Much ado has been made about the methods of civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers back in May. Even now, as demonstrations continue in cities like Portland, criticism also continues. Many use the destruction of property to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement while touting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for his promotion of peaceful resistance.
King believed peaceful protest as a matter of practicality for the then negroes of the 1960s United States. But this is not 1960s America. “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air,” Dr. King said in 1967. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. And in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard…our nation’s summers of riots are caused by its winters of delay. As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
#BlackLivesMatter surfaced in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In 2014, with the killing of Michael Brown, it became a rallying cry. Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri were met with a militarized police force that used rubber bullets, tear gas, flash bang grenades and tanks indiscriminately to disperse crowds.
Then the world watched for 8 minutes, 46 seconds as George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer. It watched as bystanders attempted to intervene, only to be threatened and prevented from doing so. And what followed was the eruption of protests, riots.
But what made Floyd’s death different was that it occurred amid a pandemic.
In the time between COVID-19 beginning it’s march across the country, causing many cities and states to shutdown, we heard of Breonna Taylor, the frontline worker gunned down in the middle of the night in her home by police, and saw how Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down while jogging by white men with ties to law enforcement.
In both cases, there were no initial arrests.
While this was happening in Louisville and Georgia, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data revealing the Latinx community—making up 18 percent of the national population—accounted for 38 percent of infected patients, while African-Americans making up 13 percent of the population accounted for 29 percent of patients. These numbers highlighted how communities of color were being disproportionately affected by the virus for a variety of reasons, including failures within the healthcare system and holding jobs where working from home was not an option.
These statistics were so startling that on May 19, six days before George Floyd’s death, Pennsylvania Representative Malcolm Kenyatta delivered an impassioned speech on the state’s House floor, challenging Bill No. 2513, which would overturn the shutdown orders issued by the governor and allow restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity.
“What we’re demanding right now, and what folks are demanding is that they get to be served, that they get to go to a restaurant and sit down and be served by a service worker who they refuse to pay a $15 minimum wage,” Kenyatta said.
Violence against Asian communities also surged during this period. KPIX reported that in California alone, over 800 hate crimes were reported between March and June, ranging from workplace discrimination to physical attacks and were all related to COVID-19.
Spurred on by the president, a predominantly white crowd stormed Michigan’s State House in late April, protesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home mandates, most without masks and without distancing. There were no tanks, no police in riot gear, no rubber bullets or tear gas, no government agents in unidentified uniforms and unmarked cars to break them up. Instead, these “patriots” were given temperature checks as they were allowed to roam the Senate gallery with weapons while some representatives in session wore bulletproof vests for their safety.
Picture someone carrying an open gasoline can, chest out, strutting with all the stubborn confidence a mediocre white male can muster, spilling gas over all tinder surrounding his house. He stops, pulls out a cigarette, and oblivious to the danger around him, lights it. After taking a good long drag and carelessly flicking the ash, he is startled to find both the rubble which he does not care for and the house which he does on fire. If the tinder is the grievances of people of color, the gas would be the armed siege in Michigan.
George Floyd was the ash.
The world, outraged at what it witnessed, erupted. People from all backgrounds took to the streets to protest and march, and yes in some cases, riot. Some cities burned. And at virtually every step of the way, law enforcement agencies at various levels made the spectacularly poor decisions to meet protest against police violence with more police violence. Decisions that rather than stem the tide, caused an even greater backlash and renewed a fervent call for defunding police organizations.
It’s about the value of life. Valuing life is the minimum. Valuing life in a society is a baseline requisite to widespread systemic change.
Or as W. Kamau Bell, host of the show United Shades of America, puts it, “It’s hard to start a riot when everybody’s got a good job, has access to healthcare, has access to education, and feels like they’re represented by their politicians and well protected by their police force.”
Public discourse doesn’t begin with a common understanding that people shouldn’t end up dead for carrying skittles, or selling cigarettes, or talking on the phone in the toy section of a store, or sleeping in your own bed. If it doesn’t, there is no chance of fixing anything else; no chance of compensating essential workers commensurate with their risk; or stopping the increased militarization of civilian organizations that are the police; no understanding a person’s perceived race doesn’t make them responsible for the pandemic.
Coronavirus held up a mirror to the U.S., exposing its deeply rooted flaws and double standards. People searched for ways to articulate their anger, and anguish, and translated their powerlessness into movement. So they finally settled on three words; words whose meaning in that moment transcended their origin to encapsulate the fears and hopes of the many coming together every single time they are uttered: “Black Lives Matter.”