Social change is slow. Sometimes it seems impossible. And then there are moments like now, after the death of George Floyd and the continuing Black Lives Matter protests. We have yet to see what kind of substantive change will come of this, but it feels like a dam has burst. With Confederate flags and monuments being taken down all over the US and similarly infamous icons going down around the world, what seemed to be the least likely of changes finally happened: the Mississippi legislature voted to adopt a state flag design without the Confederate battle flag in it. That may be a purely symbolic gesture, but it is a powerful one in the story of Mississippi and the United States. And stories make a difference.
What Took so Long?
With Americans as a whole finally aiming a critical eye at the legacy of slavery, the obvious question for some might be “What took so long?” It is such an obvious question that a child might ask it and as with many obvious questions, a good answer is not so obvious. As with many obvious questions, future generations may be disappointed to learn we have no ‘good’ answer. At the risk of becoming the hammer in a world of nails, I will narrow the question to better suit the subject of this particular narrative:
What prevented any of the many stories of black men being beaten or killed by police before George Floyd from inspiring the cultural shift that we are seeing now?
For my part, I would like to compare George Floyd’s story with another that once spurred rapid social change in the US. George Floyd was placed under arrest and then choked by police officer Derek Chauvin. I want to call attention to how short and succinct this story is and that it also came to us illustrated by the video of a helpless Floyd under the knee of officer Chauvin, the officer’s hands placed in his pockets, while Floyd begged for his life and onlookers pleaded for the officer to show mercy. The entire crime took eight minutes and forty-six seconds long, but only a single frame of it was enough for any of us to recognize a victim and a villain. Now we move on to the second story.
The Story of Rosa Parks, Black Nationalist
After the passing of Rosa Parks in 2005, On the Media broadcasted an interview with University of Wisconsin historian Tim Tyson. Rosa Parks is famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in 1955 and in so doing igniting a boycott against the segregated bus system. She has since become an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, but Tyson says that Rosa Parks in fact had little in common with our popular myth of the bookish woman with tired feet whom fate selected to fight for justice. Tyson explains that the actual Parks was not even the first person to refuse to give up her seat on a bus and the most famous instance was not even Parks’ first time fighting the segregated bus system. She was an activist who was selected to fight the case that would go to the Supreme Court. Tyson said the following:
I met Rosa Parks at the funeral of Robert F. Williams who had fought the Ku Klux Klan with a machine gun in the late 1950’s and then fled to Cuba and had been a kind of international, revolutionary icon of black power. Ms. Parks delivered the eulogy at his funeral. She talks in her autobiography and says that she never believed in non-violence and that she was incapable of that herself. And that she kept guns in her home to protect her family. But we want a little old lady with tired feet.
You may have noticed we don’t have a lot of pacifist white heroes. We prefer our black people meek and mild, I think.Tim Tyson, University of Wisconsin Professor of Afro-American Studies
When asked how Parks felt about her own myth, Tyson says that she understood that it was useful, but that the myth of the meek Rosa was only useful in the 1950’s. Historians since may be perpetuating it at the cost of the truth and to the detriment of the movement for which Rosa Parks fought. The streamlined narrative of George Floyd might be what society needs now, but what truths might we be ignoring?
What if Floyd were Violent?
It did not take long after the killing of George Floyd had made news for his criminal history to be dug up (and exaggerated) in an attempt to undermine his story as a victim. His criminal record had no bearing on the legality of his strangulation, but in the court of public opinion, it was admissible evidence. And this begins to shed light on one reason that waiting for a black victim before reforming society takes so long: we’re picky.
There are some demands placed on the stories of all victims before they are likely to instigate social change. It may be a tall order, but when a victim’s story is caught on video in a shareable format and well framed with good sound and plenty of eye-witnesses, it helps. In addition to meeting media constraints, black victims are also expected to fit the “meek and mild” profile that benefited Rosa Parks.
If Floyd were violent, if he were a known murderer, if he had threatened Derek Chauvin with a gun, all of that would have become irrelevant the moment he were handcuffed and placed face-first against the street. Floyd would still have a right to his day in court — alive. And if Rosa Parks were known as an activist or as a black nationalist, she still would have been right to stay in her seat. These counterfactuals might fit closely to the stories of any number of black inmates in American prisons who just didn’t make it past the casting call for Civil Rights legends. Or the stories of countless black Americans who received what amounts to the death penalty for a confrontation with a police officer in which they placed their hands in their pockets, ran away, or — hold your pearls — took an unexpected step toward an officer.
I described the video of George Floyd’s death as containing a clear victim and villain, but George Floyd has since been recognized as a hero. Perhaps it is fitting that after having witnessed a peaceful hero, white Americans look back on some other heroes, Confederate and otherwise, with questions. As Tyson points out, there is very little pacifism to be found in their ranks.