The killing of George Floyd was shocking. But to be surprised by it is a privilege African Americans do not have.
A black person is killed by a police officer in America at the rate of more than one every other day. Floyd’s death followed those of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot at least eight times inside her Louisville, Ky., home by plain-clothes police executing a no-knock warrant, and Ahmaud Arbery, killed in a confrontation with three white men as he jogged through their neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. Even Floyd’s anguished gasps were familiar, the same words Eric Garner uttered on a Staten Island street corner in 2014: “I can’t breathe.”
Yet the timing and cruelty of Floyd’s death, captured in a horrific video that shows the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin casually kneeling on the victim’s neck, has spurred a national uprising. Since Floyd died on May 25, demonstrations have erupted in scores of cities across the country as veteran activists and newfound allies alike rally to the cause of racial justice. The vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, with simple demands handwritten on torn pieces of cardboard. Enough is enough. Stop killing us. Justice for George Floyd. Those pleas have resonated around the world, producing expressions of solidarity from Europe to New Zealand.
The protests have also triggered civic unrest in America at a scale not seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Protesters burned a police precinct in Minneapolis, torched cop cars in Los Angeles and Atlanta, and dodged plumes of tear gas from Tulsa, Okla., to Madison, Wis. By June 2, the National Guard had been activated in at least 28 states, and dozens of cities had imposed curfews to quell looting, arson and spasms of violence. Militarized police surged cruisers into crowds, fired rubber bullets at reporters and beat citizens peacefully exercising First Amendment rights.
For 2½ months, America has been paralyzed by a plague, its streets eerily empty. Now pent-up energy and anxiety and rage have spilled out. COVID-19 laid bare the nation’s broader racial inequities. About 13% of the U.S. population are African Americans. But according to CDC data, 22% of those with COVID-19, and 23% of those who have died from it, are black. Some 44% of African Americans say they have lost a job or have suffered household wage loss, and 73% say they lack an emergency fund to cover expenses, according to the Pew Research Center. “It’s either COVID is killing us, cops are killing us or the economy is killing us,” says Priscilla Borkor, a 31-year-old social worker who joined demonstrations in Brooklyn on May 29.
If the video was the match and the coronavirus was the kindling, Donald Trump provided the kerosene. Since the start of his term, the President has turned the Oval Office into an instrument of racial, ethnic and cultural division. A man who both-sided a white-supremacist march, went to war with NFL players protesting police brutality, called African nations “sh-thole countries” and told American Congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from was never going to appeal for harmony now. As the Floyd protests spread, Trump called demonstrators “thugs,” threatened them with “vicious dogs” and borrowed a phrase popularized by the Miami police chief Walter Headley in 1967: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Given the tone from the top and the grassroots anger, it’s a surprise this confrontation didn’t come sooner. The movement for racial justice was arguably the biggest story in America before Trump came along. Black Lives Matter began as a protest cry and bloomed into a political force: activists won convictions and shaped federal policy, seeding their message across college campuses and popular culture, in legislation and presidential platforms.
It wasn’t enough, but it was progress, and to many activists, Trump looks like white America’s response. “Trump was elected in part because Black Lives Matter was winning,” says Jessica Byrd of the Movement for Black Lives. “Trump was our punishment.” If so, he was an effective one. The President pokes sore spots in the body politic so incessantly that no single cause can sustain the nation’s attention. Protest is a performance, and the audience Black Lives Matter found during the tail end of the Obama Administration has been subsumed into the broader anti-Trump “resistance,” which pinballs between outrages: the Muslim ban, children in cages, impeachment. In a way, Black Lives Matter has been a victim of its own accomplishments: it articulated a language of subjugation that could be applied to causes such as immigration or gender or class. Systemic injustice became about everything, rather than the original thing, which was police killing black people.
