“Something is happening,” I thought, as I watched coverage of hundreds of people flood the Minneapolis streets in response to the murder of George Floyd. It was three days after his death on May 25, 2020, and two days after widespread circulation of a bystander’s video showing police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. On the evening of the 28th, protesters seized control of the Third Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department and set it on fire. Before the end of the week, the governor of Minnesota activated the National Guard. As someone who studies histories of anti-racist protest and social movements, I knew there had been similar explosions of rage in American cities in the 1960s. As someone who has tried to organize opposition to police violence, I had never seen anything like it. I had never witnessed such a direct attack on a symbol of police power.
Something was happening. By June 6, protests had spread to more than five hundred cities and towns across the country. About half a million people were in the streets that day, according to estimates by the New York Times. Protests continued that summer throughout the country—in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Louisville, Phoenix, and in Columbus, Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan; and even smaller towns such as Auburn, Alabama (where I lived at the time), and my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Polls suggested between fifteen million and twenty-six million people had joined the protests. The Times reported these figures in July under the headline “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.”
It had been a tough spring. In addition to living in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, I seethed at the news: the lynching of twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in February, Amy Cooper threatening to call the police on birder Christian Cooper in Manhattan the same day Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, and revelations about the Louisville Police Department’s killing of twenty-six-year-old ER technician Breonna Taylor. It all stirred the secondary trauma and psychic pain that accompanies living as a Black man in a nation that seemed unwilling to reckon with its racist past.
Now, a few years after participating in frustrated efforts in Ann Arbor to hold the local police department and the city’s elected officials accountable for the November 2014 killing of forty-year-old Aura Rosser, I truly felt anti-racist activists and organizers, and the Movement for Black Lives generally, had taken a leap forward. The protests represented the greatest collective instance of political education around racist police violence of my lifetime. The uprising led to more non-Black Americans engaging in protests and inspired many—including vast numbers of young, white suburbanites—to learn more about the United States’ histories of racism and colonialism.
And, as demonstrations continued, the protesters took wider aim at the vestiges of structural racism. They started pulling down Confederate monuments and statues of reviled historical figures. Recalling the days of the Occupy Movement, demonstrators in Louisville and Columbus appropriated public spaces to set up bases for protest and organizing. Louisville protesters also put up a memorial in honor of Breonna Taylor. In Seattle, radical activists took the Occupy tactic the furthest by establishing a police-free autonomous zone, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.
Minneapolis activists’ calls to “defund the police” announced the agenda of the second wave of Black Lives Matter protests. In June 2020, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to replace the police department with a more “holistic” system of public safety. Demanding cuts to police budgets, and even calls to abolish law enforcement institutions, were not new. But the new political moment allowed people to hear these calls. Suddenly one could see signs with “defund the police” at protests in cities throughout the country. Television pundits, columnists, and public officials debated the merits of the demand. Even the reliably center-right New York Times published an argument by organizer Mariame Kaba that affirmed, “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.”
With the winds of change swirling, corporations and public officials scrambled to declare solidarity with the protests, often to the consternation of more radical grassroots activists. Corporations such as Apple and Intel threw millions of dollars at initiatives to address racial inequality, while dozens of institutions of higher education, such as Brown, Northwestern, and the University of Alabama, released statements condemning racism. Local leaders emblazoned “Black Lives Matter” on city streets, and some went so far as to pursue cuts to police budgets, even if they were meager and temporary. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress drew up the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would use federal funding to encourage police departments to end the use of chokeholds and carotid holds, as well as provide resources to law enforcement agencies for training and to community groups exploring alternative approaches to policing.
Empire Strikes Black
Then came the backlash. The movement against police violence seemed to run into headwinds as soon as it gained momentum. Initially caught on their heels, the Trump administration and its reactionary allies regained their footing and initiated a crackdown: Trump threatened to deploy the military to cities if governors and mayors didn’t act, telling them, “You have to dominate.” While police forces in scores of cities continued their brutal crackdown on demonstrations, the Department of Homeland Security deployed Customs and Border Protection agents to Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C., to apprehend protesters.
The movement against police violence seemed to run into headwinds as soon as it gained momentum.
Politicians on the right, as well as some Democrats, launched attacks on the movement’s demands to defund the police. Attorney General William Barr scoffed at the notion that structural racism existed in the United States. President Trump and conservative activists also attacked the movement’s cultural gains. Trump announced the “1776 Commission,” a nationalist retort to the New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones-helmed 1619 Project, which sought to place chattel slavery at the center of U.S. history. Activist Christopher Rufo led the charge in seeking to eradicate “critical race theory” in the private and public sectors, which led to the passage of anti-CRT laws throughout the country. Many legislatures also moved to prohibit the teaching of anything deemed “divisive,” whether it be racism or gender and sexuality. Then came a rush to ban books from curricula and libraries. As activist Kali Akuno warned in the summer of 2020, “The empire will strike back. Of that, there is no doubt.”
