George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and the impact on HE

On 25 September 2020, with little more than a month to go in the United States presidential election, and, no doubt, blind to the irony that he was speaking not far from the national historic landmark that had been the home of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia, President Donald Trump delivered a blistering attack on America’s most visible and important civil rights organisation.

The president recycled many of the tropes from more than half a century ago used by racist politicians, such as George Wallace, who, upon becoming governor of Alabama in 1963, famously declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”, and J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Trump told the cheering crowd that “the stated goal of Black Lives Matter people is to achieve destruction of the nuclear family, abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish border security, abolish capitalism and abolish school choice”.

Trump’s straw-man version of Black Lives Matter (BLM) – which, since the police killing of unarmed George Floyd four months earlier, on 25 May 2020, had organised thousands of protests and marches across the United States involving between 15 and 20 million Americans – is no more accurate than was the FBI’s claim that King was a communist or that he sought to destroy the fabric of American society.

Nor do American national security analysts agree with Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene that BLM is the “the strongest threat in our country”. Greene, a Trump acolyte, tweeted this on 20 April, a few hours after a jury in Minnesota found Derek Chauvin guilty on three charges, including second-degree murder, for the killing of Floyd.

Ten months earlier, the former Minneapolis police officer pushed his left knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, during which Floyd choked out the words “I can’t breathe” 27 times before he died of asphyxiation. Floyd’s murder, which was seen by hundreds of millions in the video filmed by a 17-year-old, touched off the BLM protests in Canada, Europe, South America, Australia and Africa.

At the end of May 2020, Floyd’s name became the most recent note in a dirge that includes Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Isaiah Lewis (2019) and dozens of other unarmed African-American men, killed since 2012 and, indeed, thousands in the decades before; most of these men were unarmed.

According to Chika Okeke-Agulu, Princeton University professor and director of graduate studies in the department of art and archaeology, Floyd’s killing is part of the long history of lynching of black men in the 19th century through to the Ku Klux Klan as late as 1980.

The killing “fits a long, long pattern of violence on black bodies by the security system and ordinary folk”, Okeke-Agulu says. “In the case of George Floyd, we saw agents of power use that power, levy violence on the body of someone who is bereft of power.”

The “well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” and “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” were included in the US Bill of Rights in order to give Constitutional protection to the institution the colonies and then the states used to control and repress slaves.

Later, this function devolved to the state National Guard and local police, which Kimani Nehusi, professor of Africology and African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, told me, preserved the “institutional values that say, ‘Black lives do not matter. African-American lives do not matter, especially the lives of men’.”

Nehusi then paused a moment, and in a pained tone, listed the punishments meted out to black bodies during the hundreds of years of slavery in America: whippings, cutting off of hands and feet of captured runaway slaves, and buck breaking, the public rape and humiliation of those slaves who led rebellions against the master’s authority.

Context of white supremacy

While there had been killings of unarmed black men during Barack Obama’s presidency (2009-17), several things made Floyd’s killing different. According to University of Texas at Austin Professor of African Studies Toyin Falola, the horrific nature of Floyd’s death was seen as symbolising the presidency of Donald Trump.

“The protests were not just about the killing of Floyd. We have to see it in the overall context of white supremacy that Trump’s presidency represented.”

The crucial difference between Floyd’s killing and the previous ones, Falola, Nehusi and Okeke-Agulu underline, was the video of it that Darnella Frazier took on her cell phone. After the previous killings, says Nehusi, “there was largely apathy or relatively small, isolated protests by a particular family, neighbourhood or at best a town.”

The video played much the same role that the television news footage of police brutality and the attack dogs the police unleashed on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 did.

“Then, the cameras showed police with their dogs and batons brutalising the marchers. And America felt outraged about it.” The national outrage spurred President John F Kennedy to propose a Civil Rights Act that was passed into law after his assassination.

“Without the video,” says Falola, “they would have gotten away with murder.”

Instead, Frazier’s video placed Floyd’s murder in the world’s consciousness. According to Nehusi, “Nobody could escape from the fact of the police murder of an unarmed African-American man. And people (including white Americans) felt, ‘No, this is the last straw. We’ve got to do something’.”

The protests that followed were notable, not only because they occurred in towns and cities across the country but, even more importantly, they were attended by a cross section of Americans, including Hispanics, Asians and white Americans.

In mid-June 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 67% of Americans had a positive view of BLM, including 60% of white Americans. While such support includes a large number of older white Americans, Okeke-Agulu points to the importance of young Americans.

“The fact of the matter is that you have a generation of Americans of all races that are increasingly alarmed at their own heritage in ways different from the previous generation. You have young men and women in colleges who are asking more questions about inequality with more deliberate voices than their parents,” he told University World News.