That hasn’t stopped. From 2015 to 2019, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police shot and killed 962 to 1,004 Americans each year. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white people to be killed by police, according to the database Mapping Police Violence. The killings are continuing apace this year. Except now it seems to many as if the nation has moved on. “For us to get the attention that we need, we’ve gotta set things on fire,” says James Talton, a 32-year-old New York fitness instructor. “Because it seems like nobody’s paying attention.”
Nationwide riots, a virus that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, a President threatening to unleash the military on citizens–how much more can the country bear? Every day in this awful, exhausting year feels like rock bottom, and then we tunnel further into some hideous crawl space. More than 40 million jobs have vanished in 10 weeks. One in four Americans is out of work. And the reckoning continues.
It feels both terrible and fitting that the struggle poised to define the final months before a bitterly divisive election is a conflict that dates to America’s founding, a force so powerful it can push even a once-in-a-century pandemic aside. Those who have fought for racial justice for years–for decades–are resolute. “I believe that we have been working these past four years to get back in the ring with Trump,” says Byrd. “And I truly believe that we will win.”
George Floyd died at dusk on Memorial Day, outside the Cup Foods grocery store at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. Floyd had bought a pack of cigarettes with what the clerk suspected was a counterfeit $20 bill. Three squad cars converged to confront him as he sat in the driver’s seat of a blue Mercedes SUV.
Derek Chauvin’s was the last to arrive. Since joining the Minneapolis police force in 2001, Chauvin has been the subject of at least 17 conduct complaints, almost all of which were closed without discipline, according to city records. He was involved in at least three cases in which a police officer shot a civilian. Another of the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest, Tou Thao, was the subject of at least six complaints, five of which resulted in no discipline (one is still under investigation). In 2017, Thao was sued in federal court for excessive use of force over allegations he beat up a suspect during an arrest. The city settled for $25,000, according to a legal filing. (Attorneys for Chauvin and Thao did not respond to requests for comment.)
Chauvin and Thao are just the start. A review of federal and city records reveal a broader picture of impunity within the Minneapolis police department. A 2015 report by the U.S. Justice Department found that only 21% of conduct complaints against Minneapolis police were ever investigated. Only 13 out of nearly 1,200 complaints processed from October 2012 to September 2015 resulted in discipline, according to local news reports. In most of those cases, the police officer in question was sent for “coaching.”
What disciplinary structures do exist are weak. The department’s office of police conduct review can only make a recommendation to the chief, whose own decisions can be reversed. “I have seen so many instances where the chief imposed discipline and an officer was fired, only to have it overturned or reduced,” says Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU in Minnesota.
For two decades, federal officials repeatedly recommended reforms to increase accountability, curb use-of-force violations and build up community trust, according to more than half a dozen government reports. But Minneapolis lagged behind most other metro police departments in implementing them. Experts say the department stands out for the permissive language of its guidance, which notes that the unconscious neck restraint can be used if the subject is “exhibiting active aggression” or “active resistance.”
The results have been evident on the streets. Since 2015, Minneapolis police have rendered people unconscious with neck restraints like the one Chauvin applied to Floyd at least 44 times, according to an NBC News analysis; in three-fifths of those cases, the subject was black. Black residents were about nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses, according to a recent ACLU study. “People in this community have been very concerned about the Minneapolis police department for a long, long time,” says Hans Lee, a pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church. “It was a tinderbox.”
Police brutality has also made Minneapolis a locus of racial-justice activism. After the 2014 killings of Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., protesters occupied the Mall of America and shut down freeways. In November 2015, after Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed in North Minneapolis, protesters established an encampment outside a nearby precinct for 18 days. The following year, after Philando Castile was shot in a Minneapolis suburb by police during a confrontation livestreamed in part by his girlfriend, activists thronged the governor’s mansion for weeks.
