Marches have surfaced in every state in the two weeks following the death of George Floyd, who was pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. And while the gatherings certainly include people who have long been involved with Black Lives Matter, a worldwide movement focused on eradicating white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence toward black people, these protests have proved an expanded interest in their cause.
The size and makeup of the protests indicate increased support, and now poll numbers back that up. The most recent Washington Post-Schar School poll shows that nearly 3 out of every 4 Americans support the protests. Just two years ago, only 40 percent called themselves supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early 2018.
The Post asked Americans: “Do you support or oppose protests following Floyd’s killing that have taken place in cities across the country? Do you feel that way strongly, or somewhat?” Nearly half — 47 percent — of the 74 percent who support the protests do so “strongly.”
Contrast that with a slightly different question in 2018: When asked “Do you consider yourself to be a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, or not?” more than half said no.
We now see voices aligning with the movement that were absent just a few years ago. A video went viral Sunday of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) marching with a group of evangelical Christians protesting racism and violence.
“I state the obvious, which is black lives matter,” Romney told reporters. “If there’s injustice, we want to correct that. If there is prejudice we want to change that. If there’s bias, we hope to give people a different perspective and to provide a sense of equality among our people.”
An inverse also has become true: Not showing sympathy for the protesters’ cause can have consequences. As demonstrations began to pick up steam following Floyd’s killing, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees emphasized that he didn’t support his fellow National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees told Yahoo Finance last week. “Let me just tell you what I see or what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States.”
Kneeling in protest had been a source of controversy in the NFL since Colin Kaepernick first did it in 2016. The 2013 Super Bowl quarterback, who has not been able to land a job with an NFL team since 2017, was widely criticized for his stance by fellow players, league leaders and even President Trump.
But the atmosphere has now appeared to change. Brees, who has been among the league’s most prolific players over his two-decade career, reversed his opinion in a matter of hours and repeatedly attempted to back off from his comments. And the NFL has admitted it was wrong to oppose players’ peaceful protests, though Kaepernick — only 32 — remains unsigned.
Combating racism and police brutality has long been highly important to black Americans — perhaps especially so during the Trump era, given the president’s frequent defense of law enforcement officers and his criticism of Black Lives Matter and others, like the NFL players, who protest racism.
But some have been surprised to see concerns about police brutality and anti-black racism move into the mainstream. About three-fourths of Americans — including about 7 in 10 white people — said racism and discrimination were “a big problem” in the United States, according to the most recent Monmouth University poll.
Few dynamics exhibit the nation’s racial tensions more than black people’s relationship with the criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform has been a rare issue of bipartisan interest for years, particularly among young voters aware of the high costs of mass incarceration and unconvinced that long prison sentences lead to rehabilitation. (Trump frequently points to his support for the First Step Act, legislation that has led to the early release of more than 3,000 inmates, as proof of his commitment to the issue.)
Smartphones have been big enablers of the shift in views. The prevalence of phones that can record encounters between police and the public has allowed people around the world to witness virtually the violence that many black Americans have experienced at the hands of police for decades.
Over the past several years, recordings and reports have surfaced across the United States of unarmed black people being killed by law enforcement, leading to growing calls for police funding to be redirected and for partnerships between departments and other institutions to cease.
Floyd’s death may have been a turning point, but a steady drumbeat of shocking deaths that grabbed headlines over the previous months also contributed to the increased support for the protests.
Floyd’s death came weeks after reports that Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, had been fatally shot in February by a former police detective while jogging in Brunswick, Ga. Louisville police officers shot Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, in her home in March while executing a search warrant for a man who did not live in her apartment complex and who had already been detained when police entered Taylor’s home. In May, Indianapolis police officers killed Sean Reed, a 21-year-old black man, after pursuing him for what they said was reckless driving.
Protests have continued for more than two weeks across the country, as have the demands for structural changes to policing in America. Calls from activists to defund police departments have gotten louder, and lawmakers have proposed reforms. Policy changes will be politically fraught, but the shift is likely to keep going in its current trajectory.