I remember when I first heard about George Floyd's death. My partner had asked if I had heard about this new police shooting of a Black man, and I mistakenly thought he was referring to Tony McDade, a Black Trans man who was murdered two days later. I was confused by people suddenly caring about Floyd when I had already seen the videos that year of so many Black men and women killed by the police.
I didn't understand why this incident, out of a sea of injustices, jostled my fellow white people out of our complacency, but I was relieved that people seemed to care about it. There were a lot of connections formed during those earlier protests, and even what at the time appeared to be a desire to change policing (e.g., the Defund the Police movement).
All eyes looked to see what America would do, and then, well, nothing changed: a lot of ink was spilled, names were altered, monuments were replaced, some token legislation was passed, and the status quo remained the same. America gazed at the horror of systemic racism, and then just as quickly, it looked away.
How did this happen?
There are several ways a "public" (i.e., the collection of human minds that makes up a polity) reacts to an injustice once it enters the zeitgeist. Option one is that the initial anger leads to a push for substantial reform. People learn about an issue and rage against it. They then demand changes from their leaders or maybe even overthrow them, in some cases violently, until headway with the injustice is made or the public fails.
In this regard, we can think of the early environmentalist movement of the late 1960s and early 70s. Worsening pollution from leaded gas and smog as well calls to action, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, had people genuinely upset that modern society was hurting their air and water. The first Earth Day had attendance in the tens of millions, and the following years saw the passage of laws such as the Clean Air and Water acts as well as the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are usually backlashes against such reforms, where reactionary forces rally to turn back the clock. These forces don't always win, but any advocates of successful leftist policy should assume that an angry backlash is on its way. You can look at the overturning of Reconstruction, the second or first Red Scare, the current anti-LGBT moral panic, and even the 2016 election of Donald Trump through the lens of resentment and backlash.
This backlash occurred in the 1980s, not just against the environmental gains we briefly mentioned, but the Keynesian economics that governed the post-War period. The emergence of neoliberalism (i.e., the belief that the market should dictate all interactions) following the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism led to the dismantling of the New Deal and the Great Society safety net. The environmental movement lost its steam, moving to a non-profit-driven advocacy model that could not compete against and was, in many cases, coopted by market interests. Environmentalism pushed, and then its gains were whittled away over many decades.
Yet pushing for social change and weathering a backlash that seeks to undermine your gains is, in many ways, the optimistic scenario. The other main option is for the status quo to coopt the "spectacle" of your movement to prevent change from happening in the first place (see Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle). This occurs when your cause's imagery is plastered all over the place without it being linked to substantial policy changes.
The George Floyd uprising meets this latter option. Many political actors opted to add to the spectacle of the Black Lives Matter movement without fighting for its policy goals. Famously DC mayor Muriel Bowser put up a large Black Lives Matter mural that DC's Black Lives Matter chapter decried as meant to "appease white liberals while ignoring [their] demands." She then requested an increase in police funding: the exact opposite of the movement's goals. This was a common strategy with Democratic municipalities across America. Lawmakers committed to the vague promise of racial equality while fighting against it.
At the same time, many businesses and brands made token gestures designed to make progress seem like it was happening without changing their often systemically racist business practices. For example, PepsiCo announced after the uprising that it would rename its often criticized product Aunt Jemima, a change that took about a year to implement. However, they are still a company routinely accused of anti-labor practices such as union-busting and permitting forced labor from contractors. Their union-busting has not gone away, and while they have pledged to eliminate forced labor, the byzantine nature of our current supply chains makes that promise challenging to verify and unlikely, given troubling claims that have emerged as of late.
People who were activated by the horrors of systemic racism following the George Floyd Uprising found an entire industry of politicians, brands, and self-help gurus more than willing to channel their revolutionary impulses into more "appropriate" avenues. Rather than engage with a radical, anti-racist organization or direct action, many people consumed more anti-racist books such as Robin Diangelo's White Fragility and became involved in Diversity and Inclusion initiatives at work. These actions are fine, and you should not feel bad for engaging in them, but they will not undo racism at a systemic level. Learning about white supremacy and being more mindful of it at work will not restructure the system of capital built on racist exploitation, and anyone who tells you differently is either naive or lying.
Some may find it cathartic to get mad at individuals for falling into this pattern of spectacle and cooption, but in many ways expecting people to maintain the momentum they did in June 2020 on willpower alone is unrealistic. When the uprising was just a social movement that didn't require much sacrifice besides anger, people were really into it. The public (not you as an individual) then started to learn that systemic racism cuts to the core of the American economy. The plantation inspires our modern work norms, and how we work and house people needs to fundamentally change to combat it.
