On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was unlawfully killed in Minneapolis, USA by White police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin had arrested Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit bill, and, whilst Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 8 minutes. The world watched as Floyd begged for his life and uttered the haunting words “I can’t breathe”, a hauntingly famous phrase that has been chanted in the countless protests that have ensued.
Protests and demonstrations began to erupt in Minneapolis as soon as the news spread about Floyd’s death. By 26 May, many placards paid tribute to George Floyd in the spot where he was killed, and the Black Lives Matter movement began to be referenced in response to his killing. Within the following few days, Black Lives Matter protests began to spread throughout the world, with over 2,000 protests having occurred in the US alone as of 15 June. Protests have now occurred on every continent, other than Antarctica.
Black Lives Matter is an organisation that fights white supremacy and aims to build local power in Black communities to intervene in the violence typically inflicted on them. The organisation has been behind several protests in response to Black deaths perpetrated by white people (whether they be from extrajudicial police killings or civilian violence), yet the global protests in response to George Floyd’s killing are larger than the movement has seen before. The question that is constantly being asked in regards to these protests is whether they will actually work to end the systemic racism and police brutality that seems to be symptomatic of American, if not Western society in general.
The act of protesting is a common form of action that citizens can take to express their discontent with certain actions of their government, or the way that their society is being run. Protesting has never been limited to democratic societies, as can be seen by the movements of the Arab Spring, yet in democratic societies, such as the United Kingdom, it is legal to hold peaceful protests without informing the police (unless a march is included in the demonstration, in which case it needs to be reported for logistical reasons). This legality, and social acceptance of protesting as a means to express discontent, increases the likelihood that people in the US and the UK (as well as other democratic societies) will protest in comparison to people living in non-democratic states.
Peaceful protesting is the most common way of protesting in democratic societies as it is considered ‘normative’ and falls within the boundaries of the law, thus making it more widely accepted, easier (and safer) for citizens to express their discontent.
Throughout history, protesting has worked to ignite social change. The protests led by Martin Luther King have been heralded as successful peaceful protests that helped to establish a change in society (namely, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, 1964). However, there have also been many notable peaceful protests that the government has acknowledged and then failed to change its course of action (these include Anti-Vietnam Protests, Occupy Wall-Street, and even the recent Extinction Rebellion Protests).
Throughout the course of history, the most famous protests calling for social change have intentionally not complied with government standards. If we look to Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930, we can see an act of civil disobedience that is thought of as one of the most powerful stances against Colonial Britain, potentially influencing India’s ability to gain independence in 1947.
We can also look to the example of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes in the UK, who used a mix of violent and non-violent actions to protest for their right to vote. Their tactics of arson, property destruction and hunger-striking received significant media attention, and throughout World War One, the Suffragettes decided to collaborate with the government to help the war effort. They encouraged women to step up into jobs that had been emptied by the men going to war. After the war ended, the vote was given to women over the age of thirty, and the Suffragettes saw their aim become a reality.
However, the 21st Century is a different time. We now live in a digital, globalised world where mass demonstrations can be organised through online group chats and Facebook events. The news of another unarmed Black man dying at the hands of the police in the US reached the notifications of our handheld devices within 24 hours of his death, and within two days, we could see the large protest scenes from America unfolding on our evening news. This new technological world we live in makes it easier to quickly organise protests and fight for change, while also inhibiting the certain key factors that make a protest ‘successful’.
Anyone can organise a protest, whether it be a protest of 50 people, or a protest of thousands. Social movements have caught onto this idea, moulding their organisations into a new type of structure: one that is horizontal, rather than hierarchical.
Philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write in their book Assembly, “Gone are the days…when a political vanguard could successfully take power in the name of the masses…It is a terrible mistake to translate valid critiques of leadership into a refusal of sustained political organisation and institution.” The world can be highly commended with organising itself into protest movements, but how can a protest gain momentum, and how can the people feel fully united, when the movement lacks a figurehead such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Pankhurst?
Digital organisation of protest seems to come with another pitfall. Zeynep Tufecki, a sociologist whose research focuses on the place where protest and digital media meet, writes: “Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organization cavity before the first protest or march…However, with this speed comes weakness.” She argues that the protests we see in the modern day are not just faster, more efficient versions of the well-known protests of the 20th Century, but instead a different entity entirely. The movements of the past century may not have gained traction as quickly as some of the protests we see today, but in the 20th Century, the fundamentals of social movement seemed to remain solid throughout the span of the organisation’s activities.
Yet, in contrast, Nathan Heller, a contributor to the New Yorker, argues: “Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations.”
The Black Lives Matter protests feel different to the ones that Heller and Tufecki describe. The official organisation has been around for almost seven years and seems to be holding steady. They utilise the efficiency of social media, whilst maintaining a clear list of campaigns they have and will work on. Yes, the people will mobilise in their name at a moment’s notice, but the structure is already in place, and the people know what needs to be done. Black Lives Matter is fighting for an end to systemic and systematic racism. This is the racism that is unable to be seen at first glance; the type that weaves itself through the structures our society is built on, whether it be the fact that employers are less likely to hire people with black names, or the failure to explain the disproportionate antenatal mortality rate of black women.
The worldwide protests that erupted in response to the unlawful killing of George Floyd have forced the effects of systemic and systematic racism into view of those who were ignorant before, and white people all over the world, who have had to take a step back, educate themselves, and evaluate their own unconscious biases. These are undeniably positive steps,, and as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain traction and acceptance we are seeing responses in policy, such as the Minneapolis Council moving to defund the police.
There is still much to be done, but the death of George Floyd has managed to capture the eye of the world, so in many senses the protests are working. The mix between peaceful protesting, civil disobedience (ignoring curfews), and non-peaceful protesting (looting, vandalism and in a small amount of cases, property destruction) has forced the media to pick up on the protests and relay the actions of them across front pages worldwide. The organisation does have strong foundations, and, even though it is established as a horizontal movement, its ability to make people stop and listen is beyond what anyone could have imagined. Although many modern protests go unanswered and essentially ignored by the government and those in charge, Black Lives Matter protesters have managed to make themselves heard, whether it be through the sheer numbers of people on the ground, or through the actions that protesters have taken. History is currently in the making, and, although it may take a while to uproot the inequality ingrained in our society, at least the call for change has been firmly etched onto the world’s agenda.