George Floyd: Five pieces of context to understand the protests

By Alice Cuddy
Reposted from BBC News
June 5, 2020

Protester in mask saying "I can't breathe" in Los Angeles
The protests have taken place in the background of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected African Americans

For more than a week, protests have shaken cities across the US following the death of a black man in police custody.

George Floyd, 46, was arrested in the city of Minneapolis on 25 May for allegedly using counterfeit money to buy a pack of cigarettes. He died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while he pleaded that he could not breathe.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, 44, has been dismissed from the police department and charged with murder. Three other officers who were on the scene were also sacked and later charged with abetting the crime.

Unrest has broken out across the country. Police have used tear gas and force against demonstrators and President Donald Trump has threatened to send in the military.

Here, we look at some of the context that will help you understand the fuller picture of what is happening.

1) Police violence and the justice system

There are numerous recent examples of African-American people being killed by law enforcement officers in the US.

High-profile cases from recent years include Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Michael Brown and Alton Sterling. In these cases the officers involved were not convicted of any criminal offence.

“I’m tired of hearing about black people dying,” one protester in Washington DC said. “I’m tired of being afraid just by being stopped by the cops.”

George Floyd and his daughter
George Floyd and his young daughter: his death echoed that of Eric Garner six years earlier

In particular, the George Floyd case has drawn comparisons with the death of Eric Garner in July 2014.

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was arrested in New York on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes. In a video recorded by a bystander, white police officer Daniel Pantaleo can be seen with his arm wrapped around Garner’s neck in a chokehold.

Garner, an asthmatic, was heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” before appearing to lose consciousness. He was later pronounced dead in hospital.

A state grand jury declined to charge the officer with murder.

The case sparked nationwide protests, but the officer never faced any criminal charges and lost his job in 2019 – five years after Garner’s death.

In the case of George Floyd, the speed with which the officers involved were fired, and with which Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged, was unusual.

Former US President Barack Obama said the protests over Floyd’s death represented a “genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.”

Data collated by the BBC’s Reality Check team highlights how the experience of African Americans differs from white Americans when it comes to law and order.

In 2019, African Americans made up less than 14% of the population but accounted for more than 23% of the just over 1,000 fatal shootings by the police.

A BBC chart shows the percentage of fatal police shootings compared to the percentage of population by ethnicity

African Americans are arrested for drug abuse at a much higher rate than white Americans even though surveys show drug use at similar levels for both groups.

In 2018, African Americans represented almost a third of the country’s prison population.

This means there are more than 1,000 African-American inmates in federal or state prisons for every 100,000 African Americans, while there are about 200 white inmates for every 100,000 white Americans.

Data from Minneapolis, where Floyd lived, also reflect these law enforcement trends.

2) This did not happen in isolation

George Floyd’s death did not happen in a vacuum. It came on the heels of several other high-profile incidents just in the past few weeks that have provoked debates about racism in the country.

On the same day as his death, a video went viral of a white woman in New York’s Central Park calling the police after a black man asked her to put her dog on a lead.

An exchange between the two started because Christian Cooper, a bird watcher, was concerned that the dog could endanger wildlife. He filmed Amy Cooper (no relation) threatening to call the police and tell them “there’s an African-American man threatening my life”.

After calling the emergency operator she repeated, “He’s African American,” before pleading for them to send an officer.

Ms Cooper was fired from her job and widely condemned.

In a later interview with NBC News, Mr Cooper raised the recent high-profile shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was out jogging when he was killed by two white men in February. A third man filmed the shooting.

Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead during a confrontation on 23 February

The case gained widespread attention in the national media and provoked outrage.

It took more than two months for the suspects to be charged.

“We live in an age of Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are gunned down because of assumptions people make about black men, black people, and I’m just not going to participate in that,” Mr Cooper said.

3) Socio-economic divides – and coronavirus

Racial divisions in US society are also prevalent in areas such as housing, healthcare and employment.

In 2016, the typical net worth of a white family was found to be nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family. Compared with white Americans, African Americans are almost twice as likely not to have medical insurance.

African Americans are more likely to work in service industry jobs and to live in densely populated areas.

These issues have all contributed to African Americans being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak, which is happening at the same time as the Floyd protests. George Floyd’s autopsy concluded he had coronavirus, although this played no part in his death.

