Why the George Floyd Uprising Was So Easily Forgotten
protests, backlash, and spectacle politics
When I first learned of George Floyd's passing, I clearly recall it. When my partner inquired about whether I had heard about the latest police shooting of a Black man, I assumed he meant Tony McDade, a Black Trans man who was killed two days later. Since I had already seen the videos of numerous Black men and women being killed by the police that year, I was perplexed by the sudden concern that people had for Floyd. I was relieved that people seemed to care about this incident, even though I didn't understand why it was enough to shake my fellow white people out of our complacency in the face of a sea of injustices. In those earlier protests, a lot of connections were made, even what initially seemed to be a desire to alter policing (e.g., the Defund the Police movement). Then, nothing changed: a lot of ink was spilled, names were changed, monuments were replaced, some token legislation was passed, and the situation stayed the same. Everyone was waiting to see what America would do. America stared in horror at systemic racism before quickly turning its head away.
What led to this? Once an injustice enters the zeitgeist, a "public" (i.e., the group of people who make up a polity) can respond to it in a number of different ways. The first possibility is that the initial rage prompts a push for significant reform. When people become aware of a problem, they become furious. When no change is made regarding the injustice or the public fails, they then demand changes from their leaders or, in some cases, violently overthrow them. The early environmentalist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s comes to mind when discussing this. People were genuinely upset that modern society was harming their air and water due to worsening pollution from leaded gas and smog as well as calls to action like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Tens of millions of people attended the first Earth Day, and in the years that followed, laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency were passed. Such reforms frequently face backlash, with reactionary forces uniting to turn the clock back. Even though these forces don't always prevail, proponents of leftist policies should always be prepared for a hostile backlash.
Through the prism of resentment and backlash, you can examine the overthrow of Reconstruction, the second or first Red Scare, the current anti-LGBT moral panic, and even the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This backlash against Keynesian economics, which dominated the post-War era, as well as the environmental advancements we briefly mentioned occurred in the 1980s. The New Deal and the Great Society safety net were destroyed when neoliberalism, or the idea that the market should control all interactions, emerged in the wake of the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism. The environmental movement lost momentum when it switched to a non-profit-driven advocacy model, which was unable to compete and was frequently appropriated by commercial interests. Environmentalism gained after being pushed. But in many ways, the optimistic scenario involves promoting social change while dealing with an opposition that aims to undo your accomplishments. The status quo's primary alternative is to coopt your movement's "spectacle" in order to stop change from occurring in the first place (see Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle for more information). This happens when your cause's imagery appears everywhere without being connected to meaningful policy changes. This latter possibility is met by the George Floyd uprising. Many political figures chose to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement's spectacle rather than fight for its political objectives.
Famously The mayor of DC, Muriel Bowser, erected a sizable Black Lives Matter mural, which the local chapter of the movement criticised for being intended to "appease white liberals while ignoring [their] demands." Then, in direct opposition to the objectives of the movement, she asked for more money for the police. This was a common tactic used by Democratic local governments all over America. Legislators fought against racial equality while pledging allegiance to the nebulous concept. At the same time, a lot of companies and brands made insignificant gestures to give the impression that progress was being made while maintaining their frequently systemically racist business practises. For instance, PepsiCo announced following the uprising that it would rename its frequently criticised product Aunt Jemima; the change took place over the course of about a year.
However, they continue to be a business that is frequently accused of anti-labor practises, such as breaking unions and allowing contractors to use forced labour. The byzantine nature of our current supply chains makes it difficult to verify and unlikely, given the troubling claims that have recently surfaced, that they will stop union-busting and eliminate forced labour. Following the George Floyd Uprising, those who had been awakened to the horrors of systemic racism discovered an entire industry of politicians, companies, and self-help gurus eager to help them direct their revolutionary impulses into more "appropriate" channels.
Many people increased their reading of anti-racist literature like Robin Diangelo's White Fragility and got involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives at work rather than joining a radical, anti-racist organisation or taking direct action. Although you shouldn't feel bad for carrying out these actions, they won't make systemic racism go away. Anyone who claims otherwise is either naive or lying. Learning about white supremacy and being more aware of it at work will not restructure the capitalist system founded on racist exploitation. Although some people may find it cathartic to vent their anger at people for engaging in this pattern of spectacle and cooption, it is unrealistic to expect people to keep up the momentum they had in June 2020 with just willpower. People were really into the uprising when it was just a social movement that only required anger as a form of sacrifice. The general public, not you personally, then began to learn how systemic racism affects the foundation of the American economy. Our modern work practises were influenced by the plantation, so in order to combat this, we must fundamentally alter the way we work and house people.