Like the rest of America, Minneapolis activists have faced new challenges under Trump. The 45th President has exacerbated the tensions between police and communities across the country, unwinding some of the key criminal-justice reform measures that President Obama had championed. Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, reinstated a program that allowed the Pentagon to send state and local police forces surplus military equipment like armored vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonets and battering rams. Sessions restricted the Obama Administration’s use of consent decrees, which are court-ordered agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations. He also scaled back a voluntary program Obama created to help reform police departments.
Shortly after 5 P.M. on June 1, a line of nine military trucks carrying National Guard troops in helmets and tan camouflage uniforms slowly rolled onto the White House grounds and down a narrow alley near the West Wing. The trucks’ canvas tops passed just below the windows of the offices of the President’s chief of staff, Vice President and National Security Adviser, and turned along a fence line typically filled with tourists snapping selfies before the building’s iconic North Portico.
The rare display of military might outside the seat of American power was only the beginning. “I am your President of law and order,” Trump declared in the Rose Garden, just before curfew descended on Washington on the seventh night of national unrest. Trump threatened to deploy “thousands and thousands” of “heavily armed” military personnel to quash the protests. As he spoke, officers fired rubber bullets and sprayed chemicals to disperse demonstrators outside the White House gates. Shortly after, twin-engine UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters swept just above the tree line over the capital’s streets, buzzing a crowd of protesters with a downwash of air, debris and fuel exhaust in an apparent “show of force,” a maneuver used to cow insurgents in combat zones.
Trump’s aides believe the confrontations will play to the President’s political advantage in the run-up to the November elections. The unrest “really makes you want tough, Republican leadership,” a White House official says. “People do not want their streets to be lit on fire.” Campaign advisers see in the chaos a reprise of 1968, when Richard Nixon successfully courted white voters with coded racism against African Americans after years of sporadic urban rioting.
Not all Republicans are convinced. “Trump’s re-election chances are going down in flames,” says Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and Trump supporter. “It’s hard to see how these riots don’t boost Joe Biden’s claim to be the Alka-Seltzer America needs to soothe its stomach right now.” Stuart Stevens, a Trump critic who served as chief strategist to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, notes that Trump won in 2016 with 46% of the vote because nonwhite turnout declined for the first time in 20 years. “You can call them protests, but you could also call them nonwhite voter-turnout rallies,” Stevens says of the racial-justice demonstrations. “It’s hard to imagine anything that’s going to be more motivating.”
Even before Floyd’s death, race relations in America were regressing. Trump has emboldened a burgeoning white-supremacist movement. Hate-crime violence reached a 16-year high in 2018. Roughly two-thirds of Americans told Pew Research Center last year that expressions of racism have grown more common during his term. “There is literally a brewing civil war that is happening,” says Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter.
But moments of grace have emerged from the miasma of pain and despair. In Camden, N.J., police locked arms with activists and marched along with them. In Flint, Mich., the Genesee County sheriff removed his riot gear, laid down his weapons and embraced protesters. From Fayetteville, Ark., to Omaha, police took a knee in solidarity.
Two hours before Trump left the White House for a photo op at a burned church, before the sting of noxious chemicals wafted across Lafayette Square and a line of officers on horseback charged peaceful protesters, Anya Colon stood in sight of the White House columns, holding a Black Lives Matter poster. Her grandmother had marched in Selma, Ala., in 1965 to push local authorities to allow black people to vote. Now Colon, 38, had driven seven hours from Rome, N.Y., spurred by a sense of duty. “Trump catalyzed a lot of racism,” she says. “We have to do some things that make change. This marching has been going on for decades. I had to be here. Something from inside my gut drove me and pulled me here.” She had come with her cousin Iliana Arthur, 41. Arthur also held a sign. It read: We matter.
With reporting by Alana Abramson, Brian Bennett, Tessa Berenson, Vera Bergengruen, Philip Elliot and Lissandra Villa/Washington; and Jasmine Aguilera, Charlotte Alter, Josiah Bates, Paul Moakley and Olivia B. Waxman/New York
This appears in the June 15, 2020 issue of TIME.