In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the trial begins for the police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, a Black man. Here is what the Black Lives Matter movement has achieved since the killing.
In the last few days, construction workers put up barbed wire fences around Hennepin County Courthouse. Two thousand members of the National Guard and 1,100 police officers will guard the complex in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. The trial begins here on Monday for the white former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was filmed last May kneeling for almost nine minutes on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, and is thus accused of causing his death.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree manslaughter, among other charges.* According to Minnesota sentencing guidelines, conviction of second-degree manslaughter carries a prison sentence of 12 1/2 years. The defense is arguing that Floyd’s death was the result of a preexisting heart condition and drug use. The coming weeks will be spent selecting 12 people for the jury.
Black Lives Matter activists have announced demonstrations for Monday’s first day of trial. The city of Minneapolis is once again facing a state of emergency, and the country is again consumed with the wound that was caused by Floyd’s death. But what has happened in the U.S. since last May 25? How has the Black Lives Matter movement changed the country?
Improvements in Policing
A national solidarity movement grew after the unrest in Minneapolis. In at least 141 U.S. cities, people demonstrated for Black rights. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has been used on Twitter more than 100 million times last June alone. Across the country, movements gathered under this slogan to raise awareness about injustice against Black people, with some success. In New York, for example, the movement managed to partially push through its central demand to defund the police. The budget for the New York City Police Department was reduced from $6 billion a year to $5 billion a year. More than 100 cities also banned the use of chokeholds during arrests like the one that led to Floyd’s death. Numerous communities have required police officers to intervene when their colleagues use excessive violence. These are all small but palpable steps.
Generally, the Black Lives Matter movement, which already existed before Floyd’s death, seems to have led to improvements in policing in recent years. According to a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, communities where BLM protests occurred have seen deaths at the hands of police officers decrease since 2014 by an average of 15% to 20%. Groundwork by activists thus seems to be working in some places.
In addition to police violence, the movement addresses many other problems that make the lives of Black people in the U.S. difficult. In early November, for instance, Black activists demonstrated with “Black Votes Matter” signs in the swing state of Pennsylvania to demand that their absentee ballots in the presidential election be counted as President Donald Trump in voiced claims of voter fraud in Washington, D.C. Those who speak with Black activists often hear that the 2020 summer protests raised a new political awareness among America’s minority Black population.
For example, Black employees at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are currently fighting for a union. It would be the first time that warehouse workers for the massive corporation would be represented by unions, and media around the world are reporting on the historic labor dispute. Many organizers connected last year during BLM demonstrations, one union member told The American Prospect. Following the old principles of the civil rights movement, which fought not only against discrimination but also for social and economic rights, Black Lives Matter has increasingly grown into a comprehensive movement.
The Federal Government Has Little Influence
The protests left their mark on Congress, too. As early as summer 2020, the House of Representatives, under Democratic leadership, passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that, among other things, mandates more rigid protocols to regulate the use of violence among federal police officers. However, it did not become law because the Republican majority in the Senate and President Donald Trump threatened to block it. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party did not forget about the issue of police violence, however. Thus, the House of Representatives passed the bill again last Wednesday. Whether it will be passed in the Senate remains unknown, but the chances are better than they were last summer, now that there is the Democratic Senate majority and Joe Biden is in the White House.
The possibilities for the federal government to intervene are already limited. States and municipalities enact their own policing legislation. The federal government in Washington can only cut subsidies and send federal investigators, for instance, if individual police departments come under scrutiny for racial profiling or excessive use of force. In addition, Joe Biden spoke in favor of reducing police budgets during his presidential campaign. But support for the movement in the new administration does not seem so reliable. Democratic leaders presented themselves as supporters of the Black Lives Matter, and even observed a minute of silence while wearing traditional kente cloth from Ghana. But establishment Democrats have since grown quiet on the subject of Black Lives Matter.
Still, the November election saw the entry of an original BLM activist into Congress. Cori Bush, a nurse who has been involved with the movement for years, was elected to the House of Representatives for Missouri, representing a district that includes St. Louis. The 44-year-old congresswoman even launched an initiative, albeit unsuccessfully, to restore voting rights for individuals in prison. Black individuals comprise a disproportionate amount of the U.S. prison population, and cannot vote in many states even after they serve their sentences.
Progress and Setbacks
The failed proposed legislation shows that the Black Lives Matter movement has suffered setbacks as well as success. While police reforms are being enacted in some cities, initiatives elsewhere have been unsuccessful. In Minneapolis, for instance, a majority of the city council voted to abolish the police force in its current form after Floyd’s death. But a few months later, many local politicians reneged on their promise. There is still no prospect of comprehensive police reform. For every small step forward someplace, the movement seems to take a step backward elsewhere.
The same can be said for the evolving public perception of the movement. The topic of police violence dominated reporting for months, and in the short-term, resulted in many Americans starting to address the centuries old history of ethnic discrimination in their country. Approval ratings for the BLM movement rose sharply Floyd’s death. But as the movement became more politicized in the conflict between Democrats and Republicans, and because of violence at a number of protests, approval ratings for the movement declined again. Last September, a poll by the Pew Research Center showed that support had fallen especially among white people. Whereas 60% of white people said that they supported BLM in June, only 45% supported the movement in September. Approval ratings also declined among Latinos, but remained high among Black people and Democratic voters.
The trial that is beginning in Minneapolis will likely rekindle the debate over racism and police violence — but under a new political premise. Trump’s right-wing nationalist administration has been voted out of office; liberal voices are again sounding from Washington. For the first time, a Black woman is serving as vice president and the Biden administration seems, at least rhetorically, to be pursuing ethnic reconciliation.
The Chauvin trial may cause the temperature in the country to rise again, but it also offers an opportunity. Without Trump’s divisive commentary, and of course, without the violent confrontations, a rational debate about the effects of racism and police violence in the U.S. will become more feasible.
Testimony in the Chauvin trial is scheduled to begin in late March and will likely last until late April. It will probably be a trial that will emotionally charge Minneapolis and the entire country and, depending on the verdict, leave one side bitterly disappointed. How the public, politics, and activists respond to the trial and the verdict will indicate whether it will be possible to heal the wounds of the past, or whether the country will again descend into tribal warfare.
*Editor’s note: On March 11, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the Chauvin trial, reinstated a third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. Chauvin is also charged with second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter.