Why Are George Floyd Protests So Widespread?

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On Monday, May 25, Minneapolis citizen George Floyd was killed by police. Video recorded at the scene of Floyd’s death showed a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck and continuing to do so even as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, an incident reminiscent of Eric Garner’s NYPD killing in 2014. Protests have erupted in not just Minneapolis, but across the country following Floyd’s death, leading some to wonder why people outside Floyd’s city are calling for justice.

It’s not just about George Floyd

Ongoing protests may seem to be about George Floyd on the surface, but in reality, demonstrators are demanding substantive, top-down, nationwide police reform. Ample data exists showing that people of color, particularly Black people and Black men, are assaulted, wrongfully arrested, and killed by police throughout the country at a far greater rate than their white counterparts. The killing of George Floyd arrived as conversations about other American over-policing and racism victims Chris Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and more were becoming more widespread.

Why looting and arson are part of the protests

In response to reports of looting and arson, some cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Atlanta have mobilized the National Guard to deter protestors, looters, and arsonists. Additionally, many media reports have portrayed looting and arson as sudden and perhaps unfounded spurts of protest violence. Both looting and arson, however, have extensive roots in resisting anti-black government policy and aiding in slave rebellions. 

White supremacists have taken advantage of the ongoing protests to falsely depict Black people as inherently violent and dangerous. Many officials have reported that white supremacists and other right-wing figures are infiltrating peaceful protests and inciting violence, possibly to increase the likelihood that police will open fire on protestors, many of whom are Black. 

President Trump has blamed solely left-wing figures and protestors for the uprisings and has even claimed he plans to designate antifa (anti-fascism) as a terrorist organization. However, antifa is not just one organization, but instead a set of sociopolitical beliefs. Many experts have also pointed out that no president has the power to label a domestic group or movement a terrorist organization. Some commentators have also said that Trump and police have treated April’s stay-at-home protestors far more kindly than the current moment’s peaceful protestors.

What about stay-at-home orders?

The protests over George Floyd’s death are the first event to dominate the news more than COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The pandemic has radically changed everyday life, leading to widespread stay-at-home orders intended to limit the interpersonal spread of COVID-19, particularly among asymptomatic people. Since protest sites are generally inhospitable to social distancing, many people have worried about a strong uptick in COVID-19 cases following the protests or even a second peak.

These fears have scientific bases, but many protestors are wearing face masks to both limit the spread of COVID-19 and conceal their identities. Face masks have shown at least some effectiveness in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 from asymptomatic people to uninfected people. With more people wearing masks than ever at protests, recent events may not be as likely to lead to COVID-19 upticks – an outcome no protestors want – as some fear.

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