Acquittal triggered hashtag

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors in July 2013 after George Zimmerman, a white man, was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, Florida a year earlier; far from being armed as Zimmerman feared the teen was, Martin was carrying a can of iced tea and some candy.

Athletes responded to the outcry by donning hoodies like the one Martin was wearing when he was killed. In a call with Martin’s parents, President Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

BLM became cemented into public consciousness a year after Zimmerman was acquitted.

On 9 August 2014, 17-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. “That murder,” says Associate Professor of Politics Professor Deva Woodly, at The New School for Social Research in New York, “was particularly gruesome because the body of Mike Brown was left in the sweltering August heat on the street for four hours.”

While the disrespect for Brown’s body was pointed, Woodly notes another reason for why the protests grew. “There were [in Ferguson] a lot of what social movement scholars call ‘indigenous’ [local] organisations that had a long history of organising against police violence and racial inequality. They were able to help sustain what ended up being growing street protests that happened at the site of the murder.”

Between Brown’s murder and Floyd’s, BLM organised hundreds of protests for at least a score of other black men and women who died at the hands of the police. These include Eric Garner, who, a few weeks before Brown was killed, died at the hands of a New York City policeman who had put him in a prohibited choke hold, and the killing in November 2014 of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was carrying a toy replica of a gun when he was shot dead.

In 2015, Freddie Gray was killed by the police; a year later, New York Police shot and killed 66-year-old Deborah Danner, a mentally ill woman. On 13 March 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot dead by Louisville, Kentucky police in her apartment as they executed a no-knock search warrant.

A decentralised movement

By using rhetoric that paints BLM as a centralised organisation and by claiming it is bent on destroying America, Trump and Greene wilfully ignore the fact that BLM is a decentralised social movement (with offices in the US and Canada) committed to non-violent protest.

For his part, in a July 2016 appearance on ‘Face the Nation’, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, attacked the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter: “When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist.” During the 2020 election, Trump referred to BLM protesters as “thugs” at least a dozen times.

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only African American on the Republican side of the Senate, stepped into the controversy about BLM’s name with what seemed like an innocuous alternative.

‘All Lives Matter’ was quickly seen, however, to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For, as Professor Charles Linscott, director of undergraduate studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, wrote in the journal Black Camera in 2017: ‘All Lives Matter’ amounts to the “erasure of structural and anti-black racism and black social death in the name of formal and ideological equality and post-racial colour blindness” that simply doesn’t exist in the United States.

The moniker proposed by Scott seeks to undercut the moral authority of BLM protesters who were standing up for the rights of the underprivileged and opposing police violence, says Woodly.

The rejection of ‘All Lives Matter’ reached into Major League Baseball’s 2016 All-Star Game. His insertion of the phrase into ‘O Canada’, the Canadian national anthem, cost Remigio Pereira his job with the singing group ‘The Tenors’.

‘Blue Lives Matter’, which, because blue is the most common colour for police uniforms, seeks to appropriate the moral authority of BLM’s fight for racial justice while at the same time depicting the police as victims, even though almost all are heavily armed when dealing with African Americans (and, indeed, the American public in general).

It is an extremely powerful, if an oxymoronic, meme. “Obviously,” Woodly told University World News, “there’s no such thing as blue lives. Nobody is born blue. There’s no kind of intergenerational legacy of blueness.”

The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ slogan and its flag – the American flag rendered in black and white with one blue stripe in the middle – are meant to deflect attention away from defence of black lives, discrimination, structural racism and police violence, and towards four-square support of the police, many of whom increasingly reject civilian oversight of the use of force, she says.

The virulence of these attacks on BLM stem, Woodly believes, “from the embrace of white identity and grievance politics that seeks to frame people who stand up for the rights of those who are discriminated against as craven and violent (even when they are manifestly not). These are part of a long train of white supremacist tropes that have been revitalised in this era.”

Deep impact on universities

Even though the number of students on campuses was drastically reduced because of COVID, university students across the country quickly filled their school’s quadrangles to protest Floyd’s killing.

Protesters at Howard University (Washington, DC), Marquette University (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the University of Cincinnati, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Florida, as well as Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Columbia (New York), Princeton (Princeton, New Jersey) and hundreds of other campuses held up signs saying “I can’t breathe” or with images of Floyd’s face.

By the hundreds, students – and many faculty and staff – ‘took a knee’, meaning kneeled down on one knee, as did Dr King at many protests (and more recently, Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who protested racial injustice – and was called a “son of a bitch” by then president Trump). A number of universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Southern California, organised virtual vigils.

The United States is home to 101 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the most well-known being Howard University, where US Vice President Kamala Harris took her BA.

As was the case with university presidents and provosts across the country, the president of Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Dallas, Texas, spoke out in support of his students’ protests.

