The death of George Floyd has sparked/resulted in significant protests against police brutality and racial injustice around the country over the past week-and-a-half. Floyd, an African-American man, died at age 46 May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Large uprisings occurred in a few dozen cities. Locally, citizens have hosted a peaceful march, vigil and rallies in Eau Claire and Menomonie.
To put recent events in historical perspective, the Leader-Telegram spoke with Peter Hart-Brinson, associate professor of sociology and communication and journalism, who has taught classes on social movements, diversity and media.
Hart-Brinson discussed Floyd’s death in the context of many other recent officer-involved deaths of African Americans, how leaders should respond and the continuing prevalence of racism and discrimination.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
What was your reaction when you heard about the death of George Floyd?
My first reaction was sadness, but I also wasn’t surprised. Over the past eight years, we have seen a number of incidents similar to the killing of George Floyd, and so especially when the violence broke out, that was to be expected, given the fact that this is an ongoing trend and not a single isolated event. The video itself was horrifying. I don’t understand what could justify such behavior by the police officers. But we’ve seen this story before.
I am surprised at how the violence seems to have shifted over time. It’s lasted longer than I expected and it seems to have changed direction.
What exactly do you mean by that?
The initial (protest) violence in Minneapolis and St. Paul was an expression of pure anger and frustration. Typically when we see property destruction and violence like that, it happens because other nonviolent protest methods have failed; violence is an option of last resort … Over time I think the violence has changed so that it’s less about race and more about a general frustration with a lot of different political issues. Violent protest is rarely good for a community; in fact violent protest is usually destructive of communities, so that’s why it’s an option of last resort. So the longer the violence goes on the more destructive it becomes, I think, for the cause of racial justice more generally.
Why do you think George Floyd’s death struck a nerve?
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It was no different than many of the other straws ... Some people have speculated that it’s related to coronavirus. The disease itself has hit the African-American community more hard than the white community, and the African-American community has suffered disproportionately in terms of job loss.
This kind of thing happens all the time in terms of collective behavior. The Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969 was no different than any of the dozens and dozens of other police raids that took place on gay bars in New York City, San Francisco and cities all over the country. It was a pattern that people finally became fed up with and rebelled against, so it would not be surprising if it was the very ordinariness of the George Floyd killing that is the reason that people responded so angrily.
When you see violent protests, there’s always a mix of authentic anger and opportunity. In other words, some people engage in violent protest for what you might see would be legitimate reasons, that people are angry. Other people engage in violent protest because they have some broader ideology that they’re interested in advancing and they see this as an opportunity … Oftentimes those people don’t really care about the cause, per se, in this case George Floyd and racial justice, but they’re doing it for some other point.
One of the things that’s scary is that all the norms have been thrown off now. This is a moment of radical instability and some of it is genuine, but some of it is just an opening for groups that otherwise would not have a platform.
What’s the closest parallel to dozens of protests occurring in various cities around the country?
I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the 1968 riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination … It’s worth pointing out the similarities here. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech five years before he was assassinated, and his assassination took place almost 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
That movement had been using nonviolent protests for 15 years and seen only very limited results. So when Martin Luther King was assassinated, it was no surprise that people turned to violence. It didn’t seem like nonviolence was working, and so the same thing here. We’ve seen eight years of peaceful protests from people who are trying to stop the killings of African-Americans, and we haven’t seen much, if any, change.
How long do you think (protests) will go on?
At this point all bets are off … I think that the violence has taken on many things beyond racial justice and the longer it drags on and the more it’s politicized, the less optimistic I am that we will see positive change come from this.
What would effective leadership look like in this situation from local officials or national politicians?
Effective leadership is forgetting about scoring points against the other side. Effective leadership is bringing about reconciliation. Effective leadership is figuring out how to unite everyone — left and right, black and white, police and civilians. Effective leadership is about restoring the bonds of trust that make society function. When you see leaders acting in ways that encourage division rather than reconciliation it just makes everything worse … We can’t politicize it. We can’t let some broader conflict between liberals and conservatives in the Trump era take over the narrative, and the longer this goes on the more I see that happening.
Going forward, are there certain aspects you’ll pay attention to or questions you want answered?
The first thing to look for is at the level of local and municipal politics. What changes do specific police departments and governments make in response to this chain of events? A good leader is going to look at this and say, “No matter how bad this is right now, no matter who’s to blame for what, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
The other thing we have to look for is what long-term changes are made because of this. The fundamental issues that drive these protests are centuries in the making. They’re not about individual people and their good or bad decisions. They’re about systems that determine who has an equal chance to succeed in life … There are a complex set of forces that give advantages to white people and disadvantages to people of color. To really make a difference in the underlying cause of the violence, we need to make systemic changes that affect the economy and affect the education system and affect the criminal justice system. If we don’t do that, no matter how good the changes are at the local level, we’re going to see things like this happen again.
Any other comments?
It’s really hard to measure discrimination and racism. Social scientists work really hard to try to determine how much racism and discrimination there is. Using the best measurements we have, there’s been no detectable decline in the level of racial discrimination against African-Americans since at least 1989. We can’t really say for sure what happened before then because it wasn’t until the late ‘80s when our ability to measure discrimination actually got pretty good, which effectively means that we don’t actually have any strong evidence that the level of racial discrimination against African-Americans has ever declined, at least here in the north. There are a fair number of people who deny that race matters, and I wish we could say that race doesn’t matter anymore, but the evidence says (otherwise).
Maybe now more people are at least becoming aware of that.
I think most people, when this violence happened, maybe have said, “Wow, maybe things were worse than I thought.” But the longer the violence goes on, the more people I think will say that racism is the fault of African-Americans. They’ll look at the violence and say, “That’s the reason they’re not doing better in life. That’s the reason why they’re poor,” this, that and the other. Whatever racial inequality they want to look at, this violence will become evidence for why the racism remains. I think that’s the reason why I’m very worried. The longer this drags on, I think it creates more fuel for that opposing view.