WASHINGTON—“Say his name!”

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This article was published 25/5/2021 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WASHINGTON—"Say his name!"

"George Floyd!"

The first time I heard that call-and-response chant was almost a year ago — on May 30, days after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. The video of Floyd, begging helplessly without struggle for his mother and his life, as Derek Chauvin knelt casually on his neck for nine minutes while the life went out of him, had gone viral. The protests over his death that had enveloped Minneapolis and led to rioting had spread quickly across the nation.

At Lafayette Square near the White House in the darkness of that Saturday night, I stood near a dumpster that had been set on fire, among protesters who charged the police line repeatedly and launched bricks and bottles into it. The police behind riot shields liberally fired canisters of pepper spray into the road, swatting forward with batons. A country that had already been suffering a public health crisis from the pandemic seemed poised on the edge of anarchy.

The crowd of a few hundred protesters in Washington that night was full of rage and desperation. They shouted a lot of slogans — "No justice, no peace," "I can’t breathe," "No good cops in a racist system" — but maybe the most enduring turned out to be that call and response.

Say his name.

George Floyd.

One year after his death, that chant has become ubiquitous in the United States. I have heard it in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and Atlanta and Houston and Tampa, and in places in between. They chanted it in Portland, Oregon, while protesters occupied blocks of the city for weeks on end. I’ve heard it spoken by congressional leaders inside the Capitol building. I’ve heard it shouted in anger and in sadness and, recently on the streets of Minnesota, I heard it shouted joyfully in celebration.

Floyd’s face has become iconic, painted on murals in cities across the country. His image is printed on T-shirts, like Che Guevara’s, a symbol of a revolution that has been embraced by a broad swath of Americans. His death led to the largest mass protest movement in U.S. history. It was a major issue in the presidential election. It has changed laws in many states — and is likely to change more, federally and locally.

By now, it’s a famous story that Floyd’s daughter told President Joe Biden that in dying in senseless, tragic circumstances, "Daddy changed the world."

He sure did.

History can pivot on unexpected moments in unexpected places. Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, kicking off the First World War. Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up a seat on a bus in 1955 and fuelled the 1960s civil rights movement. Such events are, in retrospect, sparks that ignite long-existing tinderboxes — complex combinations of factors that are lined up like dominoes waiting for something to tip.

The Black Lives Matter movement did not start with the death of George Floyd. Nor was he the first Black person in the U.S. — even in 2020 — killed in transparently unjust circumstances. Many such events had been caught on video that had gone viral, and protesters had been chanting a long list of other names for several years. Racism is the original sin of a country founded by slave owners, and grappling with its legacy has been a near-constant project in the U.S.

But something about the combination of factors on May 25, 2020, on the curb on a relatively quiet street outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, was galvanizing. There was the innocuousness of the offence — police were responding to a call about a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. There was Floyd’s obvious lack of resistance to the force being applied to him. There was the sheer amount of time, nine minutes and 29 seconds, that Chauvin spent kneeling on his neck. Floyd’s pleas, asking for his mother, saying he could not breathe. The callous indifference Chauvin displayed throughout, not even removing his sunglasses from his head while he choked the life out of a man beneath him. The contrast between the initial police statement on his death, blaming a "medical incident," and the evidence available to all on the video.

For those who had long supported Black Lives Matter and its goals, it was another piece of evidence added to a long indictment of police behaviour towards Black people and America’s indifference to Black lives. For many who had continued to place trust in police authority and thought perhaps Barack Obama’s election was the sign that something close to racial justice had arrived, the video of Floyd’s death was the back-breaking straw that finally allowed them to see the horrifying extent of the problem.

So too with the police reaction to the protests that sprang up in response. Mass marches against police brutality were met with mass displays of police brutality — in many cities across the U.S., police drove cars into crowds, beat unarmed protesters, sprayed tear gas and pepper spray into their unprotected faces. On newscasts, and in social media videos that came by the dozens in the weeks after Floyd’s death, authorities illustrated the protesters’ point all too vividly.

In Buffalo, 75-year-old Martin Gugino was thrown to the ground, his head smashing the pavement as police marched past him, apparently indifferent. In Washington, in full view of media cameras, president Donald Trump had military officers tear-gas and beat a massive crowd of peaceful protesters to clear the way for him to hold a meaningless photo opportunity, holding up a Bible in front of a church.

It was after that the protests grew to unprecedented levels of support: hundreds of thousands, a coalition of extraordinary diversity, marching in hundreds of cities. There had been some rioting in some protests in the early days after Floyd’s death, but the marches swelled to massive size and remained overwhelmingly peaceful in what followed. In the days after that Trump photo op, people arriving on a stretch of road near the White House, newly rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza — the slogan emblazoned on the road in giant yellow letters — told me it had all become too much to ignore: the racism, the brutality, the authoritarianism bent of the response.

The Black Lives Matter movement did not start with George Floyd. But it was in the wake of his death and the clashes with police that followed that the movement gained majority support across the country. Seasoned civil rights activists I spoke to, and those such as Al Sharpton speaking last summer in Washington and Jesse Jackson speaking last month in Minneapolis, noted a sea change in the movement — mass numbers of white people had joined the fight, people of all ages. You hear talk, constantly, about a "racial reckoning" having arrived — it is not the first for the U.S., and it probably won’t be the last. It is fair to ask how many reckonings one country needs on the same topic over the course of history’s long arc. But it is also fair to observe that Floyd’s death has led to an embrace of racial justice as an urgent goal.

Today, you cannot walk half a block in affluent, middle-class northwest Washington without encountering lawn signs that read "Black Lives Matter." I have seen that the same is true in neighbourhoods rich and poor in cities across the country.

The movement’s goals have become mainstream.

One significant measure of the changes underway was the guilty verdict last month in Chauvin’s murder trial. Awaiting that decision in Minneapolis, I was told constantly by Black activists there that never before in Minnesota state history had a white police officer been found guilty in the death of a Black person. Across the country, instances where charges were laid against police in the deaths of racial minorities were astoundingly rare. Most seem to agree that the outcry and the shift in public opinion in the wake of Floyd’s death led to a different approach by prosecutors that allowed the conviction.

At the structural level, change has been arriving as well. In dozens of states and cities across the country, policing reforms have been started or implemented. At the U.S. Capitol, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which now remains subject to ongoing negotiations in the Senate. Aside from presenting his own police reform orders, Joe Biden has applied a lens of racial justice to many of his initiatives, from economic stimulus to infrastructure to gun control.

"I’m going to say, in my role as a presidential historian, President Biden’s rhetoric on these issues has been a different order. We’ve never had a president use the construct of racial equity in the way that President Biden has," Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity in Democracy at Northwestern University, said last month.

And the broader racial justice movement that galvanized around Floyd’s death is pursuing not just police reform, but democratic reform and voting rights changes.

One year later, George Floyd’s death has changed the country, and continues to. On the lawn in front of the courthouse last month in Minneapolis, people cheered and cried and hugged in the moments after the Chauvin verdict was announced.

"Say his name," someone shouted.

"George Floyd," hundreds of people responded.

Minutes later, a young Black woman named Jalyn Hall told me the long "journey of justice" would continue. "We’re not done," she said. "We still have plenty of work to do, but we’re so happy that accountability is being held." The Floyd verdict hadn’t delivered racial justice to America. But it had shown, she said, that measures of justice might be possible.

That night in George Floyd Square, at the spot where he’d died, people chanted a similar conclusion from the verdict, one that seems more possible a year after his death than it ever had in recent memory: "If we fight, we can win."

Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: ekeenan@thestar.ca