Washington – The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the United States after the killing in custody of African American George Floyd have begun to wane, having chalked up some accomplishments in the fight against racism and police brutality.
The four officers involved in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 have been arrested and charged with murder or aiding and abetting murder.
Two other cases of wrongful black deaths, of Ahamud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, have garnered fresh scrutiny, with arrests made in Arbery’s case.
And senior lawmakers have embraced the idea that deep police reforms are needed.
Why is this moment different?
Until now the seven-year-old Black Lives Matter movement has involved mostly African Americans in localized protests against police killings, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
This time, shockingly brutal videos showing the deaths of Floyd and Arbery have demonstrated the extent of police mistreatment of blacks to a wider audience, says Theodore Johnson, who researches race in politics at New York’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“Now the protests are in every single state and territory. The participants are of all ages, parties, races,” he said.
The firestorm was accelerated by a unique confluence of events, say activists, including provocative tweets from President Donald Trump casting the demonstrators as violent “anarchists” and the coronavirus lockdown that left people stuck home consuming more news and social media.
“It just hit it the right moment,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a black-led activist group in New York.
“If we were not on lockdown, and this pandemic did not exist, I even wonder whether this moment would have been possible.”
Add to that, he said, “the full kind of breakdown in leadership that we’ve seen across the country, the utter failure of government, particularly on a national level.”
What has been achieved?
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said Americans had moved beyond the “black lives matter” slogan to engage with the “defund the police” reform campaign that activists have been discussing for years.
“‘Defund the police’ has become such a huge and resounding call,” she told Trevor Noah on “The Daily Social Distancing Show.”
Now “almost every single call I get from the media is about ‘defund.’ So we’re in the right place,” she said.
Will there be genuine reform?
Most of the 18,000 police jurisdictions nationwide are governed locally and, in many, officials have recognized their own problems mirrored in the Floyd case.
In Minneapolis, there is strong support for a sweeping revamp of the police department.
On Monday, congressional Democrats proposed a list of national reforms designed “end police brutality, hold police accountable (and) improve transparency in policing.”
Republicans and the White House have threatened to water them down, but also say they recognize the need for some changes.
Johnson, from the Brennan Center, is skeptical. The Democrats’ proposals “aren’t enough to create long term transformational change in every police department across the country,” he said.
Will the protests continue?
The wave of protest is gradually receding, which the Brooklyn Movement Center’s Griffith said is natural.
But it has empowered activists to keep pressing for police and other reforms at the local level, and to turn their attention to the November elections.
“There are a lot of people like myself and my organization that are going to be looking to take advantage and leverage this moment, and turn up the pressure, convert it into policy change, and power at the ballot box,” Griffith said.
African-American rights activist Al Sharpton said campaigners need to keep up the pressure and has called for a national demonstration in the U.S. capital on Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 March on Washington.
“Now I think it is a time that is pregnant with possibilities” to force the government into action, he told NBC News on Wednesday.
Impact on the election?
Johnson said the potential impact on the presidential election in the fall remains an open question.
Key for Democratic challenger Joe Biden is the size of the African-American turnout.
But anger, Johnson said, will not be enough to ensure the support of black communities. Democrats “are going to have to speak to black voters with messages of optimism and hope,” he told AFP.
“Anger and the anti-vote is far less mobilizing for black voters than optimism and candidates you can trust.”