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“This time is different. I feel it in my bones.”
That’s what Faith Blass, 23, told The Boston Herald on Wednesday afternoon, when she joined hundreds of people on the Boston Common to peacefully protest the killing of George Floyd. “People are really getting on the bandwagon, and starting to see we can’t do this alone,” she added. “There’s a change on the horizon, finally.”
Like Ms. Blass, I feel the change, too, even as I struggle to articulate it. Perhaps that’s because I am just two years older than Ms. Bass, and so the only precedent to “this time” that I can recall is the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Yet as searing as the memories of that moment are, there is a difference between a moment and a rupture. What has changed since then, and what hasn’t? Here’s what people are saying.
Why this time is different
A crisis, cubed
Social unrest is never just about a single precipitating incident, Michelle Goldberg writes in The Times. As Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at U.C.L.A., told her, “It’s always a collection of factors that make the situation ripe for collective behavior, unrest and mobilization.” If America has just now descended into conflagration, it is only because the dry wind of chronic crises — a brutally racist tradition of policing, murderous health inequities and a yawning class divide chief among them — has for years been turning the fabric of national life into kindling.
And it was President Trump who finally struck the match, Jelani Cobb writes in The New Yorker: He has long espoused a strongman’s view of law enforcement that glorifies violence, and his administration has severely curtailed the Justice Department’s civil rights division’s ability to reform police departments. And then, Mr. Cobb writes, Mr. Trump botched the federal response to the coronavirus, which has left more than 100,000 Americans dead and some 40 million unemployed.
The tripartite crises of the pandemic, economic devastation and police violence have converged in ways that reinforce one another, with the financial and epidemiological burden of the pandemic falling disproportionately on black people:
Less than half of black adults in America now have a job, and because the typical black household has one-tenth the wealth of a typical white household, many have no cushion to fall back on.
African-Americans are also dying at much higher rates than white Americans. If the death rates were equal, about 13,000 African-Americans would still be alive today, according to the American Public Media Research Lab.
“We lost everything,” a leader of one New York City protest told The New Yorker. “I lost three of my family members, lost my businesses. I’m broke.”
Racial attitudes have shifted
While the scenes of police attacks on protesters and journalists emerging from America’s cities these days may seem shocking, they are not new. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie recently wrote, peaceful protesters and reporters in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 were met with an overwhelming show of militarized force:
So what has changed since Ferguson? Wesley Lowery, a journalist who was arrested while reporting in Ferguson for The Washington Post, contends, “The reason this feels different is not that the police behavior is different — it’s that more (not all) people, specifically white people, are willing to believe the truth than even just a few years ago.”
The data bears that out: 57 percent of Americans today believe the police are more likely to use excessive force against black people, according to a new study from Monmouth University, a remarkable increase from the 34 percent of registered voters who said the same in 2016 following the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
Social media is everywhere
Smartphones have become an invaluable tool for accountability that didn’t exist a generation ago, my colleague Charlie Warzel says. Just this week, for example, six Atlanta police officers were charged for tasing two black college students and dragging them from their car after a video of the incident circulated on Twitter.
But there’s also a downside to this democratization: “When you lose the gatekeepers, you can also lose context of any event or fact, making it easy for anyone to interpret it to fit their worldview. What I see as hundreds of instances of righteous protest and police escalation might be seen by others as proof of lawlessness and chaos,” Mr. Warzel notes. “That’s the nightmare scenario: There are two versions of the world, about everything.”
Why this time is not different
The American heritage of white supremacy
As my colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones told CBS on Tuesday, modern policing evolved in the South and in certain parts of the Northeast from slave patrols, which deputized white Americans to police enslaved people, limit their movement, quash insurrections and execute black people who resisted capture. “I know we, in this country, want to say that slavery was a long time ago,” she said, “But what we see today is a direct lineage from that idea that black lives are worth less than white lives, that black people are innately suspicious, and that you have to use violence to control this population.”
