IT is slightly over two years since the death on May 25, 2020, of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis, the city I now call home. A disturbing video of his death in police custody quickly found its way on to the internet and has been viewed by millions throughout the world, triggering a series of seismic shifts in the culture of the West, especially the Anglosphere – shifts which have yet to run their course.
Indeed, the frightful footage of the dying Floyd, who was black, struggling to breathe whilst being restrained by a white Minneapolis policeman, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, has attained iconic status and symbolises for many around the globe what they see – incorrectly, in my opinion – as the systemic racism, police brutality, and white supremacy which continue to plague people of colour in America, especially those of African descent.
It safe to say that the vertiginous rapidity of events took everyone by surprise. Within hours of Floyd’s death, protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis. On May 28, the Police Department’s Third Precinct on Lake Street, a few blocks away from where Floyd died, was burned to the ground. Businesses were ransacked and looted, and for a few days the area looked like downtown Beirut at the height of the Lebanese Civil War.
Leftward-leaning activists, of which Minnesota has a large surplus, found validation and hope in the anarchy. One securely tenured professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul enthused about the ‘mass uprisings against racialised state violence’, portending, as he saw it, ‘the inevitable death [of the American] social order that prioritises vulgar economics’. One can but hope that the professor who wrote these words is not representative of an academic institution founded in 1874 by a Presbyterian minister who had served as an army chaplain in the American Civil War.
Driving along Lake Street a few days later, I was struck by the devastation to which this once genteel part of town had been subjected. More than once, I was reminded of photos I’ve seen of the London Blitz, half expecting to see an immaculately dressed Queen Mother with fox-fur collar walking adroitly through the rubble or a resolute, bowler-hatted Winston Churchill, cane in hand, emerging from the smoking hulks of buildings.
The impact of Floyd’s death was felt and continues to be felt far beyond Minneapolis. Violent protest spread to other American cities, leading to considerable property damage and loss of life. While thousands marched peacefully, it remains impossible to ignore the concomitant scenes of lawlessness which all too often resulted in looting and violence. Certainly, those whose businesses were destroyed, many of them recent immigrants, and who lost loved ones, are in no position to ignore the mayhem of the summer of 2020.
The impact did not confine itself to this side of the Atlantic. As news of Floyd’s death spread and the accompanying video went viral, protesters took to the streets of major cities throughout the world. It seems the impact was especially felt in Britain. As an Englishman, I will never forget the humiliating sight of British police running away from BLM protesters in Whitehall, or officers taking the knee, a spectacle that I’ve been unable to dislodge from my mind. Equally unforgettable was the toppling and destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol in what looked like a parody of a lynching, a baying mob cheering as the statue was thrown into Bristol Harbour. It has been said before, but when statues are dismembered it is hard not to imagine the same being done to human beings.
To be sure, statue-toppling did not start in the summer of 2020, but it took on a new urgency after Floyd’s death. There followed what can only be described as a ‘cultural revolution’, wherein all aspects of Western culture and history were examined and found wanting. Like the Cultural Revolution in China, most of this was driven by those with the power to effect real and lasting societal change, individuals who run institutions such as the British Library and National Health Service, not to mention education and the police. In other words, it was driven by those managerial elites who control the reins of political and cultural power. The photo of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer taking the knee was another cringe-inducing moment, of which there have been many emanating from the chattering classes. While much of this borders on parody – who can forget ethnobotanist James Wong claiming that ‘British gardening has racism baked into its DNA’? – real men and women are losing their livelihoods and real institutions are being damaged, sometimes beyond repair.
Recently, walking around the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 39th Street where Floyd died, now called George Floyd Square, I encountered pilgrims aplenty, many of them middle-aged or elderly white people. I’m not sure why they were there. Morbid curiosity perhaps, or a compulsion to visit a location where events took place which triggered great changes in world history – the street in Sarajevo where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, for example, or the Finland Station in Saint Petersburg where Lenin arrived back from his Swiss exile.
Comparing the death of Floyd to events that led to world war and revolution may seem a trifle overblown. But look around you, at your place of work, at your school or university, at your police and armed forces, at television and the media and online advertising, and ask yourself if what you see – corporations falling over themselves to proclaim their anti-racism, ordinary people being cancelled for criticising BLM, decent men and women being slandered and called racist for striving to be colour blind, and children being taught that they are either victims of systemic racism or perpetrators and benefactors thereof – would be quite the same had it not been for Floyd’s untimely death.
Painted on the side of a building in George Floyd Square are the words: You Changed the World, George. Only time will tell what that change will ultimately entail.