From Atlanta, Georgia, to Seattle, Washington, and everywhere in between, Americans have risked their lives during a once-in-a-generation pandemic to gather in the streets to make their voices heard.
Sunday and Monday mark the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob, many of them armed and deputized by local law enforcement, destroyed and burned down a wealthy Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Across the 24-hour attack on the Greenwood District, also known as “Black Wall Street,” the mob burned more than 1,200 Black-owned homes, 35 square blocks, countless businesses, a hospital, a school, a library, and a dozen Black churches. While an official death toll has never been determined, the American Red Cross, which carried out relief efforts at the time, estimated up to 300 people died. Another 9,000 Black Tulsans were left homeless.
Nearly a century later—and more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement and the bloody protests of 1968—little appears to have changed in the United States. In the week since white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, the U.S. has descended into chaos. Angry Americans across the country have taken to the streets to demand justice, reform, and an end to police brutality.
Their actions echo protests of the past, such as the marches that happened after Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015.
But these recent demonstrations also feel different in ways that could make them particularly historic.
The unrest began last week in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed, but has since spread to more than 75 cities across the country. From Atlanta, Georgia, to Seattle, Washington, and everywhere in between, Americans have risked their lives during a once-in-a-generation pandemic to gather in the streets to make their voices heard.
One of those voices belonged to Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, a 23-year-old resident of Los Angeles. Wright and the nonprofit organization she works for, BLD PWR (Build Power), helped plan Saturday’s protest in Central Los Angeles in conjunction with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.
The purpose of the protest, which drew tens of thousands of attendees of all backgrounds, was to “honor everyone we had lost,” Wright said, including Floyd and other victims of police brutality such as Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor. The rally included speeches from Black Lives Matter activists, members of the indigenous Tongva people, and a musical performance by Amber Riley.
“It was so beautiful, I was so hopeful and I think everyone felt this moment of unity,” Wright said.
Then the Los Angeles Police Department stepped in. “It did not get bad until the LAPD showed up. They had zero intention of being peaceful with us,” Wright said. Police officers positioned themselves so as to split up the mass of marchers, and asked Wright and her fellow protesters to leave, telling them their gathering was unlawful.
“We had every right to be there and we just stood firm. No one was pushing back, no one was getting aggressive. There was some yelling for sure but there was nothing aggressive on our part,” she said. “They asked us to keep stepping back and we said no.”
In an incident that was captured on camera, LAPD officers could then be seen shoving protesters and firing rubber bullets into the ground, which ricocheted and hit several attendees, including Kendrick Sampson, founder of BLD PWR and an actor best known for his roles on the TV shows Insecure and How to Get Away with Murder.
Sampson, who was getting ready to head home when standoff escalated, documented the incident on Instagram. On Sunday, he also shared graphic photos of the injuries he suffered from the rubber bullets as police started “brutalizing peaceful protesters.”
Things quickly escalated from there. “They started hitting us, like clubbing us with their batons,” Wright said.
Video of the violent incident was captured by CNN.
Wright said the LAPD could have pushed them back using their shields, but didn’t because they were clearly “there to hurt people.”
“My friend’s shin was hit so hard you could see his bone,” she said. “I had to leave and rush him to urgent care.”
Similar acts of escalation occurred in cities across the country. In New York City, a police officer used their vehicle to ram a metal barricade into protesters, sending several people flying to the ground. In Atlanta, police officers stopped a vehicle, attempted to pull two college students from the car, and then tased them. All across the nation, protesters and journalists alike were attacked, arrested, and in some cases, even blinded by police officers who fired rubber bullets.
A disturbing montage of the brutality was put together by progressive activist and writer Jordan Uhl, and has since been viewed over 41 million times.
For many, this violence highlighted why people were protesting in the first place—the same reason they’ve been protesting for 50 years.
“I think this is really kind of a continuation of the fight that we saw during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a question of, ‘Are we prepared to see Black people as fully human and also full citizens in this country?’” said Seft Hunter, director of Black-led organizing and power building at Community Change, a national activist group. “I think those are really open questions.”
The reasons people are coming out to protest—the “continued violence against Black bodies,” high rates of unemployment among Black people—are the same they were in 2014 and 1968, Hunter said. (In April, the unemployment rate among Blacks was 16.7%, compared to only 14.2% for whites.)
