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Notable cases of unarmed Black people being murdered by the police changed the course of the country, this year, impacting seemingly every aspect of American life from sports to advertising to politics. Even in the midst of the first pandemic in over a hundred years and a momentous presidential election, Black Lives Matter was pushed to centerstage with studies initially indicating nationwide support for the anti-racist movement reached a record high.
The uptick in support and focus on BLM produced a tangible cultural shift, most prominently exhibited through months of sustained protests with record-breaking turnout. Although, as expected, the movement has been accompanied by widespread empty gestures and internet trends, it did appear that the United States was experiencing a deeper and more meaningful racial reckoning than we’ve seen in recent history. The public discourse on race, which too often centers on racism of the past dating back to slavery, shined a scrutinizing spotlight on the present-day racism affecting our nation from social to systemic.
Despite social distancing regulations due to COVID-19, massive demonstrations sprang up not only in all 50 states but in dozens of cities on nearly every continent from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Even Pope Francis took an interest in the protests, calling Bishop Mark J. Seitz of Texas “thanking him for speaking out and providing pastoral care during civil unrest in America” after he took a knee at a public rally for the length of the time Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, according to Insider.
Celebrities became more involved in the conversation than ever before, inundating social media feeds with images of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other victims of deadly force by the police. Actors, musical artists and the web’s most popular influencer offered supportive sentiments beyond posting black squares, as well as showing up to rallies to stand side by side with protesters.
Keke Palmer appeared at a march, delivering a speech that later went viral. Drake donated $100,000 to National Bail Out; a non-profit that provides bail money for Black mothers and caregivers in prison. Rapper Noname released “Song 33,” which was written in response to a highly publicized dispute with J. Cole, who was also seen protesting. The Chicago artist rapped “when George was beggin’ for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe” in addition to taking a jab at Amazon and uplifting the memory of Toyin Salau, the 19-year-old activist who disappeared and was later found killed at the height of the protests.
This political expression and scathing critique of police, politicians and oppressive systems seeped into the sports world, as well. The country watched as a radicalism began to brew within our professional leagues, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1960s. The WNBA had the strongest collective response with a stance against Atlanta Dream co-owner, Republican senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, who’d discouraged the players from openly supporting Black Lives Matter. Players from the Dream along with other WNBA teams wore shirts with the words “Vote Warnock” printed on them, endorsing Loeffler’s Democratic opponent. The two faced each other in a pivotal special election this November, the results of which were so close it triggered a runoff, which will take place in January.
Naomi Osaka wore different face masks during each round of the US Open, bearing a name of a Black person killed by the police, including Philando Castile, as well as abstaining from competitions in a show of solidarity. Some of the responses from the sports world were more unexpected, such as NASCAR, which is generally associated with the politics of the right, banning confederate flag from its races.
The most talked about show of protest by athletes came when the Milwaukee Bucks shocked basketball fans by deciding to walk out before a playoff game to bring attention to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The unprecedented move, which ultimately led to every other playoff team also striking, drew praise from activists and ire from the president.
“Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” said Bucks’ players in a joint statement.
The NBA itself eventually joined in along with more of the country’s largest companies in a rather overwhelming display of corporate activism with posts ranging from direct criticism of the police to more obscure calls for unity. Many companies that failed to address the issues were promptly called out for their silence, further emphasizing the tremendous weight of the movement. Behind the scenes, executives began revamping up their diversity and inclusion initiatives to address systemic racism — or at least to give that appearance.
Small Black businesses weren’t overlooked either, receiving a temporary boost in sales and promotion as a prominent theme at the protests’ peak became “support Black businesses and artists.” Donations in the hundreds of millions were pumped into activist groups, bail funds and non-profits directly supporting protesters on the ground. This June, for the first time in history, the top 10 titles on The New York Times’ non-fiction bestsellers were primarily books focused on issues of race like Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race.”