According to the most recent government data more than 34% of those in hospital with coronavirus are black, out of 19,775 cases where race and ethnicity data were available.

New York City has reported that rates of Covid-19 deaths are substantially higher among African Americans than white Americans.

Rates of unemployment during the pandemic, as before, are also higher among African Americans than white Americans. George Floyd lost his job as a bouncer as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.

A man raises his fist as demonstrators gather in front of Los Angeles City Hall
Social conditions place black people and their neighbourhoods at risk

“The coronavirus does not discriminate, but our housing, economic, and health care policies do,” said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.

“Environmental racism, unaffordable housing, a lack of job opportunities, poverty, and inadequate health care are underlying social conditions, strongly influenced by policy, which place black people and their neighbourhoods at risk.”

Such socio-economic inequality also exists in Minneapolis – the city where Floyd died and where the protests began.

Minneapolis has a population of about 430,000 people, less than 20% of whom are black.

Even before layoffs caused by the pandemic, 10% of black residents of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul were unemployed compared with 4% of whites.

In 2016, 32% of black people living there fell below the poverty line compared with 6.5% of whites.

Neighbourhoods there are highly segregated and black home ownership is among the lowest in the country.

“The same attitudes that led a cop to kneel in the back of a black man’s neck, choking him out are the same attitudes held by people in housing markets who facilitate the region’s black-white homeownership gap of 46% to 79%,” said Mr Perry.

4) The Trump factor

Donald Trump’s presidency began with massive, nationwide protests. Now, it could be ending with them.

The women’s marches of January 2017 brought hundreds of thousands to US streets for largely peaceful demonstrations. Following George Floyd’s death, the protests in the nation’s capital, and across the country, have at times turned violent. And while the 2017 events were in direct reaction to Trump’s inauguration, the purpose of latest uprising – addressing racial injustice and policing practices – are not specifically about the president.

The president has taken the demonstrations personally, however. Like the women’s marches, his actions suggest he views the Floyd marches as an attempt to undermine his presidency. The first set the stage for his administration, and these latest come just five months before he hopes to be re-elected to a second four-year term.

The politics of the situation has clearly influenced the tenor of his response. He echoed a pledge to restore “law and order” that Richard Nixon used successfully in his 1968 and 1972 presidential victories. Trump’s controversial decision to clear protesters and stand for photographs with a Bible in front of a church near the White House hints at a desire to court the evangelical voters he needs in November.

Although the root causes of the Floyd protests predate the Trump presidency, the president – by his words and actions, intentional or not – have added fuel the storm.

5) Militarisation of the police

The protests over George Floyd’s death have drawn attention to the use of military equipment by police officers. While images of military vehicles being used for crowd control may appear shocking to some, it is not a new phenomenon in the US.

The Department of Defense began a programme in the 1990s allowing the transfer of excess military equipment to police departments. Preference is meant to be given to anti-drug and counter-terror needs.

Today more than 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in the programme.

It is overseen by the Defense Logistics Agency, which has the final authority over the type and quantity of equipment made available to different agencies. It does not specify how such equipment should be used. Image copyright EPA Image caption “With less need for such equipment in Iraq, the equipment needed to go somewhere”

A heavily armed police officer in Walnut Creek, California
“With less need for such equipment in Iraq, the equipment needed to go somewhere”

Data show that surplus military equipment transferred to local law enforcement agencies under the 1033 programme has been rising since the mid-2000s, with spikes after 2010.

As of 2015, more than $5bn worth of military equipment had been distributed to law enforcement agencies under the programme.

Paul Poast, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said prior to the mid-2000s much US military equipment was “simply not as usable for law enforcement”.

“With the start of counter-insurgency fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, manufacturers began to develop weapons that one could say had more ‘dual-use’: be usable in urban counter-insurgency environments and usable by urban law enforcement.

“The surge starting in the 2010s can be explained by both the popularity of the equipment and the beginning of drawing down troops in Iraq. With less need for such equipment in Iraq, the equipment needed to go somewhere,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama barred the military from handing over some types of equipment after criticism that police were too heavy-handed in dealing with protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in 2014.

But Mr Trump lifted the restrictions in 2017.

Equipment given out under the programme includes aircraft, armoured vehicles and bullet-proof helmets.

Mr Poast said the use of military equipment by police was a key example of how large-scale counter-insurgency campaigns abroad can influence domestic security policy.