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‘America Has Its Knee on People of Color.’ Why George Floyd’s Death Was a Breaking Point

7 minute read

The Simmons children were out past their bedtime. Frederick Simmons, age 11, and his sister Maliha, age 8, had walked with their parents and 2-year old sister Nyla to the base of the Manhattan bridge in Brooklyn, where demonstrators were protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Their signs were almost as tall as their bodies; Maliha had written “police suck” in her third-grade handwriting on a big sheet of poster board. The siblings wore small masks their mother had ordered especially for them: Frederick’s had baseballs on it, Maliha’s featured characters from the movie Trolls.

They were standing roughly thirty feet away from the police line, shyly explaining why they had showed up to protest: “because of racism,” Maliha said. “It’s scary,” said Frederick, “but also you have to stand up for yourself.” Nyla, two years old and sitting in a carrier on her father’s chest, held a sign that said “No Justice! No Peace! No racist police!” that was about three times as big as she was.

Then, in a moment, everything changed. Suddenly people were sprinting away from the cops–police had deployed either pepper spray or tear gas, nobody was sure–and the Simmons kids were briefly separated. The family reunited shortly afterwards and the kids were given new instructions: next time they have to run, go towards a wall and not into the crowd, so their parents can find them quickly.

That moment, their mother Kenyatta Reid said later, reflected what it feels like to be black in America: “You think you’re safe and everything’s fine,” she said later, “and then everything comes crumbling down, and you’re getting attacked.”

For many black Americans who flooded the streets of dozens of cities this weekend, the killing of George Floyd was the just the latest indignity in a year marked with increasingly unbearable death and despair. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected African Americans, who are more likely to contract COVID-19 and more likely to die than their white counterparts; African Americans make up just 12% of the population but account for more than nearly 26% of the COVID-19 cases and nearly 23% of deaths, according to CDC data. One study found that majority-black counties accounted for nearly half of all coronavirus cases and more than 60% of deaths.

The economic impact of the virus and the attempt to combat it has also disproportionately affected black communities: 44% of black Americans say that someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut because of the pandemic, and 73% said they didn’t have a rainy day fund for an emergency, according to Pew. Most of the “essential workers” who risked their lives to keep New York City running are people of color, according to the Comptroller’s office.

On top of all that, a string of killings of black Americans has made the pervasive racial injustice even more acute: Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down by white vigilantes as he jogged in Georgia; Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician who was shot eight times in her Kentucky home as police executed a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night; and George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“It’s either COVID is killing us, cops are killing us, the economy is killing us,” says Priscilla Borkor, a 31-year old social worker who joined the demonstrations in Brooklyn on Friday. “Every corner that people of color turn, they’re being pushed.”

After months of social distancing to avoid spreading COVID-19, the protests represented a breaking point not just in the fight against racist police violence, but also in the fight against the disease. By gathering in crowds with little chance of social distance, the masked demonstrators risked not just police violence but their own health, all to lend their voices to the chorus demanding an end to racist violence.

“I’m more fearful of a police officer taking my life than I’m afraid of COVID-19,” says Ozzie Lumpkin, a 30-year old sales manager who attended the protest to honor the memory of jogger Ahmaud Arbery. “I look at running as my freedom,” says Lumpkin, who runs 75-100 miles a week. “When he got killed, I felt like a part of my freedom was taken away.”

“You think about the cop who had his knee on Floyd, you think about how America has its knee on people of color,” says Borkor. “And so whether we stay home or think about the risk of coming out here in regards to the COVID crisis, either way we’re still being killed. So we don’t mind taking this risk.”

But after protesting for years against police killings of black Americans–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and thousands of others–some activists say they feel little has changed. “I know what it is to be called a N*****,” says James Talton, a 32-year old fitness instructor who protested in Brooklyn on Friday. He says he heard stories about his father’s struggles against Southern segregation, and “I feel like I’m still dealing with the same sh*t my dad dealt with.”

For that reason, Talton says, he doesn’t condone looting, but he does understand why angry demonstrators would destroy property. “For us to get the attention that we need, we’ve gotta set things on fire. Because it seems like nobody’s paying attention,” he said. “I’m afraid of living in America, period.”

Movement leaders say that this moment is different: between the health and economic carnage wreaked by Covid-19, the violent police crackdowns of this weekend’s protests, and the President’s tweets calling activists “thugs” and threatening them with “vicious dogs,” racial tensions have escalated to a breaking point.

“There is literally a brewing civil war that is happening,” says Alicia Garza, a leading racial justice organizer and founder of Black Futures Lab who helped coin the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” The militarization of police, the reports of white supremacist agitators infiltrating peaceful protests, and the rise of overt white nationalism have changed the stakes of the fight, Garza says. “White supremacists are now above ground and operating in broad daylight and being encouraged by our President and this White House,” she says.

In that unnervingly real sense, the battle has entered a new phase. “In 2014, people were building and understanding, we were still convincing people of all races that this was an issue,” says Deray McKesson, a civil rights activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero who was one of the most visible demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri. “Now it’s like, okay people are ready, they know the right and wrong, but they don’t know how to fix it.”

“I’m not having the same conversations about ‘All Lives Matter,’ that’s changed,” says Garza, adding that she now sees far more white allies in the streets than she did in 2013. But even if public sentiment has swung in their direction (particularly among young people,) the official response hasn’t changed. “Where are the officials that have used the opportunity of this protest to announce a political change, to change the rules that keep black people unsafe?” Garza says.

After they reunited, the Simmons family stayed out. Nyla wasn’t crying, and the kids were shaken but not deterred. So they trekked about a mile down the road to the Barclays Center, where activists were continuing to demonstrate. As they walked, Frederick raised his sign up high above his head, letters in elementary-school handwriting spelling out: “Am I next?”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com