People pray and take a knee for nine minutes and 29 seconds in memory of George Floyd on the first anniversary of his death, May 25, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Shutterstock)
By Martenzie Johnson, The Undefeated
I truly believed things would be different this time.
And can you blame me?
In the moments following the release of video showing the murder of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin, the normal chants of “Black Lives Matter” or “No Justice, No Peace” rang out as always from those who have been fighting for decades. But, for this particular instance of police murder, there were also statements of support for the protests from Facebook and Google and Amazon and even Gushers. Brands as wide-ranging as Airbnb, Sephora and Bank of America announced they’d be donating millions of dollars to organizations that specialize in “social justice” or providing resources for the “Black community.” The Minneapolis City Council vowed to defund its police department. White celebrities placed black squares in their social media accounts for … reasons.
For the first time in the history of America, it felt as if others – mostly white people – actually cared about the widespread oppression and racism that Black people are exposed to. Laws, of course, had been passed through Congress in the past that allowed us to vote, serve in the military, live where we want and have basic human rights that had long been afforded to white people. But that almost felt like a reluctant inevitability, like puberty: Prepare for it or don’t, but eventually it’ll be here. Politicians and business owners at some point realized that the fight against equal rights was no longer a winning position.
But when it appeared that white people in positions of power had finally decided to turn on the police, it felt like, to borrow heavily from gospel singer Kirk Franklin, a brighter day. For the first few months following Floyd’s murder, it seemed possible to have a world where police officers would be held responsible for the killings of Black people, that those in a position of power who sought to harm Black people would be ceremoniously removed, that corporations would no longer prioritize the ideologies of their racist white customers over that of their Black customers, who simply desired to no longer be discriminated against, by the police, by the government, by some random person, by the very corporations making the statements.
The murder of Floyd was the perfect confluence of events. His slow death under a cop’s knee was captured in more than eight agonizing minutes of video. A pandemic that kept people home with nothing better to do than take to the streets to protest state violence. An incumbent presidential candidate who not only encouraged cops to harm people they put under arrest, but also sicced law enforcement and the military on American citizens protesting against those very actions. Lastly, a corporate class that had long been allergic to any action that may upset any Joe the Plumber type, suddenly expressed a mere thought on the plight of Black Americans.
But after a few months, as the nationwide protests began to decline, the fight against systemic oppression felt as if it had been turned back into a one-on-one brawl, with Black Americans once again fending for themselves. The calls for defunding or abolishing the police began to fizzle out. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which had reached its peak in the early days of last summer’s mass protests, decreased considerably before the leaves turned colors in the fall. Politicians who once kneeled on the ground while donning kente cloths were back to arguing about taxes, stacking courts and health care.
In professional sports, where there were once messages of support on arena floors and the backs of jerseys, and where nearly a billion dollars was allocated in the name of social justice, it was back to business once winter hit. Where there were once countless hijacked news conferences to bring attention to names such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd, the sports media was back to asking about this player re-signing or that player demanding a trade.
Twelve months after the murder of Floyd, and things feel as they did on May 24, 2020, the day before Floyd’s last breath. Police are still killing Black people. (Since May 26, 2020, more than 950 people, approximately 200 of them Black, were shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s database on police killings, not taking into account those, like Floyd, not killed by a gun.) Protesters are still being met with the strength and excess of the police and military – and, with protection from laws like those in Florida, fellow citizens in their cars.
In sports, support for social justice had a limited impact. Front-office hiring practices – give or take a Miami Marlins or Washington Football Team – still prioritized “white” and “male” over others. Team owners across the sports spectrum on one hand decried racial injustices and police abuse, but on another donated heavily to the Republican Party.
At the time, it was clear that any messages of support were performative; they were crafted by a public relations expert, after all. But with the whirlwind of events that came after Floyd’s death, it felt like those who chose to ignore what was in front of their faces had finally come to the realization that, yes, in fact, shooting Black people was wrong. And that maybe something should be done about it.
But we were all hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. America, and its rich and powerful, didn’t actually care about Black people when they put out statements and donated money. They made calculated decisions that, perhaps, would help to tame and smother the engulfing fire that had taken over the country. It was less about making things right, but making sure that there was an America to wake up to the next morning to stream this show, or drink that soda, or buy this product.
Twelve months later, and I no longer believe.
BLACK LIVES MATTER IS SUDDENLY ACCEPTABLE
In June 2020, a Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 60% of white people – compared with 86% of Black people – either somewhat or strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, up from 52% just three years before. Whether that was actually sustainable, this added more and more to the proof that things might be different. Finally.
