The protest movement that has been going on for six days in the United States after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is unprecedented in more ways than one. Beyond racism, the protesters are now targeting the American president, Donald Trump.
The days go by but the anger remains strong. The protest movement born in the United States after the death of a black American, George Floyd, when he was arrested by white policemen in Minneapolis on 25 May, continues to grow. The night of Sunday, May 31, to Monday, June 1, led to renewed clashes between protesters and law enforcement in several cities across the country, including just steps away from the White House in Washington.
National Guard soldiers were deployed to some 15 states, while local authorities imposed curfews in dozens of cities. This was the first time since the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
“Something exceptional is happening in the United States at the moment, we are dealing with a powder keg that has exploded,” Judge Romain Huret, historian of the United States and director of studies at the École des hautes études en science sociale (EHESS), contacted by France 24.
The origin of the movement and the movement itself recall the riots following the acquittal in 1992 of the police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles or, more recently, the demonstrations following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson. But because of “the speed of the movement’s spread and its scale, with the combination of peaceful and violent demonstrations in so many cities and in such a strong manner,” notes Romain Huret, the history currently being written in the United States is unprecedented.
A special context
“The United States has been living in an extreme climate of polarization since the election of Donald Trump, who has not stopped playing with fire for three years by using racist words, inciting hatred and civil disobedience among part of the population,” says Romain Huret.
But the violence of the images of the arrest, with a man on the ground asking to breathe and a policeman preventing him from doing so, shocked a large part of public opinion. Widely broadcast on social networks, these images served as a detonator.
“George Floyd’s death also came in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, which highlighted the great inequalities existing in the United States. The epidemic has wreaked havoc within the African-American community, both in terms of deaths and the impact on the informal economy which allows a large part of this population to survive,” explains the US specialist.
A movement that goes beyond race
“By his lack of reaction at first, and then by his tweets that made the situation worse, Donald Trump symbolizes the absence of humanity. He showed that, for him, all human lives were not equal,” says Romain Huret.
I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
The US president tweeted a call on Twitter to shoot demonstrators to restore order and urged the local authorities to call on the National Guard, prompting the condemnation of Barack Obama. He also fuelled the anger of an American left that was already appalled by his handling of the health crisis.
“Compared to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, this is not just a racial issue,” said Romain Huret. Americans cannot accept what they have seen and are faced with a choice of social contract, of civilization almost: what kind of America do we want? All these manifestations call for a reflection on living together in the United States, on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”
Many of the white people among the protesters
Unlike the Los Angeles riots in 1992 or, to a lesser extent, the Ferguson protests in 2014, the current movement in the United States brings together a very diverse population. Many white people have taken to the streets spontaneously.
“For part of the white community, the death of George Floyd marked the end of the illusions born with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, when people talked about ‘post-racial’ and ‘colorblind’ America,” says Romain Huret. These whites now realize that there is still a long way to go because institutional racism is still present in everyday actions. They have become aware of the need to eradicate it.”
Young white people in particular are very mobilized. “Massive supporters of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, they represent a more advanced left on issues of racial and social justice,” says the director of studies at the EHESS.
Young white people in particular are highly mobilized. “Massive supporters of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, they represent a more advanced left on issues of racial and social justice,” says the director of studies at EHESS.
Police officers in solidarity
In Houston, George Floyd’s hometown, Police Chief Art Acevedo joined the demonstrators on Saturday, May 30, to show his solidarity. “I think we’re at a turning point,” he told CNN, hoping to see “significant reform” in the treatment of police officers who have used lethal force.
In New York City, Kansas City, Michigan, New Jersey and elsewhere, other police officers knelt or marched alongside protesters. It is a sign that even within the ranks of the police, attitudes are changing.
— Camden County Police (@CamdenCountyPD) May 31, 2020
“It’s pretty rare to see police officers joining protesters,” says Romain Huret. Often the police invoke professional misconduct in this type of case. But these policemen who have taken a knee to the ground show that they reject this argument and that this is clearly a moral fault.”