Nepstad. 2007. Kill a Leader, Murder a Movement? Leadership and Assassination in Social Movements. American Behavioral Scientist. 50:10. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764207300162 (Links to an external site.)
Presumption of innocence is not a global universal, and many scholars have critiqued plea bargaining as a violation of this presumption, but it remains a legal right and a core VALUE among Americans
The obvious exception in several states is that the state can issue death as penalty.
Although it appears the city of Minneapolis might go this far (Links to an external site.). We shall see what happens.
Edwards, Frank, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito. 2019. “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States by Age, Race/ethnicity, and Sex.” PNAS 116 (34). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821204116