Protesting the George Floyd Killing: A Moment or a Movement?Historians in the News
tags: racism, social history, 1960s, police brutality, Protest
The Floyd killing has sparked a mobilization into American streets centered on race issues not seen in decades, but it did not emerge suddenly from a vacuum. The 2012 killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been calling out police brutality toward blacks for nearly a decade. “It’s the culmination of frustration about racial violence by police,” said Ousmane Power-Greene, an associate professor of history at Clark University, about the protests that have persisted since Floyd’s death on May 25.
Former president Barack Obama credited the Black Lives Matter movement with laying the groundwork for the mass demonstrations now taking place. In an online town hall last week on police violence with young black activists, he invoked Martin Luther King’s hopeful claim that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It doesn’t do so on its own, Obama said. “We bend it,” he said. “All of you have bent it over the last four, five, six, 10 years, and we are seeing the fruits of those labors in the degree of awareness that is out there.”
Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan, said despite the long, aching history of violence against blacks, certain moments seem to “hit a collective nerve,” pointing to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, widely seen as a pivotal moment in the launch of the civil rights movement.
What’s hard to shake from the video showing police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes is his calm demeanor, which appears no different than if he had been writing a parking ticket. It seemed to recall Hannah Arendt’s controversial description of what she witnessed in Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution: the banality of evil.
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