Death of George Floyd: “The protests of 2020 constitute the biggest social movement in the history of the United States”
The first trial in the George Floyd case, a 46-year-old African-American who died of suffocation in Minneapolis in May 2020, opens Monday, March 8 in Minnesota. Derek Chauvin, the white policeman who had kept his knee on the victim’s neck for more than eight minutes, is on trial there for “intentional homicide”. The agony of George Floyd had engulfed the United States, prompting millions of protesters to demand police reforms and an end to racial inequalities, and aroused great excitement beyond American borders. Charlotte Recoquillon, journalist and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics, specialist in racial issues in the United States, explains to franceinfo why this affair has taken on an unprecedented scale.
Franceinfo: How to explain the impact, especially in the media, of the death of George Floyd?
Charlotte Recoquillon: The scale of this new case of racist police violence can be explained by three factors. The first is the existence of the video of the arrest. Other violent arrests have been filmed before but this one is striking because we clearly see the total indifference of one of the police officers to the calls for help from George Floyd. Not only does he not intervene, but he prevents passers-by from approaching Derek Chauvin, who has his knee on the man’s neck. Paradoxically, this video is also shocking because it has elements in common with other cases: the victim repeats several times that she cannot breathe, like Eric Garner [un Afro-Américain mort asphyxié lors d’une interpellation à New York] in 2014.
The second factor is the work carried out for several years by activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. It contributes to public awareness of the existence of police violence and racism in the United States. The company is ready to see and denounce these cases thanks to this work of mobilization and construction of a social movement.
The third factor is the context in which this matter takes place. On the one hand, the health crisis has made Americans more anxious, but also more available to protest. On the other hand, the pre-electoral climate of the presidential campaign helps to mobilize part of public opinion.
Before him, other blacks were killed by the police, in particular Breonna Taylor a few weeks earlier, in March 2020. Why is it this case, more than any other, which is causing a conflagration in American society?
There was a strong mobilization in Minnesota. The inhabitants of Minneapolis have a “local memory” of police violence: we know that other blacks before him have been harassed, brutalized, shot dead by the police. The city mobilized quickly after his death to seek justice, because it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. This citizen mobilization was relayed at the national level, in particular by Black Lives Matter, and it is thanks to it that there are legal proceedings today.
Again, video plays an important role. In the case of Breonna Taylor, there are no images: it is the word of the family against that of the police, which is difficult to question. But for George Floyd, the police find it more difficult to deny the facts or to try to reconstruct the account of the events.
Has this affair ever led to changes in American society?
It is not because the death of George Floyd is a singular event that it is anecdotal: it had an incredible impact. The protests of June and July 2020 are the largest social movement in US history. They mobilized thousands of demonstrators with varied profiles, in all states, both on university campuses and in large metropolises and in smaller towns.
His death also outraged part of the white population, which had so far struggled to recognize the existence of systemic racism within the police. These people found it hard to take African Americans at their word because the discrimination they describe does not correspond to their own experience with law enforcement. This case, documented in video, has been a game-changer for some Americans. Especially since George Floyd was killed in a context of accelerating the rise of white supremacism under Donald Trump. The resurgence of discriminatory behavior, at both institutional and individual levels, has become more visible.
Those who do not believe in systemic racism but are attached to respect for fundamental freedoms have been deeply shocked by these images. They also believe that Derek Chauvin must answer for his actions in court. This case continues to erode trust in law enforcement. And this coincides with an important work of pedagogy and citizen mobilization led by the Black Lives Matter movement. When the demand to define the Minneapolis police force comes after George Floyd’s death, it is no coincidence: these activists have been carrying this discourse on the ground for years.
Derek Chauvin, the main accused in the death of George Floyd, is tried from March 8 for “intentional homicide”. What are the stakes of this trial?
Many obviously hope that justice will be done, but without having too many illusions. It is rare that American police officers are tried for acts of racist violence, even rarer that they are condemned, a fortiori to penalties other than symbolic. If Derek Chauvin and his co-defendants [qui seront jugés en août] are acquitted, there is a very strong risk of anger within the population. But Black Lives Matter is a movement that sees over time, not just individual cases. They will continue to mobilize and mobilize, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Because it is almost the pitfall of a conviction of these police officers: that it creates an illusion of justice, without reforming the Minneapolis police force, or prohibiting strangulation techniques … In summary, it is essential that Derek Chauvin be condemned, but it will not be enough to sustainably advance the fight against racist police violence.