Sampson, whose BLD PWR group organizes to advance social change and fight systemic oppression, agreed, but also went a step further.
“These mass protests happen every so often because we don’t ever address the root causes of it,” he told COURIER.
Reform looked like a real possibility in 2014 and 2015, after the deaths of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, but few changes were ever implemented. Powerful police unions opposed major policy overhauls and lawmakers showed a lack of political will, Hunter said. Instead, change varied from city to city, with the only widespread reform being the increasing use of body cameras, which have not been shown to reduce police violence.
Pamela Oliver, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, believes the real challenge with reform goes even deeper. “There’s an overarching structural problem in most of the United States—the police are basically charged with the job of reinforcing economic inequalities,” she said. “Their job is essentially to protect the rich from the poor.”
The continuation of police killings has been exhausting, Sampson said. “We get burnt out because of the trauma in our everyday lives.”
The American policing system was “founded in slave catching,” Sampson pointed out, adding that the nation’s criminal justice system, which disproportionately imprisons Black Americans, is “the continuation of legal slavery” and contributes to the trauma of Black lives in the United States. “They continue to traumatize us. We have never had a point in history where we have had the time to work through our trauma. We are consistently under attack,” he said.
This generational trauma that Sampson invoked was perhaps best captured this weekend by a video of three Black men having a heated discussion over the protests in the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the wake of Floyd’s death and the ensuing violence, many lawmakers, government officials, and police chiefs have criticized the officer responsible for Floyd’s death while reiterating the long-time argument that there are only a handful of bad cops, better known as the “few bad apples” argument.
Wright isn’t buying it.
“You cannot complain about a few bad apples when you grow the trees,” she said. “We have created a system that has repeatedly told police officers that they will be protected in these situations, that they can get away with this behavior, and when you tell people that it is allowed, you cannot then be shocked that people will then stoop to this level of behavior.”
She pointed to Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd. Chauvin had 18 prior complaints filed against him, yet was never punished. “He was already told 18 times before that he could get away with this, so it shouldn’t be a surprise what happened to George Floyd,” Wright said.
Hunter described the use of the “few bad apples” rationale as a distraction against a culture of law enforcement that forgives, if not endorses, the behaviors of police officers who use disproportionate force against communities of color.
“We have to look at systems, we can’t simply look at individual behavior, because it’s precisely the systems that permit the kind of behavior that we see,” Hunter said. “Rarely do we ever see cops actually charged, and when they are charged, they’re likely to be acquitted or their cases are likely to end up with a hung jury.”
Between 2005 to 2014, roughly 10,000 Americans were killed by police, according to an estimate from the Washington Post. During that time, only 153 officers, or about 1.5%, were charged, a database maintained by Philip Matthew Stinson at Bowling Green University found. About 55% of those 153 cases resulted in convictions, Stinson told the Post.
The motive behind the protests isn’t the only historical similarity. Mainstream media coverage of the events has also been similar, said Oliver, the sociology professor. It started out sympathetic to protesters, she said, but has since become more focused on the disorder and the disruption as protests have occasionally turned into looting and vandalism.
“Then the narrative turns anti-protester,” she said. “It’s initially, oh it’s a terrible event, the police were awful, then after there’s a riot, the general white public is saying ‘Oh why did they tear up their own neighborhoods? They’re bad.’”
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From there, the bad behavior of the police falls out of the narrative and the story becomes about the bad behavior of some of the protesters. “That’s kind of a standard way things play out,” Oliver said.
This past weekend seemed to mark that turning point. As stores were vandalized across the nation, the focus of media coverage of the protests shifted and became notably more negative toward the protesters. Hunter said he believes 99% of the protesters are peaceful and out to protest against injustice, but said they don’t get the same attention as those who become violent. The destruction of property “plays well on TV,” he added.
Sampson, however, argued that it’s not necessarily unjust for people to express themselves with violence. “People can do whatever they want and express their rage, their mourning, and their grief how they see fit,” he said. “The Black community is in pain right now. Nobody should tell us how to protest, especially white people.”
While many elements of these protests have played out similarly to those of past decades, there are some differences. Most notably, these rallies are taking place during a global pandemic that has already claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and devastated the American economy.
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The coronavirus also prompted two months of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. In the last six days, tens of thousands of people—including many Black Americans, who have been disproportionately devastated by the virus—have taken to the streets to protest injustice while putting their health at risk.
