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George Floyd death: When will we truly understand that #BlackLivesMatter?

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Published on 02 June 2020

Professor Donna Chambers
Professor Donna Chambers

On Monday, May 25 2020 in Minneapolis, USA, George Floyd, a black man in his 40s, died as a police officer held him down in the street, with his knee to his neck.

The incident, which was captured on video, has sparked protests and an international outcry.

Here, Professor Donna Chambers from the University of Sunderland, an expert in representations of race/gender, looks back on the frightening history of race killings in the US and asks when will we truly understand that #BlackLivesMatter


“The death of George Floyd has led to the usual cries of outrage and mass demonstrations by the black community in America who are demanding justice.

The incident is sadly just the latest in a long string of unarmed black men who have died at the hands of white law enforcement officers or vigilantes.

The outpourings of grief from the family and friends of the deceased, the mass demonstrations and the public cries of outrage and calls for justice after every such killing is reminiscent of the scenes that accompany mass shootings in America where the ubiquitous arguments about gun control once more take centre stage.

Then time passes, public anger dissipates, the stories disappear from the media and things go back to normal. Until the next mass shooting or the next police murder of another unarmed black man when the cycle begins again….

However, the killing of black people in America dates from the early slavery years in the 17th Century, to the days of the Jim Crow Laws which lasted from the late 19th – mid 20th centuries and which legitimized racial segregation in the USA, to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s to the end of the 1960s.

In more recent times while incidents of black people - particularly black men - being lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan in acts of ritualistic violence, have all but disappeared in the USA, black oppression continues but manifests itself in new guises, whether that be the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated, the high levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness amongst black people, the higher numbers of black women who die in childbirth and today, the disproportionate number of black people who have died from the Coronavirus.

It is true to say that the relationship between the black male community in the USA and the police is fraught and uneasy and is underpinned by historical myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies about the nature of the black body.

When this is combined with notions of class and gender, it becomes a very potent and dangerous cocktail which is often more detrimental to black male bodies. In America it seems that being a black man is synonymous with being a criminal.

Recent murders of black men by white police officers/vigilantes which have led to public explosions of outrage from the black community include:

2012 – Trayvon Martin

2014 – Eric Garner; Michael Brown; Akai Gurley; Tamir Rice; Laquan McDonald

2015 – Walter Scott; Tony Robinson; Freddie Gray

2018 – Botham Shem Dean; Stephen Clarke

2019 – Anton Sterling

It was in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the subsequent acquittal of his white assailant George Zimmerman that #BlackLivesMatter was formed and according to their website their mission is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”.

The founders of this movement wanted to create a space for “black imagination and innovation by combating and counteracting acts of violence’. #BlackLivesMatter has now expanded from America and includes branches in the UK and in Canada.

Evidently the killing of black men by the police has a long history in America and it also has contemporary relevance. However, it is important to highlight the role that social media has played in bringing what has long existed in the shadows into the light.

Indeed, according to Darryl Pincknay “social media have removed the filters that used to protect white America from what it didn’t want to see”.

Returning to the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey stated that “being black in America should not be a death sentence”.

But sadly, all too often it is.