George Floyd demonstrations: one month on, is the movement sustaining?

Activists see progress, international inspiration and some formidable obstacles

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“For many, this was an awakening, especially for those who are not directly impacted by police brutality,” says Iman Abid, an American Civil Liberties Union director in New York State.

For the last month, demonstrators have been out on the streets across the United States. The spark, the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, has led to a nationwide debate about race and institutional racism. While the demands of those on the streets began as calls for justice in the face of seemingly unaccountable police action, they have multiplied to address myriad areas of public life.

Ms Abid runs Genesee Valley Chapter of the ACLU in upstate New York and grew up nearby, outside Rochester, where protests have taken place routinely since Floyd’s killing.

She says the lengthy video of Floyd’s death was a turning point for many.

“Together as a nation, we watched the man suffer for eight minutes and forty-six seconds,” she says. “There’s a lot of psychological trauma in people and it pushed many over the edge and prompted them to say, ‘we must do something.’”

Are the protests working?

Several demonstrations have taken place in Rochester, New York, one of many cities in the US to see protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Timothy Kneeland, chair of history and political science at Nazareth College in Rochester, agrees with the notion that the Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks have seen significant multi-generational and multi-racial participation.

“The pressure from below is immense,” he tells The National, noting an unprecedented call for change.

A month in, crucially, specific policy changes are now not only being discussed but acted upon at a local, state and national level.

On a national level, although some conservatives like Republican Senator Mitt Romney have taken part in marches and echoed calls for changes to police policy, Mr Kneeland explains the momentum of the demonstrations might soon hit a wall – especially on calls to defunding police.

“Black Lives Matter [protesters] want to reinvent or eliminate some police altogether, but some conservatives want to reform the existing system,” he says.

This policy debate will take time to play out despite calls for immediate action.

Ms Abid, however, says previous efforts to tweak or reform the system have failed and that means it’s time for a new approach.

“We want to re-define what public safety looks like for people everywhere,” she says, insisting that many people living in the suburbs do not have to deal with the same police presence as those living in cities.

“It’s about expanding that experience and making it equitable and not criminalising because of the colour of their skin,” she added.

Recently, Ms Abid stood with activists in front of Rochdale City Hall to demand a 50 per cent reduction in funding for the local police department. The movement to cut police budgets is growing and fast becoming a point of contention between those who back the movement and those opposed.

Then Rochester council passed a new budget with a 4 per cent cut to policing – a far cry from the 50 per cent demanded by protesters but something many say would have been unimaginable a year ago.

While local police chief La’Ron Singletary, himself a black officer, told reporters the decision will negatively impact black and brown communities, Ms Abid says that such ideas are a common misconception of the defund movement.

“We’re talking about investing in community-based services, education and mental health,” she says. Those backing the call say it’s about diverting funds to other – non-law-enforcement – areas that may have more of an impact on reducing crime and improving lives.

Stanley Martin, an activist for a local group called Free the People ROC, explains her vision for how such a cut in funding would transpire.

Free The People ROC held a news conference in front of Rochester's City Hall to discuss divestment of police funding.

“We don’t believe that public safety is defined by the amount of police you have,” she says, answering questions from reporters gathered for the group’s news conference.

“Public safety with 50 per cent of the police budget looks like investing in schools, arts, health care, mental health. We want to fund those things that have shown time and time again, they help the community.”

Ms Abid, agreeing with those sentiments, closed the news conference with strong words about what she described as the effectiveness of the demonstrators.

“A lot of the successes that have come out of the last week and the last couple of weeks across the country are because of the people who have been out on the streets,” she said.

Since May 25, the state has passed a bill banning officers from using choke-holds during arrests – although police are investigating a report this week that an office used one during an arrest – and several other demands and police tactics are being addressed.

“The repeal of 50A happened because of the people!” she added emphatically, referring to the removal of an article keeping employment and disciplinary records of law enforcement officers confidential.

Mr Kneeland also pointed out that Rochester made the decision to remove all police from public schools as well.

“Similar reductions have occurred in Buffalo and New York City as well,” he said, remarking on the propulsion of the movement.

How are these demonstrations different?

Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest on the streets of Rochester, New York. Photo Courtesy Matthew Weidenbach

With demonstrations taking place in every state, it’s safe to say the Black Lives Matters protests are among the biggest ever witnessed in the United States.

From simple marches down streets to moments of silence and even dance parties in front of police stations, the movement has managed to keep the spotlight and momentum.

For Ms Abid, who has been community organizing for 10 years, there are multiple factors at play.

“With any change, it’s a collective effort, it’s not just one person or just one organization,” she says.

In addition to support from civil rights and community-based organizations, there has also been an unprecedented outpouring of assistance from some of the largest corporations in the US – such as Apple, Google and Nike – helping to sustain and grow popular support.

Ms Abid says in addition to the death of George Floyd, unemployment and even the pandemic have heightened awareness about racial and economic inequalities across the board, while at the same time making it all the more important for the protests to have focus.

“There’s a lot of rage being brought out into the streets, so it’s important to contain that and help people understand why we’re here and what we’re trying to change,” she says. “That takes more than just a rally, it takes repeated teaching, community forums and a messaging plan that needs to be developed.”

Global support, Palestinian and Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations have also enjoyed considerable global support.

In Palestine in particular, the Black Lives Matter movement has been a source of inspiration and empathy.

The comparisons between the Palestinian and Black Lives Matter causes were brought into stark relief when Eyad Hallaq, a 32-year old Palestinian man with autism, was shot and killed by Israeli border police in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deadly shooting of an unarmed Palestinian man tragic but didn’t apologise.

Then on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Ahmad Erakat, the nephew of chief Palestinian negotiator and secretary general of the PLO Saab Erakat, as his family say he rushed to do errands before his sister’s wedding that night. Mr Erakat says he holds Mr Netanyahu responsible and refutes Israeli police accounts that Ahmad was a terrorist.

Back in Rochester, Ms Abid, who is of Palestinian descent, says her experiences have helped her as an organiser trying to effect change.

“A lot of Palestine liberation movement is truly rooted in the way that the civil right movement happened in the US,” she said. “The issue my family members are experiencing in Palestine are very similar to the institution and the state-sanctioned violence that we see against Black people here in America.”

Ms Abid said she also sees similarities in terms of over-policing and land being taken away.

“I walk into this work as a Palestinian first and foremost, but also as an accomplice making sure I understand and support by Black brothers and sisters as much as I can,” she said.

“Understanding the Palestinian struggle itself gives me the opportunity to understand the black struggle in the United States and allows me to be a better accomplice as I move forward in the work,” Ms Abid adds.

Meanwhile, in Gaza City, the awareness of George Floyd is clear – a prominent mural of his face placed along with the phrase, Black Lives Matter, is a proof of concept that this movement continues to resonate globally.

epa08491032 A Plaestinian boy rides his bicycle next a mural of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody, in Gaza City, 17 June 2020.  EPA/MOHAMMED SABER