Some people have asked why 2020 is so crazy. First Coronavirus, and now the Geroge Floyd murder, as if they were two completely unrelated events that happened to fall during the same year.
When you study history, you see that key events that seem to be the turning point in history are often one spark among many that ignites the flame of change.
Most people think Rosa Parks was the first to refuse to give up her seat on the bus, but there were others like Claudette Colvin. Most people think that the Revolutionary War began at the Battle of Lexington because the British came to confiscate their guns, but there were numerous confiscations for over a year before Lexington.
So, why do we know Rosa Parks and not Claudette Colvin? Why do we know the Battle of Lexington and not the Battle of Woburn?
The answer is that the one spark out of many landed in kindling ready to ignite. In the case of the Battle of Lexington, the unique factor was that there was time for Paul Revere to reach the colonists and warn them so they could be standing ready to fight rather than asleep in their beds when the British came.
In the case of Rosa Parks, the unique factor was that she was connected with the NAACP so that when she refused to give up her seat her story could be told and would spread around the country.
I rewatched the video of Eric Garner in researching this article. In it, Garner is approached by police after breaking up a fight. The police claim he was selling unlicensed cigarettes. Garner states that they are always arresting him without cause, but this time he refuses to let it happen again. Suddenly and without warning, the police pounce on him, put him in a choke hold, wrestle him to the ground, push his face into the pavement, and handcuff him. Later that day he was declared dead at the hospital.
In some ways, the Garner situation is worse because it’s not just one bad cop abusing authority while others stand idly by. It’s a group of cops all following their standard procedure, and that procedure involves arresting a man who served the peace by braking up a fight, choking him to the ground, and excessive violence.
That’s a pretty hot spark, and it ignited a small fire, but it didn’t spread.
The kindling was not dry enough.
Now, let’s think about May 25th, 2020. Covid-19 had kept most of America in some form of quarantine for two and a half months by that time. 1 in 5 people was unemployed, and many more were either working from home or being paid to stay on the payroll but not work. People have been watching images of armed protesters rallying in state capitals against quarantine restrictions, and anti-racism activists had been decrying the fact that a black crowd, similarly armed would never have been allowed to peacefully protest.
On this day, George Floyd was murdered over the course of an excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds. During this time, he cried out “I can’t breathe,” words that people of color and their allies have been using as a slogan for police brutality for 6 years. America watched Derek Chauvin expressionlessly kneel on Floyd’s neck for minute after minute as members of the crowd tried to convince him to let him breathe, including one off duty EMT.
Some conspiracy theorists will claim that Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” just like Garner did shows that it’s a conspiracy to, um, empower lizard people or something. But the fact is that people who are being choked to death tend to gasp out “I can’t breathe.” The nature of being killed by asphyxiation is that you can’t breathe very well.
I believe that if this same video had been released one year ago, we would have seen a much more moderate response. There would have been protests in Minneapolis and other cities, but then people would have returned to their lives and their jobs and let it pass into tragic history.
As we enter the summer of 2020, many people don’t have lives and jobs to return to. They have been waiting for three months with their lives on hold. It was almost as if God had cleared their calendars so they would be ready. It is at this moment that they see a murder so disgusting, so despicable, so inexcusable that they must act.
In Mystic, Connecticut, there has been a rally at noon every day this week, and there were an estimated 300 people present on Friday in a community with a population of about 20,000 people, over 96% of whom are white. One key precursor to have this kind of daily rally is a population that’s not busy going to work and school and all the other things that fill our time and prevent our getting involved in making the world a better place.
The violence in some cities (which is a very small proportion of the rallies, the vast majority of which are peaceful) is also likely driven by this same phenomenon. The agent provocateurs, which I discussed in a previous article, are also more likely to be out of work. It’s difficult to travel a few hundred miles, break some stuff, and possibly get arrested if you need to be back at work on Monday.
For many white observers, the tremendous response to George Floyd’s death may seem strange or coincidental. For people in the black community who have been living in fear of police brutality for as long as they can remember, George Floyd is one of many who have died at the hands of police. The only difference is that this time all of America is not distracted by work and school and sports and TV because this time, there is nothing to watch but the injustice before us. When you cannot look away, the sight is unbearable, and the only choice becomes action.
Things are changing because, for the first time in a long time, America is paying attention.