fbpx A movement greater than this tragic moment | Harvard Kennedy School

THE KILLING OF GEORGE FLOYD has reverberated across the country. Protests both peaceable and violent, have shut cities down from coast to coast. The United States, already laid low by a pandemic, an economic collapse, and political polarization, seems to be at a defining moment. We asked Harvard Kennedy School faculty for their analysis of the crisis and their thoughts on paths out of it.

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In order to create safer, freer, more just, and more prosperous societies, policymakers and public leaders across the world must address systemic racism and bias. Harvard Kennedy School has gathered scholarship from our faculty members and other experts in the School community on the topics of race, justice, protest, and policing.

America aflame: Why now, and what next?

Cornell Brooks headshot.

Millions have watched the pornographically violent video of George Floyd dying under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Traumatized and outraged, Americans have taken to the streets in mostly peaceful protests, punctuated by both civilian and police violence. With protesters, police, and military in our streets, many ask two questions that are both historical and moral, Why now? What next?

Why has the police homicide of Floyd sparked national protest and even civil unrest? And now?  Floyd’s homicide is neither unique nor even rare. The sixth leading cause of death of young Black men is police homicide. Young Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Indeed, one in a thousand Black men will die at the hands of the police. Black men are wildly overrepresented among the approximately 900 to 1,000 people who are killed by the police each year. Given these statistics, why did this alleged murder spark such unrest now? The video.

Videos of police homicides and hashtags of Black men (and boys alleged to be men) are as morally disturbing as they are frequent: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray, to name a tragically prominent few. This video may differ from others in that not only was Floyd’s death caught on camera, but he died in a close-up of violence. He was killed under a police officer’s knee, not shot at a distance (like Scott, Rice, McDonald and Castile). The videotaped homicide, with a soundtrack of Floyd’s pleas for help, takes place over nearly nine minutes. The video creates an uneasy intimacy of violence, visceral revulsion, and outrage. America’s reaction to the Floyd video is similar to African Americans’ reaction to the publication of the Jet magazine photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till, a Black child tortured and murdered by White racists in 1955.

The moral revulsion to the Floyd video has precipitated mass resistance to long-standing police brutality. Based on the history of police misconduct and having been involved in protests, legislation, and investigations related to most of the major police homicides of the last five years, I contend that this moment is distinctive, not unique; tragic, but with hope. Emmett Till’s death and photograph on the eve of the 1955 Montgomery Boycott inspired the modern civil rights movement, federal legislation, investigations, and prosecutions. Floyd’s death and video may yet inspire a movement far greater than this tragic moment. This, of course, is largely in our hands.

Cornell William Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations, Public Leadership and Social Justice; professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice; and the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

This is a real fight. Are you ready?

Marshall Ganz headshot.

These protests are real. They reveal our failure to free ourselves of the racism, violence, and lawlessness—a legacy of slavery—embedded in our institutions. We don’t need more “conversations” about race. We need action—action takes on the institution of policing itself: purpose, strategy, hiring, training, accountability, culture, and leadership.  But the deep, persistent, crippling inequalities of wealth, health, education, housing, and all the rest is not a policing problem, although it often seems to be treated that way. Make no mistake about it. This is a real fight. Are you ready?

Marshall Ganz is the Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society.

From protest to people power

Archon Fung headshot.

Democracy literally means people (demos) power (kratos). Democracy is a way of organizing our lives together so that we have power over the important decisions that affect us.

Democracy has enabled some of us to create a government that gives us the home mortgage interest deduction, delivers the mail, makes sure the streets and parks are in good shape, runs nice suburban schools, and protects us from theft and other crimes. 

But many of the people who are protesting in hundreds of cities around the nation this week lack power over very basic aspects of their lives and their government. For them, government are police and prosecutors who run a system in which one in three black men can expect to be in prison in their lifetimes. As the cases of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and many others demonstrate, that system kills, often with impunity. Government is made up of the social service workers who can deny support and tell them how to run their family lives, the stingy public support systems that fail to provide economic security or even health care, and the dilapidated schools. They don’t have democracy; they are people who don’t have power.

These protests are an attempt to grab a modicum of power—to punish and perhaps change the police whose practices likely killed George Floyd. Protesting and disrupting are the only way some people have to exercise power. They are what people who lack more effective avenues of influence sometimes do. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

One way to end the protests is, as our president urges, “to dominate” with police and military force to shut these protesters up, to deny them even this form of voice, and to use repression to further exclude the communities they represent from the democratic enterprise.

Another response is to extend democracy—people power—to individuals and communities who do not now have it. There are many ways to do this.

First, create opportunities for residents to exercise real power over the parts of government that affect their lives the most. For example, involve residents in deciding how police operate in their neighborhoods and how their schools are run.

Second, strengthen neighborhood initiatives and local government to enable people, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, to determine the shape of their lives. The experience of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston offers an inspiring model. So does the practice of participatory budgeting in which people in neighborhoods decide how public money in cities is spent.

Third, strengthen the groups that organize and advocate at local and national levels for the interests and lives of people of color. Police unions and chambers of commerce generate power for their members. Democratic power for people of color requires robust organizations as well—churches and civil rights organizations to be sure, but also newer groups such as the Movement for Black Lives and Black Voters Matter.

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard Kennedy School.

