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Cobb writes: "The impunity of the American police has been achieved by slow accretion through the decades, and with the tacit understanding that it would be deployed in great disproportion against black people. But, whatever ensues now, we are in a different moment."

A memorial to George Floyd set up near where he was arrested. (photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A memorial to George Floyd set up near where he was arrested. (photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

An American Spring of Reckoning

By Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

14 June 20


onsider for a moment how the events of May 25th through June 9th—the days of democratic bedlam in the streets, bracketed by the death and the burial of George Floyd—would appear had they occurred in some distant nation that most Americans have heard of but might not be able to find on a map. Consider that, in the midst of a pandemic whose toll was magnified by government incompetence, a member of a long-exploited ethnic minority was killed by the state, in an act defined by its casual sadism. Demonstrators pour into the streets near the site of the killing, in a scene that is soon repeated in city after city. The police arrest members of the media reporting the story. The President cites a threat to law and order, and federal agents are dispatched to disrupt protests in the nation’s capital, using tear gas and a military helicopter. These acts further erode his already tenuous position, prompting church leaders to rebuke him, and decorated generals to question his fitness for office.

In such a scenario, the lines of conflict gain new clarity, the abuses more unqualified horror. American commentators would compare the successive nights of protests to the Iranian uprisings of 2009 and the Arab Spring of 2011. The U.S. State Department, depending on its allegiances, might surreptitiously aid the protesters. We would all recognize the moment as the product of a traumatized society.

Now consider a different idea, that the death of George Floyd did occur in another country: the traumatized version of America inhabited by black people. Fifty-two years ago, following the storm of riots that swept through 1967 and 1968, the Kerner Commission report noted that “our nation is moving toward two societies—one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Today, the weight of grief and poverty in this country still falls disproportionately on black shoulders. The eight minutes and forty-six seconds during which a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd as three others looked on cannot be understood outside the context of a pandemic in which African-Americans have died at three times the rate of white Americans. The chaotic, angry, defiant tableaux in the streets of Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Louisville, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Charleston, Detroit, Baltimore, and beyond represent a reckoning, a kind of American Spring, one long in the making and ignited not just by a single police killing. In death, George Floyd’s name has become a metaphor for the stacked inequities of the society that produced them.

Race, to the degree that it represents anything coherent in the United States, is shorthand for a specific set of life probabilities. The inequalities between black and white Americans are documented in rates of morbidity and infant mortality, wealth, and unemployment, which attest that although race may be a biological fiction, its reality is seen in what is likely to happen in our lives. The more than forty million people of African descent who live in the United States recognize this reality, but it’s largely invisible in the lives of white Americans. As with men, who, upon seeing the scroll of #MeToo testimonies, asked their wives, daughters, sisters, and co-workers, “Is it really that bad?,” the shock of revelation that attended the video of Floyd’s death is itself a kind of inequality, a barometer of the extent to which one group of Americans have moved through life largely free from the burden of such terrible knowledge.

At a congressional hearing last Wednesday, Philonise Floyd said that he hoped his brother would be “more than a face on a T‑shirt, more than a name on a list that won’t stop growing.” The Reverend Al Sharpton cited that list, of the wrongfully dead, in the eulogy that he delivered at Floyd’s funeral, naming Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin. He could have gone on: Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. A sentiment common among many African-Americans is that these people lived and died in Black America, which is a different place from America at large—and that their deaths, most of which came at the hands of law enforcement, represent a broader reality, even though a significant number of white Americans were skeptical of its existence.

The demographics of the protests that followed those deaths tended to reflect this disparity, with overwhelmingly black crowds turning out to demand justice. But Floyd’s death, and the agonizing, protracted manner in which it occurred, has produced a different reaction. Seventy-one per cent of white Americans now say that racial discrimination is a “big problem.” They, too, rushed into the streets. In Salt Lake City, where the black population stands at just two per cent, huge, raucous protests stretched on for days.

Confronted with this challenge, the system went on a self-incrimination spree. In Atlanta, police officers used stun guns against two college students as they sat in a car; in Buffalo, officers shoved a seventy-five-year-old man to the ground, while others walked past as he lay bleeding; in Brooklyn, two N.Y.P.D. S.U.V.s drove into protesters. Images of such incidents spurred protests and acts of solidarity in dozens of countries. For many people, what they saw was astonishing not because it was contrary to what they’d heard of this nation but because it was similar to the repression they’d experienced at home.

Policing is inescapably a metaphor for governmental power. The impunity of the American police has been achieved by slow accretion through the decades, and with the tacit understanding that it would be deployed in great disproportion against black people. But, whatever ensues now, we are in a different moment. Officers in Atlanta, New York City, Buffalo, and Philadelphia have been charged with assault for their actions against protesters. Calls to “defund the police,” stripping them of all but their core law-enforcement functions, and allocating resources to other community institutions, are being taken seriously; in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to cut two hundred and fifty million dollars from the police budget. Last week, Democrats in the House of Representatives announced the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban choke holds, mandate body cameras, and establish a national registry of police misconduct. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz endorsed a package of comprehensive police reforms. The Louisville city council passed Breonna’s Law, for Breonna Taylor, banning the no-knock warrants that enabled the police to shoot her while she was in bed.

There have been other developments. The argument once mired in pointless circumambulation, between “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” has been settled. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., renamed a street leading to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza, emblazoning the phrase on the asphalt in gigantic yellow letters. The near-ubiquity of those words in the past three weeks—Amazon, Apple, and Airbnb all added some version of it to their home pages—has prompted a consideration of what this means in practical terms. Critics on social media were quick to assert that the truest endorsement of Black Lives Matter lies not in what you say on your Web site but in what you do for your black employees.

The American Spring has not toppled a power, but it has led to a reassessment of the relationship between that power and the citizens from whom it is derived. It has resolved any remaining questions regarding Donald Trump’s utter ineptitude as President; it has laid bare the contradictory and partial democracy that the United States holds before the world as exemplary. Most significant, it has clarified our terms. Floyd’s life is the awful price we have paid for a momentarily common tongue, a language that precisely conveys what we are speaking of when we say “American.” Fourteen successive days of protest opened the possibility that George Floyd died in America, not simply in its black corollary. The task that remains is to insure that more of us might actually live there. your social media marketing partner
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