Updated: Sep 17, 2021
It was the incident that shook us to our core. The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis. A store employee called 911 saying George Floyd purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The first police car arrived, and just seventeen minutes later, George Floyd was unconscious, pinned on the ground by three officers, and showing no signs of life.
The State of Black Lives Lost: A Public Health Emergency
Dying at the hands of a police officer is alarmingly common for individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) in the U.S.
Research analysis in the October 27 edition of the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health found that between 2015 and 2020, Black people were killed at 2.6 times the rate of white people (1,265 total killed); and among unarmed victims, Black people were killed at three times the rate of white people (218 total killed), a rate that caused author Dowin Boatright, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Yale, to say that it is critical to recognize and treat fatal police shootings of BIPOC as a public health emergency.
While it is more common for Black men to be killed by police, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that nearly 50 Black women have been killed by police since 2015. And with only two charges.
Considering all of this, it is safe to say that the state of law enforcement in the U.S. is terrifying and in desperate need of an overhaul. All police officers take an oath to ‘protect and serve,’ and it is true that some of them abide by that oath. But there is clear evidence that others certainly do not.
What Was Different About the George Floyd Incident?
Just 24 hours after hearing the news, people in the U.S. of all colors, all socioeconomic backgrounds, faiths, ages, and abilities took to the streets in protest and united against police brutality and racism. And not only in the U.S., but all over the world. In more than 60 countries. On every continent.
With police brutality being so common and having lost so many Black men and women because of it, why was George Floyd’s death the one that sparked so much outrage? Why was this the incident that had the power to mobilize an entire nation—and the world—to say “enough?”
There are so many factors involved in determining what provokes people, what influences them, inspires them, or motivates them to act. And it made me wonder what, specifically, about this incident led to such an unprecedented outpouring of support. And more importantly, how can we keep that spirit of activism and unity alive?
Three Factors That Sparked a Global Response
1: The Video
Could it be the witnessing of the incident on video? If we read about it instead, or watched a news story after the fact without the recording, would it affect us at the same level? Have we as a society become conditioned to police brutality that in order for us to react, it needs to be something excessive or outside the so-called ‘norm’?
I was afraid to watch the video. But I knew it was too important not to see, so I forced myself to watch it. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw or how it would change everything. After I watched it, I was enraged. My heart was racing, my chest hurt, and no words existed that were accurate enough to express how I felt.
My first reaction in the moment was raw fury. I wondered how all of the people surrounding him could just watch it happen without finding some way—any way at all—to distract Chauvin so George Floyd could get some air into his lungs. Even if to throw something at him or set the car beside them on fire to cause them to move. Something. Anything.
Of course, I know I had no room to judge the people who were there and what they did or didn’t do in such a desperate situation.
2: The Act
Could such a massive response be to the way he died? If George Floyd were shot, would we figure “just one more” and be very angry about it, but perhaps not angry enough for people all over the world to protest? Has the number of shootings of Black people by police lowered our threshold of alarm?
I have been to several funerals. I have seen a covered body or two at the scene of a car accident. I have seen people being killed in movies. But I have never witnessed a man dying before my eyes, on video, for the world to see. Until George Floyd.
Still, that fact pales in comparison to the people who have had to live it. Family, friends and loved ones of George Floyd had to watch this on television just like the rest of us. But they watched it as people who knew and loved him dearly. The pain, heartache and anger they must have felt is inconceivable.
3: The Length of Time
I also wonder if the long period of time was what made people take notice, get angry and act. If we were only permitted to see a clip of the tail end of the video, say ten seconds or so, would that have changed the way we reacted? Was it time that let us, as difficult as it was, see the struggle and connect on a human level to what was happening?
If you watched George Floyd’s memorial service, when Reverend Al Sharpton asked everyone to stand for eight minutes and 46 seconds in a moment of silence, you would have realized just how long that amount of time feels. And how slowly it passes.
If you also tried to put yourself in George Floyd’s shoes during that time, you would have realized, especially as you were getting to the end, the sense of panic, desperation, helplessness, and hopelessness he must have felt.
And when you opened your eyes after those eight minutes and 46 seconds, you would have been struck again by the weight of it all and how something so inhumane could possibly happen, much less in 2020.
As much as we try to empathize, we will never know what George Floyd felt as he was fighting for his life, surrounded by people trying to help, but realizing that the only people who could save his life were the ones responsible for taking it.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I believe all three factors played a role in why this incident was the one that sparked so much change. On one hand, it’s disappointing to think about what it took and how long it took for people to reach the ‘final straw.’ On the other hand, now is better than never, and awareness brings with it the potential for change.
We have seen some promising signs of progress in the U.S. since George Floyd’s death. Now, it’s up to us to build on that momentum and create lasting change. To pay closer attention to what’s going on around us, to try and see things with fresh eyes, and to speak out against police brutality, injustice, and systemic racism.
Be Part of the Momentum
Thank you for reading this blog post. If you’d like to join us in creating lasting change, the George Floyd Memorial Center offers several options for you to get involved and make a difference. Visit our home page to learn more.