It’s wondrous, isn’t it, how the people just keep coming out? Day after day, night after night, in dozens of cities, braving a deadly virus and brutal retaliation, they continue to pack the streets in uncountable numbers, demanding equality and justice — and, finally, prompting what feels like real change.
How did this happen? How did Black Lives Matter, a hashtag-powered movement that has been building for years, bring America to what looks like a turning point?
I have a theory: The protests exploded in scale and intensity because the police seemed to go out of their way to illustrate exactly the arguments that Black Lives Matter has been raising online since 2013.
For the last two weeks, the police reaction to the movement has been so unhinged, and so well documented, that it couldn’t help but feed support for the protests. American public opinion may have tipped in favor of Black Lives Matter for good.
By “the police,” I mean not just state and municipal police across the country, but also the federal officers from various agencies that cracked down on protesters in front of the White House, as well as their supporters and political patrons, from police chiefs to mayors to the attorney general and the president himself.
Black Lives Matter aims to highlight the depth of brutality, injustice and unaccountability that American society, especially law enforcement, harbors toward black people. Many protesters set out to call attention to the unchecked power of the police, their military weaponry and their capricious use of it. They wanted to show that the problem of policing in America is more than that of individual bad officers; the problem is a culture that protects wrongdoers, tolerates mendacity, rewards blind loyalty and is fiercely resistant to change. More deeply, it is a law enforcement culture that does not regard black lives as worthy of protection.
And what did the cops do? They responded with a display of organized, unchecked power — on camera, in a way that many Americans might never be able to unsee.
To understand why this moment may prompt structural change, it is worth putting the latest protests into a larger context. To me, the past two weeks have felt like an echo of that heady moment late in 2017, after The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault. At the time, #MeToo, as an online rallying cry against sexual abuse and harassment, was more than a decade old. The Weinstein story didn’t create that movement, just as the videos of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police didn’t create Black Lives Matter.
Instead, the Weinstein news broke the dam. Since then, #MeToo activism has gone on to upend society in a way that felt revolutionary.
It feels like the dam is breaking again.
The movement behind Black Lives Matter has taken to the streets before — but nothing on this scale, with this intensity. And not with these results. The National Football League was once a powerful and bitter rival; now it has embraced the movement, though it still has not apologized to or signed Colin Kaepernick, the player who first knelt in protest against police brutality.
Politicians at every level are professing newfound support, and, right before our eyes, the Overton window of acceptable public discourse about police reform has shifted to include terms like “demilitarize,” “defund” and “abolish.”
It’s not clear how far the politics will go, but the shifts so far are significant. “Never before in the history of modern polling has the country expressed such widespread agreement on racism’s pervasiveness in policing, and in society at large,” The Times reported last week.
More important, we are no longer just talking about imposing new limits on how the police can operate. We’re finally asking more substantive political questions: What roles should be reserved for the police in our cities, and what roles would better be served by hiring more teachers, social workers or mental health experts?
In Los Angeles, where leaders on the left and the right have long showered resources on the police, the mayor has now proposed spending $250 million more on social services and $150 million less on policing. Last week, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, resisted cutting the $6 billion police budget; on Sunday, he promised future cuts. And in Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of City Council members pledged to dismantle the city’s police department.
The proximate cause of the latest protests was the horror of George Floyd’s death. But we’ve seen videos of cops killing black men before and they have rarely led to criminal prosecution, let alone broad societal upheaval.
What’s happening now is about more than that video. Just as, after the Weinstein story broke, when women came forward with stories too numerous to ignore or dismiss, what we’ve seen in the last two weeks are episodes of excessive force too blatant and numerous to conclude that the problem is one of a few isolated cases.
The evidence of police brutality has become too widespread even for elected officials to ignore. They can no longer easily coddle police unions in exchange for political support; now ignoring police misconduct will become a political liability, and perhaps something will change.
Alex Vitale, a sociologist and the author of “The End of Policing,” which argues for a wholesale dismantling of American policing, told me that he has high hopes for structural change because organizers had laid the groundwork for it. “My reason for optimism is that before Minneapolis happened, there were already dozens of campaigns to divert police funding,” he said. “So that’s why that demand emerged so quickly — people were already doing that work.”
Vitale also suggested that the movement can take hold permanently, that what’s happening now has cracked “the ‘ideological armor’” of policing in America.
I think he’s right.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.