As protests continue to mount over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, what has turned the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014-2016 into mass protests today?
Has the zeitgeist shift so much in the past five years? Did people truly started to realize that the police have unchecked power and systematically treat black men and women far differently from their white compatriots? Is the videotaped murder of Floyd any worse that the footage of Eric Garner’s or Michael Brown’s murder?
It is none of these things.
While increased frustration at the police’s unequal treatment of black lives may explain part of the change, particularly among the black victim population, there is something else that has transformed these into mass protests.
It is Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most liberals refrained from criticizing Obama for his deportation of 3 million undocumented immigrants, as the ‘Deporter in Chief’, during his first term but found the deliberate separation of migrant families under Trump un-American. Similarly, police violence against black lives under Obama did not cause widescale protests, but they clearly have recently under Trump.
The police, in their militarism, brutality and racism seem to be of the president’s ilk. It is difficult not to see the similarity in the fascist-like tendencies of both the police, in their violence towards protesters and journalists, and Trump, in gassing protesters for campaign photo-ops and advocating for violence against them (“looting will lead to shooting”). Because the police seem to be an extension of Trump’s rule, liberals are far more likely join the BLM protests than they were under Obama. Under Obama, liberals typically supported the government and, therefore, were less apt to criticize elements of his government, even if they were local and not directly connected to the federal government, like the police.
The other piece is the Covid-19 pandemic. When mass protests erupted in late May, many Americans lived in states that were still in the early stages of reopening after two and a half months of stay-at-home orders. As social animals, physical isolation took a heavy psychological toll on all of us. In late May, as things – for the time being – seemed to be getting a little better, social isolation translated into a strong desire for community, to physically interact with others and a strong penchant for solidarity. Unlike in 2014-2016, this helped drive masses of people to join the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Undoubtedly, there is the pent-up anger, due to 400 years of black oppression in the United States, which culminated when Derek Chauvin acted like a slavecatcher straight out of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and took the life of a detained black man. But, again, that raises the question of why now and not five years ago.
It is none other than Donald Trump and Covid-19.
Now one can only hope that these mass protests will cause the police to treat black lives with equal value and reduce the police’s insulated, militaristic power.
But one thing is for sure: Whatever drove the mass protests and mass support among liberals, Democrats and independent, their mindset has changed. There is an acknowledgement that police’s disproportionate killing blacks is not ok. There is an acknowledgement that police who murder and brutalize must face accountability. There is an understanding that police should not have military weapons and treat streets like battlefields.
Hopefully, after these protests are long gone, this consciousness will remain among the masses.