Wherever you turned, some brand or famous white person was preaching the virtues of “unity” or “social justice” or “enough being enough.” And it wasn’t from the usual suspects of Ben & Jerry’s or Tim Wise. Entities that have long either ignored the pleas of Black Americans or have financially benefited from a culture that doesn’t value their lives were suddenly joining the fight against systemic oppression and racial violence. Your favorite retailer, which for decades has actively fought against paying its Black and brown workforce livable wages or providing health care, suddenly tweeting “Black Lives Matter” was sure to turn your head. For many Black Americans, this had to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone or a plot out of Tales from the Hood where the whole country actually cares about them, and believes them, and supports them. What makes the entire premise of racism in this country so maddening is that the idea of a society that protects Black people is no more believable than aliens posing as humans. But for what felt like the first time, there was the appearance that was all changing for the better.
The NBA and WNBA were at the forefront in the sports world of responses to the murder of Floyd and other Black people last spring. The leagues put out statements and provided practical steps they were taking to address the myriad issues Black Americans face daily. Millions of dollars – as was the case a few years ago with the Players Coalition in the NFL – were committed to various organizations under the guise of economic empowerment.
Basketball’s response quickly spread to other sports leagues. After the NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts in the bubble and the WNBA put Taylor’s name on the back of its jerseys, the NFL painted “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” in its end zones. At the US Open, portraits of victims of police violence were placed in the empty seats vacated due to the pandemic.
White NFL quarterbacks, long reticent to garner any form of controversy, actually had something to say. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, he of MAGA-hat-in-locker fame, signed a petition imploring then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr to investigate the shooting death of Arbery. Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said his eyes had been “opened to the privilege I’ve lived with my whole life just because of the color of my skin.” Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, for a brief moment at least, said he’d kneel during the national anthem. Retired New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees even stumbled and recovered. All performative gestures with no actual skin in the game? Sure. But they were initial steps that white athletes have been called on to make for decades.
It wasn’t just in the sports world.
Every major Hollywood studio put out statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Old, popular shows and films with problematic material, such as Gone with the Wind, were finally addressed. The music industry organized a “Black Out” to “reflect and figure out ways to move forward in solidarity.” Aunt Jemima was dropped by Quaker Oats. As was Uncle Ben’s rice. The man on the box of Cream of Wheat, too. No one was exactly demanding a reckoning for their breakfast brands, but, again, white people appeared to finally be considering how their actions affected Black people.
There was no reason to believe these brands’ motives were altruistic. Eric Garner, like Floyd, was choked out by a police officer six years before and it did not garner this same response. But the immediacy at which all these actions took place felt like this was the murder of a Black person that would lead to substantive change in America. Police would be defunded. The criminalization of Black people would cease to exist. “Black Lives Matter,” like the “civil rights movement” before it, would be a relic of a past world that prioritized and enabled white supremacy.
In September, the Pew Research Center released another survey regarding the public’s acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through a summer of assaults, kidnappings, helicopter attacks, tear-gassing and more killings of people at the hands of police, support for the movement among white people decreased to 45%.
TALKING AND DONATING DIDN’T ACTUALLY CHANGE ANYTHING
Professional athletes have long avoided what’s considered “politics.” Michael Jordan famously said (and then unsaid, and then said again) that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” So since that time, save for a Craig Hodges here or Colin Kaepernick there, famous professional athletes have shied away from speaking out about politics. Up until 2012, with the killing of Trayvon Martin, we haven’t seen a modern-era collective protest among athletes as it pertained to police brutality or anti-Black racism.
As the athletes, and assuredly their handlers, understood: speaking about racism or politics meant risking the money. And no matter what a professional athlete tells you, it’s always about the money. Acknowledging racism meant – and still means – forcing white people to confront their own racism or complicity, and by doing so destroying the very meaning of their entire existence in this country: white supremacy. So athletes kept their mouths shut as it pertained to race or politics.
But what was then-Houston Texan J.J. Watt raising more than $41 million for Houstonians after Hurricane Harvey or NBA players using their own money to pay arena employees at the start of the pandemic if not a denunciation of the government’s inaction as it pertains protecting its most vulnerable, in this case mostly African Americans? Or the countless book bag and winter coat drives put on by athletes every school year not an indictment of the lack of a social safety net as it pertains to Black people. Sports – from taxpayer-funded arenas to gambling legalization to unionization – have always been intertwined with politics.
But then came Kaepernick and nearly the entire WNBA. In 2016, women’s basketball players raised their voices so high that they could no longer be ignored by staging on-court protests surrounding the killings of two Black men in particular that summer, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. By the end of the summer, Kaepernick famously sat, and later kneeled, during the playing of the national anthem, taking a stand against the violence against Castile and Sterling and many more unarmed Black people. What made these acts so much different, so much more powerful, is that the players weren’t asking for permission or softening their language to appease white audiences. They were clear: Police are killing Black people with impunity and something needs to be done about that. Unlike past civil rights icons whose messages could be distorted into unobjectionable calls for unity and peace, the athletes were clear that there could be “unity” and “peace” but for the institution of policing. It surprisingly did not go over well.
