Professor Kevern Verney

Approaching the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, on 25 May 2020, the outlook for race relations in the United States appears bleak.

Twelve years earlier things seemed so different. In 2008 the election of Barack Obama was greeted with widespread euphoria. Media commentators proclaimed that his victory showed the United States was now a post-racial society. One Texan newspaper, the Beaumont Enterprise, even declared ‘race is history’.

During Obama’s first year in office the most publicized race-related police incident was the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, a prominent African American academic, by a white police officer, James Crowley. Gates suffered no physical injury. Following the media furore that ensued Obama, and then Vice President Joe Biden, met with Gates and Crowley for a ‘beer summit’ at the White House.

Obama’s description of the meeting as a ‘teachable moment’ now seems painfully naïve. How have things changed so much in such a short time?

In part it reflects new police practices. From the mid-1990s police forces across the United States adopted a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ – an uncompromising enforcement of the law for even the most minor offences.  

Police departments bought up surplus military hardware and body armour, with the result that anti-riot squads at public protests, such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington DC in June 2020, look more like ‘Robocops’ than traditional police officers.

Police training methods reflected the new realities, with officers encouraged to adopt a warrior mentality. By 2015 rookie recruits typically received 60 hours training in the use of deadly weapons, a similar amount of time in self-defence, but only eight hours in conflict resolution.

The rhetoric of President Trump did not help. In a 2017 speech to police officers in Long Island he urged them ‘don’t be too nice to suspects’ and claimed laws were written to ‘protect the criminal’.  

But disturbing race related policing incidents are nothing new. George Floyd is just one of the latest examples in a long and tragic litany of African Americans killed by police officers. What has changed is public awareness of them.

In 1991 the beating of Rodney King, an African American motorist, by white police officers in Los Angeles, sparked days of rioting. What made the case unusual was that it was filmed on video by an onlooker.

Technology has moved on. A survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2011 found that 35 per cent of American adults owned a smartphone. By 2020 it had risen to 97 per cent. Mobile phone footage of the harrowing treatment of George Floyd played a key part in the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who arrested him.

Therein, perhaps, lies hope for the future. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing free speech and freedom of the press, gives any citizen the right to film police officers in the exercise of their duties. Though it remains to be seen if this will actually change their practice.

Kevern Verney is Associate Dean Research and Professor in American History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash