The answer, in part, came last weekend, when Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black father of a toddler, was fatally shot by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minn. It was a brutal reminder that, for Black Americans, true justice rarely flows from a courtroom. Advances in Black citizenship and dignity often arise, when they come at all, from demands made outside formal legal and political settings.
America listens, perhaps more closely, to protests — in the form of Black students sitting in at lunch counters; boycotting segregated theaters, buses and restaurants; and making a moral appeal to the nation’s conscience — as well as to smaller spasms of ugliness. Politics at these lower frequencies is messy, leading at times to smashed doors and broken windows. But collectively, these demonstrations do more to improve the African American experience than symbolic but parochial matters like the trial of a single police officer or exhortations to vote, as Democratic politicians and political leaders are fond of making as their answer to injustices.
Lyndon B. Johnson signed civil rights and voting rights legislation only after massive protests and urban rebellions in Birmingham, Ala., Harlem and Brooklyn against white supremacy. In one 10-week period in 1963, almost 15,000 Americans were arrested during demonstrations in more than 700 cities.
Similarly, it was only after Black Lives Matter demonstrations sparked by the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore the next year, that Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, came out forcefully in support of criminal justice reform. Last year, in the face of a devastating pandemic that disproportionately affected Black communities, protests after the police shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor upended American politics. Corporations suddenly embraced the Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media, the NFL expressed its support for racial justice, and NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. Some cities, including Los Angeles and Austin, reallocated funds intended for law enforcement to poor communities of color.
Black Lives Matter activists were criticized by conservative elected officials and pundits as their provocative anti-police demonstrations sometimes led to violence. The movement consciously adopted civil-rights-era civil-disobedience tactics, blocking highways and staging “die-ins,” to dramatize law enforcement’s unequal treatment of Black citizens.
Obama’s dismissal of “defund the police” as a “snappy” slogan that alienated potential allies exemplifies even sympathetic Democrats’ bias for working within the system when it comes to racial justice and protest. On the one hand, they excoriate Black folk, especially young people, when they opt out of the political process by not voting or joining conventional avenues for participation. However, when they help organize the largest civil and human rights movement in American history, complete with specific policy recommendations to end policing as we know it, they are pilloried for choosing a slogan that makes powerful actors across the political spectrum uncomfortable.
Progress flows more readily from outside the system in other aspects of democracy as well. In Georgia, for instance, lawmakers enacted new hurdles to voting that are expected to disproportionately affect Black residents. In moving to restrict voting, Georgia and dozens of other states are attacking the very remedy recommended by those who argue that change should come from within the system. But ultimately, the Georgia law won’t be dismantled by Democratic politicians alone; the most significant blows are the economic protests being mounted by grass-roots groups as well as corporations such as Major League Baseball, which moved the All-Star Game out of state, and the media company owned by actor Will Smith, who halted production of his latest film there.
For the Democratic Party, which has been the biggest beneficiary of Black organizing, last summer’s protests proved an electoral boon. Yet the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (a long way from “defund the police”) has only passed the House. This exemplifies the ways in which a movement for genuine political change can be hamstrung by powerful but sclerotic institutions. Despite winning more than 7 million more votes than his opponent, President Biden has limited influence in forcing the passage of criminal justice reform through Congress, especially with a 50-50 Senate that cannot afford even a single Democratic defection. While certain members of the House are sympathetic to radical police reforms, the Democratic Party’s internal divisions prevent it from speaking with a unified voice, which engenders further delay, which leads to more Black death.
Chauvin should be found guilty of second-degree murder. But a conviction would not offer the kind of national catharsis on race and policing that America longs for. One former police officer being held accountable for the death of another innocent Black person is not a sea change; it speaks only to the strength of the prosecution, the pathos of the testimony, the weight of the evidence and the sentiments of 12 jurors. Full Black citizenship and dignity, the twin goals of the civil rights movement, will come about only when we can create a world where George Floyd and Daunte Wright are allowed to flourish and live, instead of becoming martyrs of a system that ensures that Black lives matter less than White ones.