Protests for Racial Justice

Thousands of protesters raise their fists before marching from downtown Minneapolis to the site where George Floyd, who died while in police custody, was arrested, June 5, 2020.

Large-scale protests for racial justice—in particular against police brutality—erupted across the United States in late May, continuing into June. People from all walks of life, ages, and racial backgrounds joined in the demonstrations, which initially were a response to the killing by police of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd died while in police custody after an officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. A video showing Floyd—handcuffed, in pain, gasping for breath—went viral, arousing widespread outrage and condemnation of the policeman’s action. The four officers involved were quickly fired from the Minneapolis police force, and one has been charged with murder and manslaughter.

The level of attention to the killing of George Floyd signifies a historic watershed in terms of the issue of policing, racism, and African Americans. It occurred on the heels of another murder of a young, unarmed African American, Ahmaud Arbery, in Georgia, and the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, during a “no-knock” raid. As one common protest sign simply declared: “Enough!” The protests that originated in Minneapolis soon spread nationwide as hundreds of thousands participated. Many of the demonstrations were organized by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rioting and looting—distinct from the protests—also occurred in many American cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Vandalism and arson were perpetrated, as police cars and random buildings were burned, stores were ransacked, and significant property damage was wrought. Amidst the mayhem, police confronted both protesters and lawbreakers, sometimes employing nonlethal measures such as rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. Over the course of two weeks, about a dozen people were killed, including police officers. While most protests were peaceful, authorities responded to the growing unrest. In two dozen states, National Guard troops were eventually brought in to help protect lives and property. By the third week of June, the unrest had tapered off.

The passionate demands for racial justice surrounding George Floyd’s death have spurred efforts at police reform: to cut police budgets, end the worst abuses, improve accountability, and overcome racism. Opposition has risen to the concept of “qualified immunity,” which shields police from being sued for violations of civil rights. Restrictions on the use of “choke holds” and “no-knock warrants” are being implemented. One unintended consequence of the mass demonstrations may be a contribution to spikes in COVID-19 cases. Although many protesters wore masks, caution regarding social distancing was often abandoned as Americans took to the streets. Many public health authorities endorsed the protests, after months of emphasizing social distancing and of banning public gatherings of even small groups.

Image credit: © Eric Miller/Reuters

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