To write that George Floyd died is to take a position. The received belief is that he was murdered – a murder bigger, in its consequences, than any other crime for decades. Unlike the relatively muted protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the streets of the world hosted men and women passionate in their denunciation of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose detention in May 2020 of Floyd by, apparently, kneeling on his neck for around ten minutes, had killed him.
Chauvin became a synecdoche for the perceived repressions of the state – any state, from South Africa to Germany, no matter how strongly committed to democratic governance and civil rights. In Melbourne, in April 2021, while a jury debated Chauvin’s guilt, a vigil was held. In the UK, demonstrators cried, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ as Floyd had cried when first arrested – this, in the British case, to a wall of unarmed police. US embassies everywhere were surrounded.
Black Lives Matter, founded after several shootings of African Americans at the hands of police officers in the early 2010s, took the lead in the vast responses to Floyd’s death. The movement had a cause, a hero and an emotional watchword – ‘I can’t breathe’, Floyd’s last words as he lay on the street, Chauvin’s knee upon him. So widespread was the belief that the police in the US were semi-fascist, trigger-happy murder squads, at least as much an article of faith among white liberals as among blacks, that the spark in Minneapolis became a blaze everywhere.
Quickly grasping that this was a cause liberals and the left must be astride, high officials and much of the media strove to identify with the protestors – even where the protests turned, in some cases, to looting and arson, at first referred to as peaceful.