Ideas and Impressions: Was George Floyd's murder a tipping point?

By Jason Moscovitz

I keep hearing people on television say the murder of George Floyd is a tipping point in American history – but I hear it mostly from white people. People of colour are never so certain. History tells – if not warns – them not to be.

While racism exists in Canada, and it is both blatant and subtle, it is of minor league scale compared to our neighbours. In the United States, it is inbred. It is part of daily life, it’s always been like that, and the worst thing of all, there have been so many other so-called tipping points that never made a difference.

I admire good documentaries when historic film and video, coupled with good storytelling, brings history alive. The power of the visual is not like reading a good history book. A history book is the sum total of how its author sees and evaluates historic events and facts. Visuals of real events, even old grainy black-and-white film, leave nothing to interpretation. The camera tells the raw truth – just as it did with George Floyd’s murder.

Netflix, as you may have noticed, has recently highlighted on its homepage a number of documentaries on race relations in the U.S. So far, I have seen two of them and each tells the George Floyd story over and over again. It was shocking to see the same ugly terrifying story visually documented for over 100 years.

The first is called “13th.” Its purpose was to document the boom in imprisoning African Americans as the best answer for “law-and-order” presidents who were seeking white urban and suburban voters. Donald Trump is not the first president to refer to himself as the law-and-order commander-in-chief. Every president since Richard Nixon did it and it wasn’t a Republican thing. Bill Clinton systemized putting more African Americans in prison for longer prison terms than ever. He apologized and admitted the policy was wrong only when he had to: when wife, Hillary Clinton was running for president.

From 1968 to 2008, through five presidents, the prison population in the U.S. grew from 300,000 to almost 2.5 million. About 33 per cent of the prisoners are African Americans, although they represent only 12 per cent of the population. New law-and-order sentencing rules could get them a sentence of more than 20 years for selling marijuana.

Barack Obama was the only president in the last 52 years to not refer to himself as a “law-and-order president” who, like the sheriff in the wild west, was going to clean up the streets. Locking people of colour up, and throwing away the key, became a way of life in the United States because, as “13th” so well illustrates, since the turn of the last century, African American men were depicted as people that white people had to fear. For obvious reasons, Obama could never have worn that sheriff’s badge.

Even more poignant than “13th” is the documentary “L.A. 92.” I had seen it before, but it is worth seeing again in the wake of George Floyd’s public lynching.

It wasn’t a phone that recorded the video (the technology didn’t yet exist then) but someone with a home video camera recorded the brutal beating of Rodney King by four white Los Angeles policemen in 1992. They savagely beat him in his face, on his head, and all over his body with their night sticks. Repeated strokes, 52 of them, administered to an unarmed black man who was stopped after a highspeed car chase. The beating was prolonged just like the knee on Floyd George’s neck.

Rodney King survived, but Los Angeles race relations didn’t, especially after the trial was moved out of downtown L.A. where the beating happened, to a suburb where many white policemen lived, and where a jury (10 whites, one Latino, one Asian) dismissed the video evidence and found all four white policemen not guilty. The worst race riot in U.S. history ensued with block after block of South-Central Los Angeles burned to the ground. 1,100 buildings went up in flames, 50 people were killed and 2,300 were injured. And everyone thought everyone learned a lesson, and that race relations would only get better.

Before George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands and knees of four white policemen, I thought the immediate result of Rodney King’s beating by four white policemen was the acquittal of O.J. Simpson of double-murder in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom in 1996. It wasn’t Simpson on trial, it was the Los Angeles police department on trial for Rodney King and the hundreds of African Americans beaten and killed by police before him with no video evidence to prove it.

Watching “L.A. 92” made me think that absolutely nothing has changed. But for those who say George Floyd’s killing was a tipping point, there is this to consider: Rodney King’s deranged beaters with police badges never spent a night in jail while Floyd’s killers are now all in jail facing serious murder charges and the possibility of long prison terms.

Maybe things will look different should they be convicted, and if they really do go to prison for a long time, just like so many African Americans do for far lesser crimes. If and when that happens, we’ll be able to say race relations in the United States may be beginning to tip in the right direction.

There is a terribly long way to go from there.