The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Floyd’s death sparked prolonged concern for race and racism, but it’s still unclear what that means

Crystal Lescault, at her Minneapolis home last month, has been closely watching the trial of Derek Chauvin. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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MINNEAPOLIS — Every morning, Crystal Lescault stares at the app on her phone that has been counting the days since George Floyd’s death.

On Tuesday, it read 330. And she wondered if that number would be the one.

Lescault has spent nearly a year praying for a guilty verdict in the case against former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. In the past few weeks, she’s been unable to look away from the trial coverage, struggling to concentrate at work and experiencing escalating, debilitating anxiety as businesses boarded up their windows and police walked near her house, which is four blocks from where Floyd was killed.

“I could probably have tuned this out better in a different life, but not as a mother of a Black child. I have to pay attention. It’s important,” said Lescault, who is White, married to a Black man and has biracial twins.

As Americans await the verdict, many find themselves grappling with the racial reckoning brought about by Floyd’s death last May. Since then, huge numbers of Americans have shown up to Black Lives Matter rallies, bought books about racism, planted signs in their front yards and engaged in difficult conversations. Less visible are those who have remained silent and unchanged, making it unclear if lasting systemic changes are on America’s horizon.

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Each time a Black person is killed by police or racism-fueled violence occurs, there is a burst of awareness and discussion, calls for action and promises of change — which often fade as time passes. Floyd’s death, which was captured in a video viewed by millions, ignited a response that seemed to be longer lasting and has been resurgent as Chauvin stands trial.

With a verdict expected Tuesday evening, many in the Minneapolis area are reflecting on what the outcome could be and what it would mean.

For some, including Lescault, the verdict will be a symbolic measurement of where the United States is in its fight for racial equity: If Chauvin is found guilty of the most serious charges, they say that will be a sign that progress is being made. But anything less than that will show that nothing has changed.

Others struggle to see this trial as anything more than one police officer on trial for one crime, saying no deeper meaning should be gleaned from the outcome.

And others still are not quite sure what to make of the trial, or how they fit in amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the pro-law-enforcement “thin blue line” flags.

Public concern for race and racism increased last June after Floyd’s death, fell slightly in August, and then plateaued in recent months at a higher level than it was before, according to Gallup polling. Although Gallup has seen similar spikes in attitudes about race in years past, this shift appears to be longer lasting than those before it.

But it’s unclear how permanent this shift in opinion is. In the poll, issues of race and racism were considered one of the top four U.S. priorities but were overshadowed by concerns about the pandemic, the government, and the economy and unemployment. Levels of concern also split sharply along racial lines, with White Americans less concerned about racial issues than Black and Hispanic Americans.

After following the trial coverage for days, Justin Gelking said Chauvin should not have put his knee on Floyd’s neck for those nine-plus minutes. But the 33-year-old, who is a fan of the phrase “All Lives Matter,” does not think race was a factor in Floyd’s death.

“Seems like a one-time thing that hopefully won’t happen again,” he said as he left his shift Monday as a dishwasher at Billy’s Bar and Grill, a restaurant in the northwest suburb of Anoka, Minn. He’d watched the concluding arguments of the trial that morning.

Gelking, who is White, said police are “good at protecting people and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” and no matter what the jury decides about Chauvin’s actions, that would not change.

Some experts say systemic racism is too entrenched in American society for one incident to make a difference.

Helen Neville said that she’s not convinced Floyd’s death “caught on video will transform U.S. society and people’s opinions without deep, deep reflection and engagement,” said Neville, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in the psychology of racism. “I do see there’s been conversations, but we’ll see if real change happens.”

'An awakening'

In the weeks before Floyd died, reports were beginning to emerge that showed Black and Latino Americans were becoming infected with the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than Whites.

And then, on the morning of May 25, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park named Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper, a White woman of no relation, to put her dog on a leash in a zone of the park where that’s required. When she refused, he recorded her as she called the police and told them “an African American man” was threatening her. It sparked national outrage.

Several hours later on that same day, a nine-minute video circulated that showed Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd pleaded for air, called out for his mother and died.

“It served as an awakening point,” said Neville. “It alerted people to the harsh realities of police brutality directed toward Black folks, which then served as a symbol for institutional racism.”

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Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization that tracks police violence and advocates for reform, said the video was unusual in the way it captured the “cold, emotionless expressions” on Chauvin’s face.

He also pointed out that the presence of three other police officers in the video may have disabused some viewers of the “bad apple” myth — that the officers portrayed in police brutality videos are bad people who slipped through the cracks of a reliable system, as opposed to the officers being a symptom of a larger, systemic problem in U.S. policing. Those three officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

And then there were Floyd’s last words, which included calling out for his mother.