A protester marches through Hollywood, California after curfew during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody.
A protester marches through Hollywood in Los Angeles, California after curfew during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody. Photo by Kyle Grillot/AFP

Valuing Black lives

Megan Ming Francis headshot.

Public policy makers and individuals increasingly think and speak about the #BlackLivesMatter movement as if this project is a new one. But it is not. Black people in the United States have been fighting for their lives for a very long time.

In my book Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, I chronicle how the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People mounted the largest campaign in history against lynching and racist mob violence in the early 20th century. Focused on the protection of Black lives from state-sanctioned violence, the NAACP organized mass demonstrations, advocated for an anti-lynching bill in Congress, and won a landmark criminal procedure decision in front of the Supreme Court.

More than 100 years later, racial violence has reemerged on the national political scene as the defining civil rights issue in contemporary United States politics. Responding to the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and chanting “Black lives matter,” activists have taken to the streets in cities like Minneapolis and Louisville to bring attention to the disposability of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement.

So where do we go from here? One of the points that has been so clear from the history of the Black freedom struggle is that Black people have been articulating a different vision of democracy and institutional accountability for a very long time and we must pay much more attention. This is a terrible moment but I've never witnessed so many people who urgently want something radically different; people want new ideas and strategies around harm reduction and accountability. So many people have been holding on, thinking we can reform policing around the edges. But now, lots of people have shifted and no longer believe meaningful reform is possible inside and are asking what else is actually out there. And so I've seen this opening—at least of people's imagination—to think about other kinds of institutional arrangements that actually value the community and the people that are in these communities much more, and that is hopeful. I believe listening to Black people who have been articulating a different vision is part of what the mattering of Black lives is all about.

Megan Ming Francis is a visiting associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. The comments are based on remarks she gave during an event hosted by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

What police unions must do

Frank Hartmann headshot.

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer accused of the murder of George Floyd, had 18 previous complaints lodged against him. Yet the city’s police chief had no way to impose serious discipline on the officer despite Chauvin’s pattern of re-offending. Again, and again, progress in policing has been frustrated by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by police unions and signed by elected officials. It is time to raise the issue again. The cost of not addressing it, not fixing it, is far too high.

Police work can be difficult and dangerous. It is understandable that officers want fair treatment in discipline matters, someone on their side. They should not be the victims of unfounded accusations. But repetitive bad conduct is not acceptable, it must be stopped. There have been too many gross violations of citizens’ rights, even to the point of death.

Police officers know when a fellow officer is out of control. They are wary of such officers. It is difficult to stand up to bad behavior. When, as invariably happens, a citizen is harmed and an accusation is formalized, the union steps in. The “blue wall” is raised around the officer. The union will not acknowledge bad behavior, will not accept any discipline of a brother or sister officer no matter how outrageous the behavior. This happens despite the fact that each offending officer has placed the whole profession in disrepute.

Three sets of people could address this problem and move us forward to better, fairer, policing.

First, officers must accept the real dangers these problem officers present. They must demand that union leaders rehabilitate such officers or separate them from police service. Second, union leaders must lead measurably effective efforts to rid departments of badly performing officers at the same time that they protect good officers. They must lead the work that says that the status quo of shielding problem officers is not acceptable. Third, state legislators must get serious about fixing the various legislative deals that have protected police officers from appropriate oversight.

Addressing the issue of intransigent police unions would help to prevent bad police behavior. It would improve policing in the community, on the street with real people. It would take away the impenetrable wall. Unions can do this. Unions must do this.  It will take courage on the part of officers, of union leaders, of chiefs, of legislators. We need that courage, now.

Frank Hartmann is adjunct lecturer in public policy and a senior research fellow in the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Kennedy School. The excerpt above is from an op-ed written by Hartmann with former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis for the Boston Globe.

The violence, and the threat of it, at the heart of American democracy

Khalil Gibran Muhammad headshot.From some vantage points, the protests might appear more controlled than what we saw after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This time, officials and the media have clearly defined “peaceful” protesters who have a right to take to the streets, versus rioters, looters, and extremists who don’t. The sheer number of daytime white protesters alongside black community members has also changed the political calculus, perhaps even limiting overzealous, militarized displays of force.

Yet, given the nationwide scale of protests happening now, there are many more rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and flash grenades flying toward protesters than in years past. There are also reports across different cities of excessive uses of force, like two New York Police Department SUVs that drove into a crowd of dozens of protesters for blocking traffic. In Atlanta, six officers were charged after pulling over and tasing a black couple—students at Morehouse and Spelman colleges—who were trying to leave a protest after curfew. It seems that the police have been more violent and aggressive, particularly when day turns to night, and especially in response to those who deliberately destroy property. From the White House to governors’ mansions, officials are branding after-hours protesters violent criminals and calling for law and order. “New York was lost to the looters, thugs, Radical Left, and all others forms of Lowlife & Scum,” President Trump tweeted on June 2.

There’s a profound irony in this latest moment of civil unrest. As officials try to protect property and defend people’s right to protest peacefully for victims of police violence, the police risk killing even more people. It doesn’t make much sense, and only demonstrates how much state violence and the threat of it still rests at the heart of American democracy.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His comments first appeared on Politico.

Protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington DC.

Photo by Kyle Grillot / AFP.

Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart.