America rises up regularly. It’s in the DNA of a country founded on dissent. Millions have forged their anger into action, from the tax revolts of the nation’s earliest days, to the labor, housing and busing protests that helped shape the civil rights movement. The Me Too-fueled women’s marches of 2017 and 2018 and the March for Our Lives demonstration, born of the Parkland school shooting, each drew a seven-figure attendance.
It’s not just people and protests, though. It’s also policies and points of view.
“What started in 2014 in the streets of Ferguson has just spread across the country,” he said. “Having this kind of turmoil with that many unemployed young people, with this kind of national leadership that has zero empathy … this is the makings of real conflict, and I think we should be really concerned.”
Coronavirus also exposed the interconnectedness of human vulnerability, which provides a new lens through which Whites can view Floyd’s killing, said Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy.
“It has unveiled the way in which we are all interrelated and haptic. There’s a way all of our bodies are touching through Covid,” he said.
“The only way in which Black people will have success or the same level of equity is their interests have to converge with White interests,” Yancy said. “It’s not genuine equity. It conforms to the interests of White people.”
Some of history’s most monumental advances for African Americans didn’t emerge from a sense of justice or what’s right, the scholars say, but because of White leaders’ ulterior motives.
“You cannot as a country have the issue of racism sort of percolating or festering at home while trying to project yourself as this paragon of virtue when it comes to democracy abroad,” Steward said. “America could not look weak in that particular moment. America could not look undemocratic.”
The video of George Floyd
Duchess Harris, an American studies professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, echoes Yancy’s thoughts on vulnerability — especially White people’s vulnerability and “their relationship to illness and not being able to live life on their own terms.”
It’s just one in a complex collection of variables that explain the protests’ duration, she said.
Early Covid-19 quarantines meant people were home with ample time to watch the Floyd video, which rapidly spread across social media and TV. It was also the eve of summer, the season of protests, she said, noting that Spike Lee’s 1989 “Do the Right Thing,” about racial tensions and a police violence protest in Brooklyn, opens on a stifling summer day.
“Even if we acquiesce there was a fake $20 bill,” Harris said, “he’s dead because of that. … Why was he using fake money? That’s structural inequality.”
Floyd’s death drags out over 10 minutes of footage as Floyd pleads for his life, which is snuffed out as three officers look on without physically intervening. Going back to the 1991 Rodney King beating, Americans have watched police violence, but bits are often missing or extenuating circumstances allow them to explain it away.
Not this time, scholars say. The depiction of Floyd’s death was too timely, vivid and undebatable to ignore.
“The visual trauma which people were exposed to was a necessary condition to what we’re seeing,” Yancy said.
‘I can’t breathe’
Video of Floyd’s death, however, was a clarion call, Yancy said. Viewers watched, uninterrupted, as an officer kneels on the prone, handcuffed 46-year-old for almost eight minutes as he cries, “I can’t breathe” and calls out for his mother before his ability to articulate is sapped. Still, the officer continues to kneel. Bystanders protest, but they’re helpless.
“The very breath of this Black man was being taken from his body,” he said of the video. “It pricked the conscience of White people.”
What’s different here, Steward said, is the myriad White faces. Past police brutality protests generally have been African American affairs. With the coronavirus exposing White people to uncertainty about their health and financial well-being — concerns more pronounced in Black communities due to systemic inequality — “you have individuals who are facing challenges they see as part and parcel of the same system,” Steward said. Others simply may be more willing to coalesce with protesters.
Credit has to go to the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, which keeps the spotlight on White supremacy, police violence “and its White supremacist tentacles,” Black-on-Black crime and violence targeting LGBTQ communities.
He also sees more BLM signs popping up in White people’s yards, he said: “It’s like grass nowadays. It’s ubiquitous, right? Some of it is performative, but more people are comfortable saying it because they’re more awakened to the disparities Blacks face in the country.”
Steward and Yancy also point to the movement’s internationality. Steward compares it to the global outcry that upended apartheid in South Africa. In recent months, Australia, France, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other predominantly White nations have staged their own BLM protests in solidarity.
“They all felt the sting of White supremacy within their own historical contexts,” Yancy said.
The nature of trauma is another factor in how the world reacts to Floyd’s death, said Dr. Cheryl Singleton Al-Mateen, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Watching something horrifying happen to someone else could be a criteria for (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she said. “We all had an experience criterion that could result in the development of PTSD. It happened to the entire country — not just the country but the world because other countries reacted for us, too.”
It’s called vicarious trauma, and it takes many forms. Native Americans, Jewish people, African Americans, Japanese Americans and other minorities may experience historical trauma based on horrors exacted on others sharing their identity — something Al-Mateen says amounts to a “cumulative wounding across generations even if there’s no direct experience.”
“It hits you. It hits you very hard. This man was kneeling on his neck for this long,” she said.
Where Al-Mateen stops short of saying that watching the Floyd video caused varying degrees of PTSD among Americans, Janet Helms, a Boston College professor of counseling and psychology, says that’s exactly what happened.
Black people may not know anyone who was lynched or enslaved, but they know their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of life under Jim Crow, and they share their histories with slaves.
“When you see someone being treated in the way you’ve heard about,” she explained, “you experience the trauma in the same way.”
Whites, too, experienced trauma, and Floyd’s killing helped humanize Black people in the minds of Whites, especially White women, Helms said.
“George Floyd turned Black men into human beings for White people, and he did that by calling out for his mother,” she said. “Covid made White people sit and look at the murder of George Floyd. They couldn’t get away from it, especially White women. … They became aware they were allowing this to happen.”
Most important to the cause, Helms said, is the broad support of White men, who have joined the recent protests as well. They are the gatekeepers to change. It must be remembered, she said, “White men wrote a whole Constitution to protect the privilege of White, heterosexual men.”
Maintaining the momentum
Yancy is pessimistic about the ultimate outcome. Paraphrasing Malcolm X, he said you can’t plunge a knife 9 inches into Black people’s back, pull it out 6 inches and call it progress.
“There’s 3 inches to go, and there’s a wound,” the professor said, explaining that leaving the wound open intensifies vulnerability. “We have to open up and allow ourselves to be wounded by the violence. It has to be registered as angst or deep pain.”
Despite his skepticism, he said, “I would have to grant something bigger is happening here.”
Past protests didn’t last as long, Helms said, because White people felt “those events had nothing to do with them,” but the Floyd video and uprising viscerally exposed Whites to the trauma Blacks have always experienced.
The movement can sustain steam “as long as White people are involved in anti-racism and re-learn to think of themselves as moral humans and see others as human beings,” she said.
Steward, the history professor, said White people must demand real change, rather than perpetuating an archaic system of race management that favors the symbolic and performative. Policies must have teeth. School integration doesn’t work without busing, he said, and body-cam policies are worthless if police aren’t prosecuted.
“You have to see more than a statue come down. You have to see more than a policy,” he said. “There’s a number of people willing to say, ‘I agree.’ Now, they have to go beyond a yard sign, go beyond rhetoric.”
He, too, quotes MLK — who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — and he emphasizes America has a considerable journey.
“The arc of history is slouching toward justice,” Steward said. “It certainly is not there.”