On 25 May, Minneapolis police officers arrested a 46-year-old African-American “black” man, George Floyd after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Mr. Floyd had bought cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. Several minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Derek Chauvin, a “white” police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”. He then passed away by choking and asphyxiation. On the same night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest against the death of George Floyd with the slogan “Black Lives Matter”. Sparking nation-wide protests, this incident has reawakened the anger of the African-American population against police brutality and rekindled their long-standing struggle for racial justice in the US.
Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; wearing riot gear, the police fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. The next day, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.
With respect to the 2020 elections, this incident closely followed the presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe over his party’s presumed hold over the African American community. In an interview, Biden said: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” For President Donald Trump, the incident comes at a time when he has been seeking to pivot the conversation away from his federal response to the coronavirus pandemic — which disproportionately affected African Americans with deaths nearly “two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population.”
Moreover, Floyd’s death and the unrest thereafter is set to impact the US Presidential election in the following ways:
Inefficacy of ‘Black faces in high places’
With this incident, support for the consolatory approach of fighting racial injustice with the gradual induction of African Americans in positions of authority is coming under strain. In an interview, civil rights activist Cornel West declared “black faces in high places” to have failed in translating into change because individuals often surrender to the “capitalist economy” and “militarized nation-state.” He continued: “The Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a black president [Barack Obama], black attorney general [Eric Holder], and black homeland security [Jeh Johnson] and they couldn’t deliver.”
Impatience with this approach is set to turn upside down Biden’s shortlist for a running-mate. After committing to having a woman on the ticket, there have been calls for Biden to go for a woman of color. In recognizing the centrality of black women voters in the 2018 midterms which propelled Democrats to flip control of the US House of Representatives, that prescription also seeks to correct the “abysmal turnout among registered black voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2016.”
Law-and-Order over ‘Blue Lives Matter’
In the years following the Black Lives Matter movement — which supports progressives’ push against institutionalized racism, conservatives rallied around a corollary movement. ‘Blue Lives Matter’ sought to limit officers’ responsibility on assimilating communities due to credible threats to their own well-being.
The conservative coalition around law enforcement groups emerged as a key voter base for Trump, evidenced in chants of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Unions representing Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers even made their first presidential endorsements in favor of Trump. Once in office, he has overseen a decrease in the Justice Department’s oversight of law enforcement, in contrast to Barack Obama’s support for civil rights inquiries into the Ferguson and Baltimore police departments.
Trump’s support for the Blues, has also fed conservatives’ call for designating violence against officers as a federal hate crime, opposing Obama-era policy of curtailing federal transfer of “surplus military equipment to local police departments”. It also heightened the invocation of conservative theories like the “Ferguson effect” — which purports that protests in response to police actions empower criminals and demotivate local forces.
However, with Floyd’s death being captured in a graphic video (without an apparent threat to the kneeling officer), conservatives are hedging bets on their usual ‘Blue Lives Matter’ loud and clear. Instead, they have opted to retort with the illegality of the protests that have followed.
Conservative pundits and the president himself have referred to protestors as “Criminal Mobs”, “Thugs”, and “radical rioters exploiting this death of Mr. Floyd, committing crimes, justifying crimes, threatening more violence.” Trump has even sought to construe himself as “your president of law and order” by calling protests “domestic acts of terror” and vowing to use the military to quell the unrest. In construing the protests as a law-and-order matter, Democrats have thus found themselves in a quandary, balancing support of their most loyal voter base with refraining from coming across as condoning the disruption of law-and-order.
Minneapolis in national politics
With the epicenter of slogans “Black Lives Matter” and protests in Minneapolis, the local politics of Minnesota which is already a crucial Rust Belt swing-state is set to come under the national spotlight. For starters, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar may “end up as the first political casualty of the Minneapolis unrest.”
Over her eight-year tenure as the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis, Klobuchar was known to have pursued policies that “shored up her support in white suburbs at the cost of unfairly targeting minorities and declining to prosecute police shootings.” Klobuchar’s record has now come under renewed scrutiny due to her history with Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. During the last year of Klobuchar’s tenure, Chauvin was involved in a police-related shooting for which he and five other officers had no charges levied against them. Although she had left office by the time his case reached a grand jury, critics have started to be true a “direct line of culpability between Klobuchar and this officer who lynched a man” and some have even called for her resignation.
The Minneapolis unrest will only compound the politics over Minnesota’s urban-rural divide. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by less than 2 percentage points (under 45,000 votes) at the hands of the “population-rich Minneapolis-St. Paul area.” Stoking that urban-rural divide in an attempt to appeal to those that have frowned at the protests upending law-and-order, Trump has blamed the city’s Democratic leaders. He tweeted, “A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right”.
Summarisation of the political effects of protest
It is observed that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. There is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particular attention of the press and a large amount of media coverage. But this is a 4 / 4 very hard strategy to maintain, and we often see that when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes base for the opposition to grow its coalition.
Hence, from rising impatience with the ‘Black faces in high places’ approach to dampening conservatives’ ‘Blue Lives Matter’ clarion, George Floyd’s death presents diverse ramifications for the election.