Memorial Day is a time Americans set aside to remember military members who have given their lives in service of the country and the values it espouses. Yet, in 2020, it was the Memorial Day death of a civilian that caused many to interrogate the nation’s commitment to equality, liberty, and justice.
A year ago, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, was detained by law enforcement after exiting a convenience store on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
A teenage girl recorded the encounter where police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, forcing the last breaths in his body to scatter on the pavement. The video of Floyd’s murder quickly captured the world’s attention and spurred months of racial justice protests that sought to expose the gap between the nation’s actions and its ideals.
A year later, Americans are still left to wonder: will the nation pay its respects to the lives lost in the struggle for equality by enacting structural change, or will it be content to simply pay lip-service to them by leaving the status quo in place?
The disgust at Floyd’s killing was one of the few things in 2020 that crossed party lines. Americans of all generations, races and ethnicities, regions, and ideological leanings participated in demonstrations that called out abuses of power by agents of the state. The rallying cry “Black lives matter” — a phrase that was incredibly divisive just a few short years ago — temporarily became shorthand expression for a belief in an inclusive multiracial democracy. Elected officials in local and state governments, as well as both houses of Congress, proposed reforms that sought to rein in police misconduct and improve accountability.
But whatever national consensus existed in the summer after Floyd’s death soon dissipated and gave way to partisan bickering and political expedience. Support for Black Lives Matter decreased and police resignations in a number of localities suddenly increased.
Despite the majority of Americans believing there is an urgent need for police reform and that the country should do more to hold police accountable, sweeping substantive policy change remains hard to come by. In Maryland, the state assembly repealed its Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights over the governor’s veto, while the Minneapolis City Council’s threat to defund the police didn’t materialize largely due to community resistance and waning political will. And just last week, policing reform negotiations led by Black congressional members Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) hit another snag and a deal still appears far off.
The lack of action and increasingly divisive political rhetoric coupled with the nation’s history of excusing infringements on Black Americans’ rights led many Americans to question whether Chauvin would be held accountable or permitted to walk free. One of the most common descriptions of the emotion felt upon Chauvin’s conviction was “relief.” This is an ominous sign; people who have confidence in their systems of justice do not feel relief when it works properly. Concern that the system would fail spectacularly and further erode public trust signals a recognition that the nation continues to fall short of its professed values.
On the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Americans are reminded that their government — one that derives its power from the consent of the governed — is not as responsive to the will of the people as it should be. Instead of addressing concerns about policing, too many officials have taken the opportunity to pit citizens against one another and forestall changes that would improve public safety and increase public confidence. A business-as-usual mentality prevails, reducing abuses of state power to a problem of individual bad apples and leaving in place practices that belie constitutional principles.
But amid policy inaction and faltering confidence in our institutions was a reason to be hopeful — ripples from the summer of solidarity were evident in the presidential election, which saw the highest voter turnout in over a century. Americans compelled the government to pass Covid-19 relief bills to provide some measure of economic aid to a country staggering from the pandemic. And the citizenry continues to recognize the need for significant changes to the fundamental design of our systems of democracy and justice.
Whether we will take the difficult road of living our creed, however, remains an open question. We are nation that adores its rituals and observances, finding time for moments of silence and soaring rhetoric that calls on our first principles. But if a consideration of the tenets that undergird our professed ideals does not lead to changed behavior and improved systems, our pronouncements ring hollow. The lives of those lost — deaths that beg for structural change and for America to be truer to its values — are denied the dignity they inherently deserve.
Anniversaries are collective opportunities to reflect on transformational events. They return us to the moment and all its attendant emotions, providing a chance to find common cause and reaffirm our commitment to the project.
On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, memorial commemorations were filled with calls to action to make America more equitable and more just. But it’s what happens after the day of memorial that determines the character of our country.
By Theodore R. Johnson Senior Fellow Brennan Center