Why did George Floyd’s death bring our nation to its knees? wondered Ava Marie DuVernay, the director of the 2014 film “Selma,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organizing activities in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
DuVernay was speaking last week on the second night of Oprah Winfrey’s two-part special, “Where Do We Go from Here?” on OWN. I desperately wanted to hear her thoughts. The sight of Floyd lying facedown on the asphalt with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressed into his neck had haunted me for days. DuVernay’s question burned in my mind.
“I usually don’t see the officer,” she remarked.
Many times before, black men had been beaten or shot down by rogue police officers. Never, however, had we seen an offending officer’s face in the same frame as the victim. The black man was usually shown running away, or the incident took place at night, and all involved were obscured by darkness.
In this case, we could see, by the light of day, the now ex-officer — Derek Chauvin — slowly suffocating Floyd as he begged for his dead mother. The public — black and white — understood his pain, his anguish, his fear.
There could be no excuse making, no misunderstood cues on Chauvin’s part. Floyd was handcuffed and helpless. Chauvin had a solemn obligation to preserve Floyd’s life. He failed.
In the very same frame, we can see both Chauvin’s and Floyd’s eyes — Chauvin, merciless, Floyd, increasingly hopeless, understanding he will soon lose his life, his face buried in the street. We understand the interplay between the two: Chauvin applying force to Floyd’s neck was a symbol of dominance over him.
In effect, the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that he held his knee to Floyd encapsulated 400 years of oppression that black people have faced in North America, first through 246 years of slavery in the American colonies and then the United States, followed by 154 years of structural racism.
Yes, systemic racism is real, Floyd’s death screamed to the nation. It was proof positive of its existence. There was no ambiguity. Only the most racist of minds would be incapable of understanding the concept — and of sympathizing with Floyd or any person of color.
I watched “Selma” over the weekend. It’s a beautiful film, painstaking in its attention to detail and commitment to historical accuracy. King came to Selma understanding how deeply racism ran through that small southern city. He knew there would be trouble, and he hoped to have it captured for all to see in the national news outlets.
But King miscalculated the ruthlessness of Alabama state and local police, who descended on 525 protest marchers on what became known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. The demonstrators tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, named for a Confederate officer who later became a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and U.S. senator. The marchers were headed to Montgomery, the state’s capital, a 50-mile walk. Police blocked their passage, rushed at them, beat them with billy clubs and sprayed them with tear gas.
The march organizer, Amelia Boynton, was knocked unconscious. John Lewis, a student protester, suffered a concussion. He went on to join Congress in 1987, representing Georgia’s 5th District. Today, at 80, he is still in the House. King himself wasn’t there that day. He later led two marches in Selma, including the final one that led to Montgomery.
I realized I had witnessed a smaller version of Selma on Merrick Road in Merrick on June 2. A group of 150 Black Lives Matter protesters, seeking justice for George Floyd, planned to march on the sidewalk when they were stopped by a group of about 30 counterprotesters. I was covering the demonstration for the Herald.
The counterprotesters shouted at the demonstrators to go back home and pointed west to Freeport, which has a mix of black, Latino and white people. Two young people among the counterprotesters draped themselves in the American flag.
Nassau County police eventually escorted the BLM demonstrators around the counterprotesters. I was focused on photographing the demonstrators. Later on, in video footage, I saw the anger in the counterprotesters as the demonstrators passed by. One man was seen giving them the finger, an image that precisely mirrored the reaction of one white man caught on film watching the beat-down in Selma 55 years earlier.
Some 25,000 people from around the country marched in Selma after Bloody Sunday. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, doing away with voting restrictions like the poll tax that had prevented most black people from voting in the South.
An estimated 10,000 BLM protesters came to Merrick and Bellmore from June 3 to 7. Their demonstrations were among hundreds statewide. Last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a sweeping legislation package that, among other measures, did away with Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which protected police disciplinary records from public view.
It appears, as King noted, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.