Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
The last time I remember using that lead for a column was on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. But it fits just as well on the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.
As I write this on Tuesday, it was just a year ago. The pandemic had already begun to apply its deadly grip on America, although we had no idea at the time how deadly or how life-changing it would become. And then came the shocking video of Floyd being murdered by the deadly force of Derek Chauvin’s knee jammed into Floyd’s neck.
The more we watched the video — and many of us could not turn away, no matter how hard it was to see — the clearer it all became. Believe your eyes, the prosecutor in the Chauvin trial would tell us months later. We were already well practiced in it. The jury would be, too.
Something had snapped. Police killings of unarmed Black people had been a focal point since at least Michael Brown in Ferguson. We know the list of names. It’s as if the protests over Floyd’s clearly needless death had been primed. Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, her house raided by cops, her body riddled with bullets, her crime being in bed in her own home. Ahmaud Arbery gunned down by Georgia vigilantes with police ties.
The death of George Floyd made us look again at the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. And not just look again, but also see. Just believe your eyes.
Walking while Black. Driving while Black. Jogging while Black. Sleeping in your bed while Black. It was all there in the unrelenting pressure of Chauvin’s knee, which we would learn he had kept pressing into Floyd’s neck for minutes after Floyd had died, even as the small crowd gathered on the Minneapolis street vainly begged him to stop. That street corner is now George Floyd Square.
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A citizen shooting a video changed the world that day. Police body cams, once released, often after long delays, too often tell a story that the cops had lied about.
Consciousness had been raised. Many states and cities have passed police reform acts, some, like Colorado’s, with more teeth than others. But police killings of unarmed Black men haven’t stopped. There always seems to be a new video, a new headline, a new name seared into the national psyche. As the headline in New York magazine says, “A Year After George Floyd’s Death, Police Are Still Winning.”
A year ago, and for months after, millions took to the streets. There were predictable late-night riots. There was predictable police overreaction. Journalists were sometimes targeted. One news photographer lost an eye to a rubber bullet.
Which images do you remember?
There’s the 75-year-old man in Buffalo, pushed to the ground during a protest march by a phalanx of cops, none of them stopping to help him up. Trump groundlessly accuses the man of being an “antifa provocateur.” He didn’t stop there. He suggested the man’s cracked skull was all part of a “set up.”
Athletes not just taking a knee. In the NBA, there was the wildcat strike. In the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell said he should have listened to Colin Kaepernick, that Kaepernick might have had a point. NASCAR bans the Confederate flag. WNBA dedicates its season to Breonna Taylor. Matt Kemp, a Black player for the Rockies, sat out a game in protest. A day later, some teammates said they wished they’d sat out with him. The NBA held its playoffs in an Orlando bubble. Each court had Black Lives Matter emblazoned on it.
Peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square across from the White House were violently cleared away so Trump could walk to nearby St. John’s Church for a Bible-wielding photo-op. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s, told a congressional committee that Trump’s unannounced and unapproved visit was “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for.”
Now the news is dominated by the inevitable backlash. Black Lives Matter, which saw its approval ratings soar after George Floyd’s death, is now routinely condemned by Republicans. A leading House crazy, Marjorie Taylor Greene, confronted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, accusing her of supporting “terrorist groups.” In her view, those terrorists are antifa and Black Lives Matter and not, say, those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Joe Biden wanted passed by the anniversary of Floyd’s death, is stuck in the Senate, with the two sides not yet able to agree on reforming “qualified immunity” that protects cops from being sued.
In Austin, they cut the police budget by a third. The state legislature responded by taking up a bill that would penalize cities for cutting police budgets.
Republican-dominated states across the country have either passed or are considering laws that would restrict/suppress voting. The voters they’re looking to restrict, of course, are Democratic-voting minorities. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis made the point, in case anyone missed it, by signing the legislation exclusively on Fox News. Two bills in Congress that would address voter suppression are stalled in the Senate. A voting rights bill named for John Lewis, who died last year, is unlikely to make it past a filibuster.
Meanwhile, critical race theory — a decades-old theory little noted outside of academia — has suddenly become an all-inclusive bogeyman for any discussion of race, particularly in the public schools. The New York Times Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project — 1619 was the year the first slaves were shipped to America — is another flashpoint. The author of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was denied tenure after conservative pressure when recently hired on a five-year contract for a prestigious position at the University of North Carolina.
It is a year, and if we learned anything in the Barack Obama years, it’s that change, no matter how hard we hope, comes slowly, if at all. In the Obama-McCain presidential race in 2008, the first debate was at the University of Mississippi, where the bullet holes in Ole Miss’ stately pillars remain as a reminder of 1962 when James Meredith integrated the campus. The soldiers, the riots, two deaths and a nation’s soul on trial. Astonishingly, there was not a single question during that debate on race.
I stayed on in Mississippi for a few days to get some post-debate reaction. In a state where music matters, where the blues were born, I took a route from Howlin’ Wolf’s birthplace in West Point to Elvis’ in Tupelo. In West Point, I found what I was told was the only integrated bar/pool hall in town. The manager told me how impressed he was by Obama’s performance.
“Did you see how many mistakes he made?” the manager asked me. “How many stutters? How many pauses? He made three. I counted them — three. That’s another sign that scares me. The guy’s too good — too good.”
And then he asked how that could be. I said Obama was a great speaker and a pretty good debater.
He had another explanation. “I think he might be the Antichrist.”
My jaw dropped. What do you say at that point? I just wrote it all down.
And so it went. And so it still goes.
Update: This story was updated at 3:36 p.m. on May 26, 2021, to correct the name of Ahmaud Arbery. It was updated at 4:57 p.m. on May 27 to correct the name of Colin Kaepernick.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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