“It’s who we are, it’s what we’ve been, it’s what we’ve done. The difference for us is that we just keep coming. We’re going to push back on every bit of injustice. That’s what we do. And we’re going to keep doing that, unapologetically,” he told the Dallas Morning News on 13 June 2020.

The University of Minnesota was only one of many universities that announced it would cut its ties with the local police. This action was taken after Jael Kerandi, president of the undergraduate student body, wrote a letter demanding that the university no longer contract with the local police.

“As a land-grant institution, statements professing appreciation of diversity and inclusion are empty and worthless if they are not backed up with action. A man was murdered. It is our job as an institution to exert whatever pressure we can to keep students safe and demand justice in our city and state,” he said.

The president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce, released a letter in which she said that the pandemic had laid bare “structural inequalities and the institutional racism” of the United States. Recognising that Floyd’s death was only one of many, she added, “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor – say their names, see their faces, hear their cries. Weep, then act.”

In Houston, Texas, the president of Rice University, David Leebron, also pointed to these deaths and said, “Black Americans who were treated as a threat [by the police] when they weren’t.”

Columbia, Harvard and MIT declared Juneteenth a holiday; Juneteenth commemorates the day, 19 June 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger declared all slaves in Texas to be free, thus completing the abolition of slavery after the end of the American Civil War.

In an open letter to the staff and students at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), President Joe Bertolino said, “As a public institution of higher learning, committed to the values of social justice, we must take steps to self-evaluate, promote positive dialogue and build a stronger, fully welcoming campus community. … we must use our knowledge and talents to educate and transform society-at-large so that equality, inclusion and respect are not mere lip service, but real and meaningful terms.”

Universities were also sensitive to the impact Floyd’s killing and trial had on students’ mental health, which, because of COVID was already a concern. At SCSU, for example, virtual town hall meetings were held, led by professors from a number of departments that addressed different aspects of racism.

In the leadup to Chauvin’s trial that began on 8 March 2021, SCSU’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion posted ‘Anti-Racist Resources’ for students and faculty. Faculty, for example, were urged to:

• Explicitly acknowledge (in writing or verbally) the trial’s outcome and the impact it may have on students.

• Provide more drop-in office hours for students and state if they can be used for a general check-in, not just for course-related questions.

• Communicate directly if you are able to offer flexibility and what types of flexibility are available.

Diane Ariza, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at SCSU, suggested language for professors communicating with students, especially black students, upset by the trial: “In the aftermath of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, for his role in the death of George Floyd, I would like to acknowledge the potential impact this trial’s outcome may have on [members of this class / student].

“As the community responds to the trial’s outcome, I want you to know that I care about how you are doing. If you need flexibility with [assignments] please reach out so that we can work together to find a solution.”

Universities and colleges have also moved to hire more African-American scholars and put in place programmes to support African-American students. Foothill College, a small college in California, for example, has hired an expert on racial trauma in the black community and an African-American mental health ambassador. In addition, it will conduct monthly meetings on BLM efforts and create a programme that will give student counsellors racial trauma training.

Last September, Nehusi’s Temple University, responding in part to a letter from Dr Molefi Asante, chair of the Africology department and the department’s graduate students, announced US$1 million dollars in new funding to combat racism.

Among the initiatives were the hiring of four new full-time professors in the Africology department, creating a centre for anti-racism research, investing in a bridge programme that will include scholarships targeted at African-American high school students who live in depressed areas of North Philadelphia, modifying the required course on racial diversity to “more directly address issues of racism” and prioritising recruitment and retention of faculty and employees of colour.

Foundations, which play a major role in funding American universities, have also responded to the outrage generated by Floyd’s killing seen in the BLM protests that swept the nation and the world.

The Initiative for Inclusive Faculty Excellence, established at The New School with a US$5 million grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, creates a pipeline for faculty of colour and faculty who study structural inequality using the lens of race. Under the programme, there will be eight new faculty hired, support for dissertation fellows and five faculty fellowships.

In addition, Mellon is funding two community fellowships for advocates and organisers outside the university (who are not academics) to come and be a part of the community that seeks to understand how race structures power relations and what to do about it, says Woodly.

The BLM protests have led both large universities and small colleges not usually associated with social issues to change their curriculum.

Following meetings with Okeke-Agulu and other faculty, Africanists met with Princeton’s administration to press for greater investment in African programming and hiring of African faculty to help diversify the university. Okeke-Agulu could not give University World News details but said: “Princeton has made a firm commitment to invest more in the African studies programme.”

While at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, President John Swallow is leading the effort to incorporate racial issues into existing courses. In February, he told Diverse: Issues in Higher Education that an economics course could deal with the consequences of redlining (the practice of not giving loans to black people looking to purchase a house in a particular area). Sociology courses could examine how the very concept of race is constructed.

Whitman College in Walla, Walla, Washington reworked its entire curriculum for the 2020-21 school year under the rubric ‘Race, Violence and Health’.