“It’s not lost on any of us the risks that we would take showing up in a public space with other people who look just like us who are also dying from this disease,” Hunter said. But he also noted that staying at home means something different for Black Americans than for white ones. Black people disproportionately work essential jobs during the coronavirus, and many of them never retreated to their homes in the first place.
Hunter also pointed to the federal government’s response to the pandemic as being wholly inadequate for all Americans, but especially communities of color. He specifically cited the government’s small business relief program, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, which has largely failed to provide support to Black- and Brown-owned businesses.
Wright was more pointed. “When we have this level of death and we have a government that is not adequately providing the support needed, communities that are dying both economically and literally, there’s a frustration there. I think our government has proven that they don’t care about Black and Brown communities that are dying.”
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Writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom also pointed to the effects of the pandemic as making these protests different from those that have come before.
“All pacifying forces are shut down because of COVID. Schools. Work. Less fear of losing income because income is either gone or people are safely working from home. Daily deluge of state actors who don’t empathize with how hard quarantine is and no specter of a safe end,” she tweeted.
There’s one other key difference between the current demonstrations and those that have occurred since the 1960s, Hunter noted: the occupant of the White House.
“Never before have we seen such flagrant disregard for Black lives and just flagrant indifference to Black suffering that we’re seeing right now with the current president,” Hunter said. “We’ve never had a president basically actively promoting Black folks getting shot when we’re out engaged in peaceful protest. That is markedly different than at any other moment over the last 50 years.”
Last week, President Trump called protesters “THUGS” and threatened them with violence. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted.
Trump has spent his presidency making similar comments that encourage police violence, with little sympathy for activists and protesters.
“The president has directly permitted verbally as well as by policies from the Department of Justice a culture of aggressive action on the part of police, especially with communities of color and Black communities,” Hunter said. “That actually sends a signal—it permits the worst instincts of police officers who are inclined to use disproportionate force in communities of color.”
Trump also reversed several police reforms enacted by former President Obama, gutting federal oversight of troubled police departments. Those rollbacks and Trump’s overall demeanor are part of what’s sparking so much outrage, according to Wright.
“People don’t become this aggressive when they still have hope and there’s a belief that things will change,” she said. “When you believe that change is happening, that work is going towards reforming the system, that we are moving towards a better world, people are far more calm. I think having someone like Trump—who shows no intention of trying to even pretend like he wants to build a better justice system—I think it’s caused people to lose hope and I think that is where a lot of that anger is coming from.”
Sampson and Wright said they hope the protests will continue harnessing that anger and lead to an overhaul of the policing system in the United States.
“I think this is the beginning of a huge shift that has not been seen in a very long time, and is hopefully unprecedented,” Sampson said. He and other activists nationwide are specifically calling for “killer cops” to be held accountable and for police departments to be defunded. The City of Los Angeles’ proposed annual budget for the next fiscal year, for example, includes $3.15 billion for the LAPD, an amount that includes 54% of the city’s unrestricted revenues.
“That money could pay for so many things,” Sampson said. “We can have unarmed, non-law enforcement first responders in our community. We can have mental health care infrastructure. Right now, our largest mental healthcare system is prisons and jails,” Sampson said. “We can have after-school programs, we can invest in rehabilitation centers, we can invest in housing, we can invest in the things that truly make us safe.”
“I want to see a system that focuses on our most vulnerable,” Wright added.
It’s decidedly unclear what, if any change, will come from these protests. “It’s hard to know, ‘Is it more of the same or is it new?’ Oliver said.
While the question of reform remains an open one, the response from state and local leaders seems to indicate that this might be a historic moment. More than two dozen mayors and governors have imposed curfews to try and quell the protests, according to the New York Times. It’s the first time so many local leaders have simultaneously issued such orders in response to civic unrest since 1968, after the assassination of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sampson and Wright hope this moment ends differently than that one. They hope it ends differently than the deaths of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray. They hope it ends differently than the Tulsa Massacre, which for years was whitewashed as a race riot and led to zero prosecutions.
The activists say they are committed to making sure this ends differently. On Saturday, as the rally they helped organize was wrapping up—before the LAPD grew violent—protesters invoked the words of Assata Shakur, the controversial activist and former member of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” they chanted. “It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”