George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was a horrifying illustration of the pattern of deadly police violence against Black people. In a widely circulated video, the world watched him plead for air, and witnessed the brutal indifference of the officer kneeling on his neck. Like the killing of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice, to “say their names” for just a few, the death of George Floyd touched countless people who never knew him in life.
In recent years, technology and social media have circulated evidence of police brutality and other acts of anti-Black violence, such as the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, at an unprecedented pace. This barrage of documentation serves as a call to action, but – like the postcards and souvenirs of lynchings that circulated during the Jim Crow era – it also serves to terrorize. Many Black people watching these videos are compelled to reckon repeatedly with the racist contempt that still pervades this country, and the reality that Black lives are subject to the conduct of arbitrary and capricious agents of state violence. Even when officers behave professionally, they act in service to an unjust legal system that disproportionately criminalizes and cages Black people. The videos have resonated fearfully with immigrant and Latinx communities as well, who must reckon with the power of the police and ICE to tear apart families and end life as they know it in this country. For many people of color, these have been days of sickening heartache.
In response to George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets to demonstrate in over 140 locations across the country and abroad. The sheer scale of these protests is shocking, paralyzing cities through massive rallies, civil disobedience, and rage-filled confrontations with the police. The civil unrest reflects anger that has been building for a long time, as well as an economic desperation that has only been exacerbated by the crisis of COVID-19. The study of urban history reminds us that these types of uprisings occur when grievous wrongs have already been endured for too long. They reflect a deep disillusion with systems of governance, a sense among the oppressed that there are no meaningful allies among those in power. As Martin Luther King, Jr. cautioned in 1967:
A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. … And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
The protests – peaceful and otherwise – that have rocked our nation for the past week are an indictment of the racism that remains endemic to our society in spite of centuries of activism by African Americans and allies. They are an indictment of police abuse, mass incarceration, and the persistent failure of our legal system to discipline officers for misconduct. They are a vehement assertion that Black lives matter, a refusal to be intimidated by racist violence, and a vibrant, ringing reminder of our collective strength.
The UHA Board of Directors stands in solidarity with protesters demanding police accountability and denouncing racism. We support all those who envision and work towards a more just future. We encourage anyone searching for historical context for these protests to read Elizabeth Hinton and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor‘s excellent analysis, to visit the UHA’s blog The Metropole, and to follow the UHA Twitter account as they post and retweet relevant material.
May all of our loved ones come home safely. In solidarity,
Board of Directors
Urban History Association
A full list of UHA officers and directors can be found here.
Featured image (at top): African-Americans kneel on sidewalk outside City Hall in Birmingham, Alabama protesting racial segregation, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.