George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis was not unique. Black Americans have had a long, bitter history of violent or deadly encounters with white police officers, each one provoking a new debate about systemic racism and the militarization of U.S. police forces. But this time, the debate has been different: It’s gone global, bringing thousands into the streets in cities where COVID-19 lockdowns still largely discourage mass gatherings. Now, Canadians are among those asking how they can reform police agencies, and possibly scale them back. Here’s what you need to know.
How this started: The death of George Floyd
The victim: George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man from Houston, where he leaves a six-year-old daughter. Mr. Floyd moved to Minneapolis five years ago to start a new life, working as a bouncer at a Salvation Army outlet and a Latin music club until he was laid off when the pandemic hit and Minnesota instituted a stay-at-home order. Another nightclub job put him in proximity (though possibly not direct contact) with the man later accused of killing him: Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer who moonlighted as a security guard.
His death: The men would have a final and tragic encounter on May 25, the U.S. Memorial Day holiday, when a grocery-store employee called the police on Mr. Floyd shortly after 8 p.m. and alleged he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Mr. Chauvin was one of the officers who responded. Police claim Mr. Floyd “appeared to be under the influence” and resisted arrest. Bystanders captured video of Mr. Chauvin restraining Mr. Floyd by kneeling on his neck as he said “I can’t breathe”; according to the criminal complaint against Mr. Chauvin, this lasted for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and continued after Mr. Floyd stopped moving. The video ends with paramedics taking Mr. Floyd away. He was pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. at Hennepin County Medical Center, the medical examiner says. An independent autopsy prepared for Mr. Floyd’s family deemed it a homicide that was solely the result of asphyxiation.
The officers: Mr. Chauvin and three other officers present at the incident – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – were fired on May 26. Three days later, Mr. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, with the first charge upgraded to second-degree murder a week later. Mr. Lane, Mr. Kueng and Mr. Thao are charged with accessory to second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted on the most serious charge, the three men could each be sentenced to a maximum of 40 years in prison.
The U.S. protests so far
In Minneapolis, protesters took to the streets in the days after Mr. Floyd’s death to denounce anti-Black racism and police brutality. The slogans of these protests – “I can’t breathe,” “Black lives matter” – evoked a long history of similar police-related killings of Black men, such as 2014′s deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
As the protests continued to grow and spread to cities around the United States, they took a more destructive turn on May 28, when some Minneapolis protesters stormed a police precinct station and set it on fire. Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz mobilized the state’s National Guard to “help provide security and restore safety.” By the second week of protests, President Donald Trump was urging more state governors to deploy the National Guard and told them on a videoconference call that they were “weak” if they did not quell the unrest by force. Dozens of cities instituted curfews and, as protesters took more steps to prevent violence among their ranks, demonstrations got more peaceful, but by no means smaller or more quiet.
In U.S. and European cities, protests have increasingly taken aim at monuments to people who profited from the transatlantic slave trade or colonization in Africa or the Americas. That includes statues of Christopher Columbus in Minnesota, Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Virginia and slaveowner Edward Colston in Bristol.
Protests and the pandemic
The unrest comes at an especially perilous time in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected and killed more people in the United States than any other country, and which is disproportionately killing Black Americans compared with white Americans. The protests began just as many states were beginning to ease their stay-at-home measures. But while hard-hit states like New York are beginning to see the decline of their initial caseloads, others, like Minnesota, have not yet reached their peaks. Infectious-disease experts warn that a resurgence is still possible, and to prevent that they still need the public to limit their exposure to others and document the social contact they do have so infections can be traced. Mass gatherings like the protests threaten to disrupt that.
But it’s unclear whether the protests themselves will trigger large new outbreaks. Many are taking place outside, where infections don’t spread as readily as indoors. Masks and hand sanitizer have been ubiquitous there, but these are only effective at preventing those who use them from spreading the virus to others: They aren’t as useful in protecting people from infection themselves. And keeping the recommended two-metre distance from others is difficult in a crowded street protest or a confrontation with police at close quarters.
Rather than discourage protests completely, some local health agencies have targeted messages to those who plan to protest to do so in a safer way.