It requires more work than a hashtag or protest can provide, and if you aren't supported long-term, there is only so much work you can put in to fight it. People cannot keep protesting nonstop without a network of support. They need food, housing, financial aid, and, most importantly, organization to endure the consequences of challenging the status quo. While an impressive patchwork of mutual aid networks did arise, more was needed to organize in the long-term.
For example, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle — a radical project that sought to create an independent area separate from police jurisdiction — started in early June at the height of the uprising and fizzled out less than a month later, after momentum died down. The police then capitalized on several incidents of violence to clear out the area. Interest in this radical project was there, but a lack of long-term support and organization meant it failed to be anything more than a momentary flash in the pan. As Benjamin V. Allison and Ayse Deniz Lokmanoglu write in Inkstick:
“Although the Zone engaged in governance and in negotiations with the state, it lacked a unified government or defined leadership structure, instead opting for a horizontal organizational scheme….The hyperdemocratization of the Zone was not accepted by all of its residents, as some pushed for a concrete leadership structure, but efforts to establish such structures ultimately came to naught.”
Both on a macro and micro level, the left isn’t yet organized enough in the US to engage in this type of work on a large scale. If there had been a big leftist counter-movement already in place, then projects like CHAZ might have lasted longer, and, overall, the sanitizing techniques of spectacle would have failed to funnel people away from the cause, but that didn't happen. For various reasons that are too complicated to get into here, the left in the US is fractured, and its influence is vastly overstated. It could not compete with the mainstream narrative that policies like Defund were "unrealistic." After a few short months of protest, the national conversation shifted toward the 2020 election and other more "pressing" concerns.
This burnout and cooption opened a window for a reactionary counter-narrative, which, again, happens whenever any push against the status quo is attempted, even when it fails. Conservative Democrats (and even more conservative Republicans) were never in favor of the Defund the Police movement and almost immediately started to come out against it. "No, I don't support defunding the police," Joe Biden remarked while in Houston in June of 2020, while there to meet with the family of George Floyd. This anti-"defund the police" narrative spread like wildfire in politico circles and on cable news, where they framed it as detrimental to the American people. "…you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want to be done," President Obama chastised in December 2020.
The narrative that "Defund" was impractical became such a prominent talking point that the people posting black squares in June 2020 dropped off as supporters of the movement altogether. Around 67% of Americans expressed some support for Black Lives Matter in June. That number dropped to 55% several months later, where it has remained more or less since. And again, this is for Black Lives Matter, a political movement that was coopted to mean pretty much nothing. Support for defunding the police has all but cratered.
Now some people still care about systemic racism, even my fellow white people (and if you are here raging with me, thank you). There will always be those pushing against the status quo — a small few have been doing it their entire lives. However, the revolutionary energy of those first few months in 2020 has certainly dissipated, and that seems like where we will remain for some time.
A bitter conclusion
In retrospect, it's frustrating that this allegedly "once-in-a-lifetime" moment led to no substantial policy. The environmental outcry in the 60s and 70s at least gave us the EPA and cornerstone legislation like the Clean Air and Water acts. Despite the fearmongering about police budgets, most have seen their budgets increase in cities across America.
Meanwhile, the police are still killing people. In 2022 alone, we have lost Tyree Devon O'Neal Jr., Immanueal Jaquez Clark-Johnson, Eric Jermaine Allen, 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, Kyle Dail, Jason Lipscomb, Corey Maurice Hughes, Andrew Tekle Sundberg, Kevin Greene, Normiez Reeves, Paul Derrick Moss II, Patrick Lyoya, Tyrea Pryor, Antwon Leonard Cooper, Atiba Lewis, Donnell Rochester, and many, many more (The Washington Post keeps a good database on this).
This issue didn't go away, but many people are now interested in treating it as a settled matter. A combination of cooption and burnout has meant that the same people who were so eager to post Black Lives Matter hashtags in June of 2020 have switched over to Ukrainian flags and other more "pressing" issues — now decrying defunding the police, reparations, and other anti-racism initiatives as unrealistic.
I have witnessed and participated in several "uprisings" at this point. The same thing happened in 2014 after the Ferguson uprising: token reforms were introduced that did not address the problems of our carceral state, and then nothing. Sadly I expect the same thing to happen 5 or 6 years down the line when another predictable event jostles my fellow white public out of our complacency.
If that frustrates you, good, be frustrated. Be angry. Let the injustice of this country never be forgotten. America's foundation is cracked and rotten, and its citizenry needs to take out its hammers and get to the work. For the love of whatever you hold dear, join an organization (I am partial to the DSA) or get involved with a mutual aid organization and start swinging.
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I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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