MINNEAPOLIS, Mn. — It started with a call to police about a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis convenience store — May 25, 2020. The death of George Floyd.
To many, the events of May 25 is a reminder of a painful part of America’s past, which lingers today.
From slavery, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement, racism in America took many forms – all too often, violent forms.
All of it seemed to explode that day last spring. It began a crescendo of a refrain: America needs a reckoning. A reckoning for generations of exploitation, violence and death. In this case, death at the hands of a police officer; the representation of the establishment.
“When you keep doing something to somebody, how many times can you do it before they decide to take matters into their own hand?” Leon Martin asked during one of the protests in Minneapolis.
The first chord struck in the Minnesota city, where Derek Chauvin’s police precinct headquarters were set on fire.
“No more hate crimes please,” begged Brooke Williams, Floyd’s niece. “Someone said make America great again but when has America ever been great?”
The message echoed across America. Cities stirred up with painful memories of their own incidents of police violence. In Louisville – it was Breonna Taylor. In Colorado – it was Elijah McClain. In New York – Daniel Prude. As the pandemic raged on – disproportionately impacting the Black community – feelings of inequity and injustice reached a boiling point.
For more than 100 straight days, Portland saw some of the worst of it.
“Riot in protests is needed sometime so that our state, authorities, communities know what we’re trying to say,” said Clarence Castile, the uncle of Philando Castile, fatally shot during a traffic stop in 2016.
Peaceful protests by day turned destructive at dark. Buildings burned. Livelihoods were looted. Police were provoked. More than 1,500 protestors were arrested in Chicago during the first ten days of protests.
“I’m proud of the protests, but I’m not proud of the destruction,” said Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother.
The rioting struck at the heart of Chicago retail, as plywood boards became the new storefront displays along the Magnificent Mile. In the first 10 days of protests, Chicago Police arrested more than 1,500 protestors. CPD’s response was later met with criticism of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and a police force unprepared for the chaos.
“The bottom line here is that there were critical failures of leadership in the Chicago police department and the city of Chicago’s response to the protests and unrest that followed the death of George Floyd,” said Deborah Witzburg, the Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety.
Then, 15 days after his death, America’s pain and anger gave way to grief and sorrow. George Floyd was laid to rest in Houston, Texas, where he grew up.
LaTonya Floyd spoke at her brother’s funeral.
“I’m going to miss my brother a whole lot man. I just want to say I love you. And I thank God for giving me my own personal Superman,” LaTonya Floyd said.
“Right now, I want justice for my brother,” said Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother. “My big brother.”
That pursuit of justice brought Floyd’s brother Philonise before Congress the very next day. “I’m here to ask you to make it stop,” he said. “Stop the pain. Stop us from being tired. George called for help and he was ignored. Please listen to the call I’m making to you now.”
A call left unanswered for generations, finally picked up. Less than a week later, President Trump signed an executive order on police reform. With it, funding to improve police training and a new database to track officer misconduct. But many said it didn’t go far enough. Discouraged by a president who readily decried protestors but failed to stand up against systemic racism, as demonstrated during the U.S. Presidential Debates.
“Give me a name…who would you like me to condemn,’ the then-president asked. “Proud boys stand back, and stand by.”
Then in November, after a bitterly contested election, Joe Biden represented hope for a change in direction.
“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” Biden said in his inauguration speech. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
Then emerged a push to shift resources aimed at preventing the cause of crime, not the symptom.
“The best way to make our community safe is not by investing more in policing, but by investing more in after school programs, job programs, mental health services,” said Chicago’s 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
It had an immediate impact. City councils in Minneapolis, Seattle, New York approved hefty budget cuts to their police departments. And here in Illinois, sweeping criminal justice reform signed into law in February.
“A transformative step forward in Illinois’ effort to lead the country in dismantling systemic racism,” said Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
Illinois police officers face a new certification process and are required to wear body cameras by 2025. Now, complaints against officers can be submitted anonymously. And by 2023, cash bail will be eliminated.
But George Floyd’s impact was also etched in stone.
A summer of reckoning for constant reminders of oppression. To date, 175 confederate statues have come down. Institutions have been renamed. Perhaps the biggest change came in the court room.
On April 20, after the most anticipated trial in years, a surprise to many. Ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was found guilty on all counts.
Ben Crump was the lead attorney for the Floyd Family.
“America, let’s frame this moment as a moment where we finally are getting close to living up to our Declaration of Independence, that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equally,” Crump said.
While Chauvin awaits his sentence, it brings us to ask: can it be the beginning of that reckoning, the start of meaningful change to help America live up to the promise that it can live up to its creed?
“We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans,” President Biden said. “Now is our opportunity to make some real progress.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is facing a debate in Congress, as police departments across the United States move to reform.
“It’s a tremendous story, because now when you consider when we’re going look back in time, we’re going look at the dates of May 25 and April 20 as the bookends for a radical change in American history,” said Tony Romanucci of the Floyd Family legal team. “A radical change in American policing and hopefully an end, the beginning of the end to systemic racism.”