The cries were a universal signifier, one that hit home for mothers across the racial spectrum. In Portland, Ore., a “wall of moms” was formed during protests, with White women putting themselves between police and protesters of color. They grew to become such a symbol for White women’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement that the group became an official nonprofit.

Overall, as the White population shrinks in the United States, White buy-in becomes less essential to these movements, said Tim Wise, author of “Dispatches from the Race War.” But for now, “in a society of White supremacy, Black moral authority” is not enough, Wise said.

In this video, the racism was overt, said David Campt, creator of the White Ally Toolkit. He said the video didn’t display “new racism,” which he described as the subtle, unconscious kind that is difficult to see without an education on race issues and a willingness to view the world through a racialized lens.

That lack of subtlety, Campt said, has helped expose the more subtle acts ever since.

With the coronavirus raging last summer, many people were working at home and more exposed to the media images and details of Floyd’s death, experts said. When protesters took to the streets in cities large and small across the country, it made the Black Lives Matter movement ubiquitous both in the digital and physical realms, and therefore unavoidable for many.

And Floyd’s death occurred while the country was being led by President Donald Trump, who stoked racial tensions during his campaign and presidency. Floyd died in Trump’s final year in office, as thousands of suburban voters were shifting left and preparing to vote for a different candidate in November.

It is for all these reasons that the video of Floyd stood apart from the others. And it’s why many see the trial as a litmus test: If this video won’t make a difference, what would?

For Eryn Frost, 33, watching the video was a profound experience that she said changed her and made her realize that she had done racist things in the past, such as shuffling the job applications of those with hard-to-pronounce names to the bottom of the stack. The White resident of Prior Lake — a southwest suburb of Minneapolis — grew up conservative and was the president of her college’s Republican group. In 2016, she and her husband voted for third-party candidate Gary Johnson.

But when Trump became president a “crack” formed in the couple’s mind-set, she said, and they became increasingly dissatisfied with where the country was headed. And then Floyd died, and Frost said “the whole thing exploded.”

“You’re like, ‘What the hell is happening? What the hell is going on?’ And then you realize this has always been going on,” she said. “And once you hit that realization it’s like, oh my God.”

Far from over

As the sun began to set over the George Floyd memorial site, Anna Ashcroft’s son ran up to her, chalk in hand.

“Mama, how do you spell justice?” the boy asked, before writing out “Justice for everyone” in green chalk just feet from where Floyd died.

“This felt like the right place for us to be,” said Ashcroft, who is White and is hoping for a guilty verdict. “In my mind, this is them processing,” she said of her children’s scrawls. It was Floyd’s death that moved Ashcroft to talk to them about racism and police violence.

As the jury began deliberations Monday night, a feeling of anxiety mounted across the city. Many are concerned over what its verdict could mean for their hometown — if people will get hurt, if small businesses could suffer blows, if troops will march in their streets.

“If they don’t convict [Chauvin] of murder, I don’t even know,” said Zaynab Mohamed, a 23-year-old Somali American, who awoke Tuesday morning after a sleepless night in her home just blocks from where Floyd died. “I think we wonder, ‘Are we less than human?’ Because every one of us sees themselves in George Floyd.”

She said many in the Somali community are watching the Chauvin trial after the 2019 verdict against Mohamed Noor, a Black, Somali Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of manslaughter and murder for killing 40-year-old Justine Damond, a White woman.

Miles away at an Uptown intersection near a CVS Pharmacy that burned during protests last year, was rebuilt and has been newly boarded up following the Daunte Wright killing in Brooklyn Center, Brandon Bollig, 30, was walking his dog and following the latest trial updates “1,000 percent.”

Wearing a Black Lives Matter wristband, Bollig spoke to the fact that Black and White people don’t get policed equally.

Tim Bohmer, 60, hasn’t been following the trial closely and said he wasn’t entirely sure that Chauvin was guilty of murder — though he thought what the officer did was wrong. Instead of framing it as a racism problem, Bohmer said police have “bad habits” that get passed on to their subordinates in a vicious cycle.

“I truly hope the city doesn’t destruct itself. My biggest fear is we’re going to go through what we went through last summer all over again,” Bohmer said.

Leslie Redmond, former president of the local NAACP, said she felt nearly drained of all emotion.

“We’re exhausted, and I cannot reiterate that enough. You can hear it in my voice,” she said, her voice scratchy and quiet. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on Black people.”

Guskin reported from Washington. Marisa Iati contributed to this report.

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