The bestsellers lists have since returned to their normal predominantly white state. The donations have dried up and the support itself has begun to fizzle. From June to September, support for the Black Lives Matter movement declined from 67% to 55% with dips among every racial demographic with the exception of Black people, according to Pew Research Center.
This could be attributed to the generally short attention span of modern society, the phenomenon of “allyship fatigue” or, more likely, an aversion to Americans having to recognize the harsh realities that a movement meant to challenge the status quo forces people to recognize. Like every movement calling for real change before it, the current Black Lives Matter movement couldn’t live solely on the internet and it couldn’t exist without violent clashes.
Conflict between protesters and police, as well as protesters and counter-protesters, intensified to a level the country hasn’t seen in decades. Although, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the vast majority of this year’s demonstrations were non-violent, months of ongoing protests ultimately resulted in the deaths of over 25 Americans.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen who crossed state lines to Kenosha, WI with an assault rifle; killed two Black Lives Matter protesters becoming somewhat of a fringe hero among right-wing Americans, who fundraised money to post his $2 million bail. Seven more of the people killed during protests were Black Lives Matter demonstrators around the country.
In another instance, shortly after, Aaron Danielson, a far-right protester and Trump supporter, was killed in Portland by self-proclaimed anti-fascist Michael Reinoehl. Reinoehl, who’d been a staunch supporter of the anti-police brutality movement, was later killed by a barrage of bullets from US marshals in an effort which Trump bragged on twitter about having ordered and called “retribution.”
It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that the impact of the protests extended to Trump and the election, as the sitting president lost by a whopping 7 million votes. Organizing, led primarily by Black women, critically flipped a scattering of typically blue areas delivering the presidency away from Trump, who at one point during the election drew intense yet valid criticism for telling white supremacists to “stand back and standby” during a televised debate.
Although it’s impossible to measure just how much the protests mobilized voters around the country, many progressive candidates ran successful races while centrist Democrats, who openly rejected the movement’s calls to defund the police, had disappointing showings in November.
A more direct political response to the protests was the legislation that’s been proposed and passed in certain states including Breonna’s Law in Louisville, which bans dangerous no-knock warrants and was passed by the city council unanimously. Kentucky Democrat Rep. Attica Scott, the lawmaker behind the important legislation, was later arrested on the frontlines of a protest after state Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that no charges would be brought against police for the killing of Breonna Taylor.
In June, the Minneapolis City Council laid the groundwork to defund the police, becoming the first major city to do so, although there’s been little follow-up information since that vote was announced. Both examples are crucial steps in the right direction for a movement that seeks to hold police accountability as well as cut their funding and reroute it toward more productive, less dangerous crime reduction efforts such as providing housing and mental healthcare.
The protests gripped the country for the better part of the year. It got the attention of everyone from the typically apolitical to our highest-ranking lawmakers. Even in a pandemic, it shifted conversations from celebrities, media talking heads, and the average American. But, what is the real impact?
There have still been no convictions of police officers for these shooting deaths of innocent Black people. In fact, as this piece is being written, details are coming out about the very recent killing of 23-year-old Casey Goodson by the Columbus police, who was shot in the back three times in front of his grandmother as he entered his home. Police have acknowledged that they were engaged in a manhunt, but that the young Black man wasn’t their person of interest. His family says he had no record and was only carrying a sandwich.
While the protests shifted the country significantly, the more extreme shift seems to have only been momentary. Already, most Americans care less and less, and if the trend continues downward, the response will ultimately be viewed as largely performative and inconsequential. With Democrats taking back the executive office and possibly the senate, there is a better chance that real systemic change, stemming from the energy and efforts of the summer, is possible. Although the Democratic track record in the realm of policing and criminal justice is discouraging, a glimmer of hope should be drawn from the fact that the GOP, whose antagonism toward radical leftist politics is the more blatant of the two, is now on its way out. The real effect of this year’s protests will be revealed in 2021 and the handful of years that follow.