Submitted June 2020
In the last three weeks the United States has seen an eruption of protests in response to the extreme violence that the United States judicial system has for people of color. These protests, which have rallied around the banner of BLM (Black Lives Matter), have gained momentum in nearly every major city, and many minor cities across the country. From the epicenter of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles, to my own humble town of Sacramento. This was not the first act of extreme violence committed by a US police department against a black man to gain widespread attention, nor the first to start protests around the US. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, or the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore both caused widespread civil disobedience in those cities, but neither of those incidents became a countrywide phenomenon the way that the George Floyd Protests have.
So what is different? My perspective, as a member of the American left is, of course, biased, but I will attempt to be objective. To me, the George Floyd Protests seem to be a combination of historical factors, namely the continuing violence against black people that has existed in this country in one form or another since its founding (with special emphasis to recent examples, i.e. Ferguson and Baltimore), and the implications of a country living in the midst of a pandemic. I think this second reason is important, not only because of my own bias towards economic history, but also because Coronavirus (and the economic downturn that accompanied it) has given the opportunity for these protests to be truly a countrywide phenomenon. I surmise that, one of the reasons that these protests have gained as much traction as they have is because there are now many people who are either unemployed and angry because of it, or stuck at home with nothing to do but read the news and become radical enough to protest.
These protests, like the pandemic we now live in, are both shifts in the global historical paradigm. Both will be studied by historians for the impact they have on the future. I suspect that any comprehensive history of the George Floyd Protests will have to include primary sources from the bottom up in a similar manner that Mary Sarotte approached the collapse of the Berlin Wall: Community BLM activists and other activist groups, local employed and unemployed workers and the reasons for their joining the protests, and from police on the ground, both those involved in the notorious crackdowns and those who have resigned in the face of these crackdowns. Further, a comprehensive study of the protests could not be complete with both the response from top-down level and an acknowledgement that these protests happened at the tail end of a Democratic Primary and a lead up to the 2020 election, both of which are very much in the current zeitgeist. To the former, the actions of President Trump, the Congress, and the mayors of the cities who have seen the harshest crackdowns as well as those of cities who have sought a less combative approach will all need to be examined.
Ultimately, I remain a student of revolutions, peaceful and violent, and the effect that they have on history, and this level of civil disobedience certainly looks like it could be the beginning of one. Hopefully the course of history will not be paved with more innocent blood, but in such times, in the face of the constantly frustrated expectations for reform in my lifetime, and the continuing murder of African Americans by police, it remains hard to be optimistic.