Fans threatened to stop watching the players’ respective sports if they kept up their antics. Companies threatened to stop advertising on NFL broadcasts. Sponsors pulled endorsement deals for some of those who joined in on the demonstrations. NFL team owners refused to let the inmates run the prison. The president of the United States called them “sons of b—-es.” In the face of systemic and systematic racism, these entities preferred the status quo and punished those who dared say otherwise. After all, Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since.
With all that, the 2020 response to Black people being killed by police felt like a Christmas miracle and coming-to-Jesus moment wrapped up in one. Because this sort of response had never been seen before, one could believe that a large corporation was actually concerned about an instance of police violence. One could believe that white supremacy was beginning to be dismantled right in front of our eyes.
But in response to the country’s mass protests against these very institutions, the police doubled down, using the force of the state and federal government to crack down on dissent. While NBA players were sequestered in the bubble, using the unique season to bring awareness to victims of police brutality, another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer, to say nothing of the countless other people shot and/or killed by the police.
The question of whether or not things had changed when it came to racism and policing was quickly answered in Kenosha. Seventeen-year-old white militia member Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an automatic, allegedly shot and killed two people at a Kenosha protest for Blake and walked right past police, who, moments earlier, had offered water and their appreciation to Rittenhouse and his fellow militia members. It would later come to light that police officers across the country donated money to Rittenhouse, who has aspirations of being a police officer and who is now facing multiple felonies, including murder, for the shootings in Kenosha. (Months later, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced that no charges would be filed against Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Blake.)
Even with as large a microscope that’s ever been on their profession, despite calls for defunding and abolishing, the police proved that leaders are either unwilling or afraid to hold them accountable. And that those who, in June, were calling for change through statements and monetary donations had less power than they understood. Because the violence accelerated.
In the months following the killing of Floyd, police pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl in Rochester, New York; pepper-sprayed a uniformed Black U.S. Army officer in Windsor, Virginia; pepper-sprayed a Black man in Allen, Texas, that led to the man’s death; violently pushed a 75-year-old white male protester to the ground in Buffalo, New York, leading to a skull fracture; and dislocated the shoulder and broke the arm of a 73-year-old white woman with dementia. In less than half of those cases were officers fired from their jobs. None were convicted for their actions. “The cops are getting paid leave for killing people,” Kaepernick said back in 2016.
The death of Floyd was supposed to finally put white supremacy under the microscope, but like police, white supremacists became more emboldened in the ensuing months, culminating on Jan. 6. The riot at the U.S. Capitol, perpetuated by the former president, conservative media and white supremacist groups, was America on full display. The coddling of racism. The denial of democracy. The protection of the insurrectionists by law enforcement. The fact that, after the year 2020, more proof was added to the fact that Black people are systematically targeted by the state with no avenue of relief. It was white people who rioted against the government with, according to multiple court filings, help from law enforcement.
White supremacy is as big a concern for this country as it was during the Civil War and when the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Councils roamed the streets. This is no hyperbole. The FBI, whose mission during the civil rights movement, in the words of then-director J. Edgar Hoover, was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize,” stressed to Congress in March that white supremacist extremism is “a persistent, evolving threat.” In February 2020, the state of New Jersey’s homeland security office rated the terrorist threat of white supremacist extremism higher than that of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Dozens of active cops and military members were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Law enforcement publicly admitting that white supremacy is a legitimate concern in America should be alarming. The equivalent to an oil company stressing the impending doom of climate change.
RIDING THE FENCE IS NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE
What’s long stood in the way of changing policing in America has been the police themselves. When confronted with reform measures, police, and more specifically their unions, have used outright threats to maintain power. Departments use their position as the ones with the guns, tanks and “heat rays” to demand compliance. And not just against Black people. They threaten sports teams, municipalities, celebrities, politicians and even some of the most powerful people in the country. The defunding of Minneapolis police, which the city council promised nearly a year ago, has not happened.
The police operate under an us vs. them mentality that sees its detractors, normally Black people, as literal enemies of the state. For those who have the courage to stand up to police violence, cops threaten their safety, as if running a mob racket. Beyoncé made subdued references to the Black Panther Party at the 2016 Super Bowl, so the police threatened a nationwide boycott of providing the singer security at her world tour. Minnesota police officers left their paid posts at a Minnesota Lynx game because players wore shirts that read “Change Starts With Us — Justice & Accountability” along with mentions of Sterling and Castile. After Kaepernick’s early demonstrations, the Santa Clara Police Association sent a letter to San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York threatening to pull officers from stadium security duty in an effort “to protect its members and work to make all of their working environments free of harassing behavior.”