There is only so much work you can put into fighting it if you aren't supported long-term. It takes more work than a hashtag or protest can offer. Without a network of support, protesters cannot continue to demonstrate nonstop. To deal with the fallout from challenging the status quo, they require organisation, food, housing, financial aid, and most importantly, food. Despite the fact that an impressive patchwork of mutual aid networks did emerge, more organisation was required for the long term.
For instance, the Seattle's Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), a radical initiative that aimed to establish a territory free from police control, began in early June at the height of the uprising and disintegrated less than a month later as momentum waned. The area was then cleared out by the police after a number of violent incidents. Although there was interest in this radical project, it was unable to become anything more than a passing fad due to a lack of organisation and long-term support. Inkstick authors Benjamin V. Allison and Ayse Deniz Lokmanoglu note:
"The Zone participated in governance and negotiations with the state, but it lacked a centralised administration or clear leadership structure, choosing instead a horizontal organisational structure. Some of the Zone's residents opposed the hyperdemocratization of the community and pushed instead for a clear leadership structure; however, these efforts ultimately failed."
The left in the US is not yet sufficiently organised to carry out this kind of work on a large scale, both on a macro and micro level. Projects like CHAZ might have lasted longer and, overall, the sanitising strategies of spectacle would not have been successful in diverting people from the cause if there had already been a significant leftist counter-movement in place, but that didn't happen. The left in the US is divided, and its influence is greatly exaggerated, for a variety of reasons that are too complicated to discuss here. It was unable to challenge the widely held belief that "unrealistic" policies like Defund existed. After only a few short months of protest, attention in the country began to focus on the 2020 election and other, "urgent" issues.
A reactionary counter-narrative was able to emerge as a result of the burnout and cooption, as is the case with every attempt to challenge the status quo, regardless of success or failure. The Defund the Police movement was never supported by conservative Democrats (and even more conservative Republicans), who almost immediately began to speak out against it. When meeting with the family of George Floyd in Houston in June 2020, Joe Biden said, "No, I don't support defunding the police." In political circles and on cable news, where it was painted as bad for the American people, the anti-"defund the police" narrative spread like wildfire. "...you lost a large audience the moment you said it, making it much less likely that you're actually saying it,"In December 2020, President Obama issued a reprimand.
In June 2020, those who posted black squares stopped being supporters of the movement altogether as the idea that "Defund" was impractical became such a hot topic. In June, roughly 67% of Americans said they supported Black Lives Matter in some way. A few months later, that percentage decreased to 55%, where it has stayed for the most part ever since. And once more, this is for Black Lives Matter, a political movement that was appropriated and reduced to essentially meaningless. Defunding the police has almost completely lost support. Now, even my fellow white people who still care about systemic racism (and if you are here raging with me, thank you).
There will always be people who oppose the status quo; a small percentage of them have done so for their entire lives. However, the revolutionary fervour of those early months of 2020 has undoubtedly subsided, and it appears that this is where we will stay for some time. A depressing conclusion It's disappointing looking back that this allegedly "once in a lifetime" moment produced no significant policy. We at least have the EPA and important pieces of legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts thanks to the environmental outcry of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the alarmism surrounding police budgets, most departments in American cities have seen budget increases. Police are still killing people in the meantime. We have lost Tyree Devon O'Neal Jr. and Immanuel Jaquez just in 2022. Eric Jermaine Clark-JohnsonPatrick Lyoya, Tyrea Pryor, Antwon Leonard Cooper, Atiba Lewis, Donnell Rochester, James Wilborn, Christopher Lee Ardoin, Jaylen Lewis, Ali Osman, Tyshawn Malik Benjamin, Darryl Ross, Derrick Ameer Ellis-Cook, Jaiden Malik Carter, Donovan Lewis, Keshawn Thomas, Melvin Porter, Mable Arrington, Jason Lipscomb, Corey Maurice Hughes, Andrew Tekle Sundberg (The Washington Post keeps a good database on this).
Although this problem didn't go away, many people are now eager to treat it as a resolved issue. The same people who were so eager to post #BlackLivesMatter hashtags in June 2020 have switched to #UkrainianFlags and other more "pressing" issues, criticising defunding the police, reparations, and other anti-racism initiatives as unrealistic as a result of cooption and burnout. At this point, I have seen and taken part in a number of "uprisings". After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, the same thing took place: token reforms that did not address the issues with our criminal state were introduced, and then nothing.
Sadly, I predict that when another predictable event shakes my fellow white public out of our complacency five or six years from now, the same thing will occur. If that makes you angry, then be angry. Be enraged. Let this nation's injustices never be forgotten. America's citizens need to get their hammers out and start working because the country's foundation is rotten and cracked. Join a group or get involved with a mutual aid organisation for the sake of whatever you hold dear, and start swinging. I personally prefer the DSA.
About the Creator
King can usually be found reading a book, and that book will more likely than not be a psychological thriller. Writing a novel was always on her bucket list, and eventually, with Until I Met Her, it became a reality.
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