That system of control has changed over time — from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration — but it has never been dismantled. During a speech at Stanford University in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
More than half a century later, The Times’s editorial board writes, justice is still being postponed: “Racial inequality remains rampant in wealth, housing, employment, education — and enforcement of the law. This is not news, but it is the responsibility of all those in power to recognize and fix it.”
The failure to “fix it” remains bipartisan
In The New Yorker, David Remnick argues that both the Republican and Democratic parties have failed, albeit to different degrees in different times, since the nation was torn apart by racial division and unrest half a century ago.
“Perhaps the deepest frustration of thinking about 1968 and 2020 is the time elapsed, the opportunities squandered, the lip service paid,” he writes. “In the realm of criminal justice, the prison population began to skyrocket under Ronald Reagan and kept on accelerating for decades, until midway through the Obama Administration. Black Lives Matter began, in 2013, at least in part because even the Obama Presidency, for all its promise, proved unable to exert anything like a decisive influence on issues of racism and police abuse.”
He notes that the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, and Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, are both liberal-minded members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “In the end, that did not protect the life of George Floyd.”
The hierarchy of black lives
When it comes to police brutality, black women and girls have almost always been an afterthought, argues Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University, in Time. She notes that Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of the police in March, for example, sparked widespread outrage only after Mr. Floyd’s death. And unlike the officers charged with the murder of Mr. Floyd, the police officers who killed Ms. Taylor have merely been placed on administrative leave.
“The Louisville protests on her behalf after Floyd’s death were belated attempts to rectify and recognize the ways that Black women are rarely the first thought in our outrage over police shootings,” Dr. Cooper writes. “We must begin by recognizing that they are worthy of care, love and outrage too.”
Many people on social media have pointed out how this stratified economy of attention devalues transgender African-Americans, too: Two days after George Floyd was killed, Tony McDade, a black transgender man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Florida. There has yet to be an independent investigation into the incident, and the officer involved has been allowed to remain anonymous, according to ABC.
What’s going to happen?
How the protests play out may very well determine who the next president is, Thomas B. Edsall writes in The Times. “Could the demonstrations that have devolved into mayhem, looting and assault lead to victory for President Trump?” he asks, drawing comparisons between the current protests and those which occurred in 1968 after Dr. King’s assassination. “Will they empower Republicans in the way that Richard Nixon used his ‘silent majority’ and Ronald Reagan invoked the idea that ‘the jungle is always there, waiting to take us over’ to propel themselves politically in the wake of the riots and rebellion in Watts, Newark and Detroit in the 1960s?”
Mr. Bouie doesn’t think so. For one thing, while Nixon was challenging an incumbent in 1968, the incumbent now is Mr. Trump. “And whereas Nixon’s ‘law and order’ was a contrast with and rebuke to Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, a Trump attempt to play the hits and recapitulate that campaign would only be an attack on his own tenure,” he argues. “You can’t promise ‘law and order’ when disorder is happening on your watch.”
The truth, of course, as both Mr. Edsall and Mr. Bouie acknowledge, is that the differences between 1968 and now are too vast to bridge with anything resembling certainty. The future does not exist; like history, it is being made right now.
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
MORE PROGNOSES FOR THE PROTESTS
“March Peacefully or ‘Take the Streets’? Protesters Debate What Comes Next” [The New York Times]
“I’m heartsick and panicked because of what will happen in November.” [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last edition: The One Police Reform That Both the Left and the Right Support
Theresa from California: “It is amazing to me that in all the articles I read about police brutality, immunity, and accountability, I never see a single mention of the fact that there are 300 million guns on the street and that police are killed in some of the most benign circumstances. … It seems to me that if we want to improve police accountability, we really need to address the 300 million guns on the street and understand the basis of their fear.”
Cherian from Switzerland: “In the development and maturation of every police force, the beginning and the purpose of the force has a considerable influence: e. g., The police forces in almost every one of the former colonies have not been able to distance themselves from what they had been doing during the time of the colonial administration; i.e., a force to be used almost exclusively to control the subjects with brutal force. … As long as the political leaders do not see the necessity of change, things will remain as they are.”
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