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George Floyd protests are no ‘primal scream’; they are the language of grief

Within this grief, what gives me hope (as naive as that hope may seem) is the thousands of Minnesotans who risked their safety during a global pandemic to stand in solidarity with George Floyd.

Wednesday night protest
Protesters gathered near the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct on Wednesday night.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

George Floyd was killed by a white police officer a mile north of my house in south Minneapolis. The protests that ensued marched north to the police department’s 3rd precinct, just blocks from the high school where I teach. Twelve hundred miles away, in New York’s Central Park, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called 911, falsely claiming that her life was being threatened by Christian Cooper, a black man who had simply asked her to leash her dog. 

That these two events — both of which have momentarily wrested the nation’s eyes away from the coronavirus pandemic — occurred on the same day is no coincidence; injustices like this happen to people of color every day and in every city. But the juxtaposition evokes a long and tortured history of crimes against black Americans specifically, one that didn’t end with Eric Garner or begin with Emmett Till. Not all lynchings involve a rope. 

photo of article author
Christopher Mah
As the world bears witness to the tragedy unfolding in Minneapolis, the media has been predictably quick in turning the spotlight on the destruction of property along Lake Street. Critics will be similarly quick in dismissing the protests as an extension of senseless violence. We have read this script before: White liberals will espouse support for the protesters’ cause while condemning their tactics; talking heads will trot out their tired narrative of respectability politics; and lawmakers will say all the right things while doing none of them until the next crisis pulls the spotlight away. No reasonable person condones violence or arson, even when the emotions that animate them are valid. The point is not that rioting is justified; it’s that if we block out the noise and really listen, we might hear what those doing the rioting are trying to tell us.

This year, my ninth-grade students engaged in a writing unit on social protest. Through examination and analysis of movements ranging from Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests to the current COVID-19 protests, they sought to approach difficult questions like To what extent is destructive protest justified? and What makes a protest effective?

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One of the most common critiques of social protests, and in particular ones led by people of color, is that they lack a specific goal. Without a numbered list of legislative proposals, pundits dismiss them as ineffectual outrage. As many of my past students have pointed out, the media reinforces this idea (while perpetuating racist stereotypes) by minimizing them as “primal screams.” But make no mistake, these protesters are demanding the same things as those in Ferguson and Baltimore: 

  • Criminal charges against all four police officers involved in George Floyd’s death. 
  • The demilitarization of local law enforcement and an end to its brutality against communities of color. 
  • Criminal justice reform that erases the criminal records of the hundreds of thousands of people of color incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses while predominantly white entrepreneurs stand to secure windfall profits in the burgeoning legal marijuana industry. 
  • Policies that end de facto housing and educational segregation based on race and income. 
  • Economic investments that provide living-wage jobs in working class communities of color. 
  • Environmental justice and public health measures that allow communities of color to enjoy clean air, drinkable water, healthy food, and affordable health care. 
  • A seat at the table within the social, political, and economic institutions responsible for putting these policies into action. 

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The most important idea I learned from my students — many of whom have been personally affected by police violence — is that rioting is the language of grief. These protests are more than catharsis; they are an imperfect expression of grief. There is anger, yes, but underneath it, people are grieving, grieving the loss of a family member, a friend, a father to a 6-year-old daughter.

Within this grief, what gives me hope (as naive as that hope may seem) is the thousands of Minnesotans who risked their safety during a global pandemic to stand at 38th and Chicago in peaceful solidarity with George Floyd; the two New Yorkers — true white allies — who identified Amy Cooper from a viral video; the countless people of all races with the courage to continue shouting in the face of white supremacy: Enough.

Christopher Mah is a language arts teacher in Minneapolis.

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