Plan to protest? Here are tips to reduce the risk of spreading #COVID19:— nychealthy (@nycHealthy) May 30, 2020
✔️Wear a face covering
✔️Wear eye protection to prevent injury
✔️Use hand sanitizer
✔️Don't yell; use signs & noise makers instead
✔️Stick to a small group
✔️Keep 6 feet from other groups
What Trump has done, and could do
Mr. Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, has a history of inflaming racial tensions. He blamed “both sides” for violence between white supremacists and left-wing counter protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and has called some immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rapists. But this time, his threats against anti-racism protesters – calling them “thugs," encouraging violent police crackdowns, echoing the language of 1960s segregationists – have met with stronger resistance than usual. For the first time ever, Twitter censured one of his tweets about the protests as “glorifying violence” and blocked it from view. Other tweets were labelled with fact checks. Mr. Trump responded with an executive order that threatens to curtail some legal protections of social-media companies.
But what would happen if the President chose to act on his threats? Legal experts told The Associated Press he does have the authority under the Insurrection Act of 1807 to dispatch the military in states that are unable to put down an insurrection or are defying federal law. Mr. Trump’s Defence Secretary, Mark Esper, has said he doesn’t want that, as has Mr. Esper’s predecessor Jim Mattis.
What Canadians have done
Solidarity protests in Canadian cities have attracted thousands of participants, both to speak out against the U.S. situation and to draw attention to deaths closer to home. In Toronto, demonstrators have demanded answers in the May 27 death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black woman who fell from an apartment balcony while police officers were nearby. Her mother, Claudette Beals-Clayton, had called police to defuse an argument between her son and Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, whom she said was in a state of mental distress. Toronto’s police chief, who announced he will be leaving his job in July, asked Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit to expedite its investigation into her death.
While the focus of street demonstrations has been on anti-Black racism, Indigenous communities in Canada have also been demanding answers for police violence against them. Six Indigenous people have been killed by police in Canada since April in shootings in Winnipeg, New Brunswick and Nunavut.
High-profile cases include:
- Rodney Levi: A 48-year-old father of three was tasered and shot by New Brunswick RCMP on June 12. Mr. Levi had been at a barbecue at a pastor’s house when something went wrong and he was asked to leave. The RCMP were called to remove him from the property, and say he was armed with a knife.
- Chantel Moore: A 26-year-old from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in B.C., she moved to Edmundston, N.B., where a police officer fatally shot her on a “wellness check.” Police claim Ms. Moore had a knife and the shooting was self-defence. Quebec’s police watchdog is investigating, because New Brunswick has no oversight of its own.
- The Kinngait incident: A social-media video that surfaced in early June appeared to show RCMP knocking down an Inuk man in Kinngait, formerly known as Cape Dorset, with the door of their vehicle before arresting him. The man was then put in a cell where a fellow prisoner beat him so badly he had to be airlifted to hospital. It’s renewed demands to equip RCMP with body cameras to hold them accountable. Nunavut does not have its own civilian police oversight agency, but is debating how to create one.
- Chief Allan Adam: The leader of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says he was beaten by RCMP officers who manhandled his wife when the couple left a casino-nightclub in Fort McMurray on March 10. He says the incident began as a dispute over an expired license plate.
What can I do? Resources and more reading
The U.S. protests have triggered a flood of donations to Mr. Floyd’s family and to Black-led social justice organizations in the Minneapolis area, such as the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block. The Lake Street Council is raising funds to help Minneapolis businesses damaged in the protest, especially those owned by racialized people, to rebuild. Check with organizations and businesses in your community to see what they’re doing.
For Canadians curious about racism’s role in their own history, now is also a productive time to reflect. One place to start is this list compiled by The Globe and Mail of 10 recent books about anti-Black racism’s history in North America. Another is The Globe’s 2016 podcast Colour Code: You can listen to all 11 episodes here, and also read resources that hosts Hannah Sung and Denise Balkissoon compiled about essential topics.
OTHER OPINION AND ANALYSIS
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Canadian Press, Adrian Morrow, Tamsin McMahon, Dakshana Bascaramurty and Molly Hayes
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