“I get calls. I get DMs. People from Brazil, from Ghana, from Germany. Everybody. London, Italy. They’re all saying the same thing: We won’t be able to breathe until you’re able to breathe,” Floyd’s brother Philonese Floyd said at a news conference Tuesday. “Today, we are able to breathe again.”
The global response could seem counterintuitive. In some ways, the difficult life of Floyd and his death under the knee of a White police officer reflect distinctly American racial divides and aggressive police tactics.
But from the early days after Floyd’s killing on May 25 of last year, people around the world saw something of their own circumstances in his demise. From Mexico City to Pretoria to Sydney and far beyond, thousands of people took to the streets holding signs that said, “Black Lives Matter” — a slogan born of U.S. police brutality, which disproportionately targets Black Americans.
Now, with Chauvin’s conviction, some see signs of a universal hope: that video footage and social media can challenge the police impunity many see in their own nations. That message will resonate far away from Minneapolis.
Floyd’s own words last year became a powerful global rallying cry. “I can’t breathe,” the 46-year-old said repeatedly during the 9 minutes and 29 seconds Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck and back, invoking the same pleas made by Eric Garner in New York City and scores of other Black men who have died in police custody.
The words have been uttered in deadly arrests beyond U.S. borders. In January 2020, months before Floyd’s death, Parisian delivery driver Cédric Chouviat was filmed telling police he could not breathe seven times as officers held him in a chokehold. The phrase became a rallying cry at protests around the world.
Nigerian poet Ben Okri conjectured that these words were part of what allowed protests to spread so far beyond U.S. borders. “It is deeply moving that the world has responded not to the death of a great man or woman, but to the killing of one of the Earth’s poor and seemingly insignificant people,” Okri wrote for the Guardian in June.
Yet Floyd’s death, and the words he uttered, would probably never have catalyzed a global movement were it not for Darnella Frazier, then just 17. The teenager’s conviction that the scene unfolding before her eyes in Minneapolis “wasn’t right” — and needed to be documented — may have “changed the world,” The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote.
As Frazier put it in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in May of last year: “The world needed to see what I was seeing.”
That impulse isn’t confined to the United States. Though police excesses are a global problem, the technology to capture them has only recently become widespread: A 2019 survey by Pew Research found that more than three-quarters of people in wealthy countries now have smartphones, along with almost half of those in developing nations.
And while America’s complicated racial history and debates over policing do not precisely map onto those outside of its borders, video footage makes it easy to see the parallels.
“France isn’t the United States, but France is becoming like the United States,” William Bourdon, a lawyer for the Chouviat family in Paris, said at a news conference last June.
In the months after Floyd’s death, police were filmed using similar arrest tactics in Britain and Germany. An Israeli soldier was filmed putting his knee on a Palestinian protester’s neck during an arrest in the West Bank. And last month, videos of the death of a 36-year-old Salvadoran woman during an arrest in Tulum, Mexico, drew more comparisons to Floyd’s killing.
“The Mexican state must also take responsibility as a state, because this was a similar case to what happened in the United States with Floyd,” the woman’s mother told Amnesty International.
But documentation doesn’t necessarily lead to accountability. Social media and video footage of police violence and corruption helped spark the Arab Spring, but in many parts of the Middle East, the problem persists: Even in Tunisia, considered the only Arab Spring country to have transitioned successfully to democracy, videos of brutality sparked protests once again this year.
In the United States, following Tuesday’s verdict, many were quick to point out how rare such convictions are. Officers retain considerable leeway to use force and are often trusted by judges and juries, experts told The Post’s Mark Berman earlier this year. And throughout the Chauvin trial, the numbers of killings by U.S. police officers continued to grow.
Just 20 minutes before the verdict was announced, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, prompting another round of demonstrations.
Police reform is not easy. But some countries could offer inspiration to those seeking police reform in the United States. Police officers in Norway, Britain and Ireland don’t carry guns, for example, and some countries have strict rules about neck restraints.
Other countries have diverted funding from police to other services or have extensively trained their officers on de-escalation techniques. When Washington Post reporter Rick Noack visited a police training facility in Germany last year, he found that the video of Floyd’s death had spread there, too.
One officer said his first thought when he watched the video was that he did not view the officers as colleagues. “They are murderers,” Rainer Grieger, president of the Brandenburg police training school, said.
But while the world may not always like what it sees in the United States, it watches. Just as the world watched Floyd die last year, it watched Chauvin be convicted of murder and manslaughter on Tuesday. And that evening, President Biden told Floyd’s 7-year-old daughter Gianna: “Daddy did change the world.”