The anger that has erupted in Minneapolis and across the country in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd gives me hope. This anger — whether expressed peacefully or violently — is ignited by a betrayal of human equality. Without this anger, we have no hope for maintaining a democracy in the United States.
Just days ago, Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, said “I can’t breathe,” echoing the last words that Eric Garner spoke in 2014 as he begged Officer Daniel Pantaleo to stop choking him. Floyd pled to Officer Derek Chauvin, “Don’t kill me.” The cop nonchalantly kneeled on his neck and murdered Floyd in broad daylight.
It’s only right that the shock of another Black man using his last breath to beg for his life has ignited protests. In Minneapolis, where Floyd died, organizers led a peaceful march to the 3rd Precinct. Afterward, a smaller group went on to burn buildings.
“The emotion-ridden conflict over the last night is the result of so much built up anger and sadness,” said Mayor Jacob Frey at a news conference. The Black anger he refers to has been stoked by years of police brutality, in which mostly white cops arrest, use force and kill African Americans out of proportion to their numbers. Even current Minneapolis Police Department Chief Medaria Arradondo was part of a lawsuit charging the department with racism.
The protest march and fiery uprising triggered by the video of Floyd’s murder are interpreted by Frey and liberal media through a reformist “steam kettle” metaphor: They see property destruction and street uprisings as a symptom of bottled-up resentment that must be addressed but also controlled.
In this vein, many liberal commentators have sought to explain the protests as the release of pent-up pressure. Conservatives, meanwhile, have jumped on reports of vandalism to reactivate racist discourses of barbarity. Indeed, our president is using the White House Twitter account to spread racist rhetoric about “thugs” and to seemingly call for state violence against protesters, tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
What both liberals and conservatives miss is that the anger and the vision behind the protests are a crucial force without which the hope for a multicultural democracy in the U.S. is in peril.
As the pandemic ends, and we are faced with massive unemployment, it will be upon that faith that our future rises or falls. The protesters in Minneapolis are not just fighting for justice for George Floyd, they’re fighting for everyone.
“Organizers emphasized keeping the protest peaceful,” said Jeff Wagner of CBS 4, while covering the Minneapolis demonstration, “Chants of ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘It could have been me’ filled the air.” The camera pan of the May 26 march showed a multiracial gathering united against injustice. Now protests have popped up in New York City, Denver and Chicago. The outrage flares up wherever underlying tension has built.
One hears in the slogans, and one sees in the diverse faces at the protests the attempt to act on a value: We must make racial equity and racial justice a reality. The lives of those different from us matter. More importantly, and specifically for the United States, one sees the affirmation of Black lives not only in what people in Minneapolis were protesting but also in how they protested. Many wore masks and maintained social distance.
“Thousands packed the area for the march,” CBS’s Wagner said, “But we’re also spread out to remain socially distant.” In the video, activists stood apart from each other like rocks in a river. In another scene, interviewees and passersby wore masks. In a demonstration to safeguard Black life, many took care not to spread COVID-19, which has decimated communities of color at a terrifying rate.
In a telling contrast, earlier in April and May, when right-wing militias demonstrated in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina against stay-at-home orders, many did not use masks and expressed an outright contempt for social distancing.
“If people are going to die, I’m sorry,” said conservative protester Grace Kosachuk, summing up the white crowd’s stunning indifference to how face-to-face rallies can spread COVID-19 like deadly pollen. The patriotic self-righteousness of defending personal liberty seems to exclude citizens of color, or those who live in the cities, or those who are low-wage essential workers most at risk of getting sick and dying.
One can hear in the “reopen” protesters’ rhetoric — and see in the lack of their rallies’ diversity — an anti-value: Instead of making small sacrifices to save other people’s lives, they are insisting that lives should be sacrificed in the name of “freedom.”
After the waves of COVID-19 pass, we will continue to grieve as we pick up the pieces of our lives and communities. Mass unemployment and unpayable debt may leave millions in poverty. Inequality will inevitably widen. Tech companies and tycoons like Jeff Bezos will have gotten astronomically more rich and powerful.
But set against this deep impoverishment of the masses and monopolization of wealth is a force that has grown exponentially too — solidarity. Across lines of race, class and gender, people have given of themselves. It is why 55 percent of Americans disapprove of the right-wing “reopen” protests. And 74 percent approve of the national stay-at-home measures to fight the spread of COVID-19.
When the smoke in Minneapolis clears, and the protests against the police murder of George Floyd subside, a fact will remain: Sparks of hope for a renewed populist multiracial and class solidarity will be harder to extinguish after this outpouring of national outrage over Floyd pleading for air, and pleading that Black life matters. And the communal sacrifice that so many are undertaking to save each other from the coronavirus is also creating a kind of groundwork for the kindling of this hope.
Together we must fight to ensure that when it comes time to take off our masks, it will be because finally it’s safe for everyone to breathe.