Racism is ingrained in the very fabric of America. Racism determines how Black people are treated in health care, the criminal justice system, housing, education, employment and elections. And sports have long been able to either 1) ignore these blatant forms of racism or 2) throw a couple millions of dollars at the problem to appease its Black players. Just in the last year, the NFL created a $250 million social justice fund to “combat systemic racism” and the NBA created a $300 million fund for “greater economic empowerment in the Black community.” Yet while team owners in these leagues, on the surface, appear to support these efforts, many still heavily donate to and vote for Republicans, who themselves oppose gun control, police accountability and holding white supremacists accountable, while supporting the “Big Lie” and the disenfranchisement of Black people.
You can point to countless corporate statements, both before and after Floyd’s death, that spoke of police reform or training, in hopes of bringing about some far-flung idea of “change.” A few months after donating money to social justice organizations in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Miami Heat announced a financial partnership with the Miami Police Department. All these suggestions operate under the premise that the idea of police isn’t antiquated or beyond reform. Police kill Black people, are offered money to reform themselves, and then just go back to killing. So kneeling – or twerking – with the police at protests, or going on ride-alongs, as NFL safety Malcolm Jenkins has advocated, is just providing cover for police who see nothing wrong with other officers beating or killing Black people.
We’ve been made to believe that modern policing and Black prosperity can function in harmony, but support for Black Lives Matter and the police can not coexist; the two are mutually exclusive. One pleads for the humanity of Blackness while the other seeks to harass, plunder and control it. We should have been able to see this last year. Businesses and those who never once expressed support of Black people but happily bestowed fealty upon the police and military don’t just change overnight. A tiger – or Bengal – can not change its stripes.
The future – and present – is not totally bleak. Despite an attempted coup, enough reasonable people stood up for democracy in January. Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars – that is if the words of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters or actions of one Black juror don’t undo the verdict on appeal. The stances taken by a few corporations, namely Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Major League Baseball, stood up against the anti-Black voting laws instituted in Georgia, despite knowing it would upset their conservative customers, threaten their taxes and, in the case of the MLB, antitrust statuses with local governments.
Three states (Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico) have passed laws that end qualified immunity, which shield police against lawsuits, particularly after they shoot, injure or kill a citizen. New York City eliminated qualified immunity for police officers as well last month, while New York state repealed a law last June that shielded officer disciplinary records from being made public.
But courage – forced or otherwise – can not become complacent. Voting initiatives, like those spearheaded by basketball star LeBron James and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, helped flip states in 2020 that had long been Republican strongholds. In response, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the nation have made it harder for Black people to vote: The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as of March 24, Republicans in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills with restrictive voting provisions.
In a post-Floyd era, doing little is the same as doing nothing. Not choosing a side is choosing a side. Proudly and publicly supporting the police is the antithesis to “unity,” “social justice” and “enough being enough.” Because while the conviction of Chauvin felt like justice to some, the reality is that both during and immediately after Chauvin’s trial, police in Virginia (Isaiah Brown), North Carolina (Andrew Brown Jr.), Minnesota (Daunte Wright), Tennessee (Anthony Thompson Jr.) and Ohio (Ma’Khia Bryant) shot and killed Black people, the latter of which was a 16-year-old girl.
Police have proven time and time again that they have no plans to change. Reform, training and conversations don’t appear to be working, so perhaps give defunding or abolishment a chance. Publicly back the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which makes it easier to convict police officers accused of murder, limits qualified imunity and also limits the use of no-knock warrants (Taylor) and chokeholds (Garner). Maybe most importantly, acknowledge that capitalism, and the American system that protects it, is the root of the very social ills being protested against.
Capitalism is the very reason police were called on Floyd in the first place: to protect against $20 worth of fraud. The reason law enforcement in Portland, Oregon, was assaulting and kidnapping protesters and why Rittenhouse crossed state lines: to protect commercial property. The reason Floyd grew up in a Houston housing project that made sure to keep them away from white people: to protect housing values.
For the love of money is the root of all evil.
If the statements are to continue, they can no longer be toothless. If you mourn the loss of George Floyd, acknowledge who killed him. If you want to call out systemic oppression and abuse of power, acknowledge which systems and who is abusing their power. If you support the safety of Black communities, acknowledge who is putting them in danger.
Social justice is only attainable with an honest assessment of policing, which the purveyors of support from the past year have been unwilling to acknowledge.