Since the 2020 protests, police killings overall—and of Black people, specifically—have remained generally steady. According to the Washington Post’s Police Shootings Database, law enforcement officers shot and killed 1,055 Americans in 2021. As of this August, police have shot and killed 666—and are on track to kill more than one thousand people for a third straight year. The barbarism continues: in June of this year, eight Akron police officers shot twenty-five-year-old Jayland Walker forty-six times after a traffic chase.
What, then, has the movement accomplished? The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is stalled in a deadlocked Congress. Minneapolis activists’ campaign to dismantle their police department failed when residents voted down a proposal to replace it with a “public health-oriented” Department of Public Safety. Some Democratic cities such as Los Angeles are also back to amply funding their police departments. While the media stoked fears of a “crime wave,” New York residents installed Eric Adams, a Black former police captain, as mayor, and San Franciscans recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin. In his State of the Union address early this year, President Biden said that “we should all agree the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police.” Months later, he released his proposed 2023 budget, which calls for an additional $13 billion to allow the hiring of one hundred thousand new police officers across the nation.
Two years after that summer of protest, we are stuck again in status quo America. Yet anyone who has confronted the power of police authority, buttressed by their unions and by politicians in both parties, will understand why huge demonstrations and strong public sentiment against police brutality are not enough. Though I hoped the uprisings of 2020 would somehow break through, my mind reels back to hard lessons learned from my own activism in Ann Arbor in the fall and winter of 2014.
My experiences participating in sustained efforts to hold the Ann Arbor Police Department and city officials accountable showed me the sometimes contradictory outcomes of protests and organizing. Working through these contradictions also pushed me further in an abolitionist direction. When you have an entrenched power structure that is resistant to basic democratic dialogue and negotiation, it’s an insult to the very idea of self-governance to meekly accept its continuation. Just as troublesome, we know that the police will never give up their presumed right to kill a citizen whenever they can claim they felt threatened, and we know the courts and public officials will almost always accept their rationale.
Two years after that summer of protest, we are stuck again in status quo America.
In the late hours of November 9, 2014, Ann Arbor Police officers Mark Raab and David Ried responded to a domestic disturbance call to Aura Rosser’s apartment placed by her partner. According to the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s report, Rosser tried to rush the officers while holding a knife. Within seconds of entering the apartment, Officer Raab discharged his taser while Officer Ried shot Rosser in the chest, killing her.
Two weeks later, across the country, former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that a grand jury had decided not to charge Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As Rosser’s killing went beneath the radar, organizers from a radical University of Michigan campus group planned a protest. In addition to showing solidarity with victims of state violence outside of Ann Arbor—Michael Brown; the disappeared students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico; and Palestinians struggling against Israeli occupation—the organizers also sought to use the moment of national outrage to highlight how no Black person is safe, even in a town most of its residents consider liberal.
Outrage about Ferguson surely boosted the protests over the Rosser killing. On the evening of November 25, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library on the University of Michigan’s campus. With “ACAB” banners unfurled over bannisters on the library, several of us delivered emotional speeches calling for justice. The demonstration culminated in a march to city hall and the police department downtown, where activists from the nearby industrial city of Ypsilanti gave another round of speeches.
More meetings and demonstrations led us to form the ad hoc group “Ann Arbor to Ferguson,” which was initially comprised of a few dozen individuals. At the beginning, anarchists, Marxists, graduate student labor organizers, liberals who were interested in reform, radical intellectuals, law students, and former New Leftists, including one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, attended meetings. Eventually, as the group shrunk, it evolved into an organization driven by Black women—students and one community member.
We made three demands: fire Officer Ried, provide more transparency around the incident, and compensate Rosser’s family for her burial. Before long, we encountered organizing dilemmas. We knew that even as Blackness was pathologized, there was little attention given to Black women victims in conversations about police violence. We also wanted to organize around structural racism, sexism, and classism in a city that liked to perceive itself as progressive. The mayor and many members of the city council operated on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and the town boasted an activist tradition.
We used several tactics—street marches and protests; attending, speaking at, and even disrupting city council meetings; publishing articles and pamphlets contesting the city’s interpretations of Rosser’s killing. The initial protests forced law enforcement to respond with some modest reforms, including the adoption of body cameras. Eventually, the city instituted trainings around diversity and mental illness. However, the authorities refused to see Rosser’s killing as anything other than an unfortunate—but justified—“tragedy.” The city never fired Ried, nor did authorities offer any material renumerations to the Rossers, although activists raised some money for the family.
In the nearly two years of Ann Arbor to Ferguson (which later changed its name to Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives), we extracted only the smallest concessions from elected officials and law enforcement leaders. If the goal of our organizing and protests was accountability, then we failed. Why? Those in power mostly ignored us. They tried to discredit a leading community member. They seemed to invest more resources in trying to blunt protests. Also, over time, our own contradictions became difficult to bear. We could not resolve debates around strategy (community organizing versus protests and mobilizing), although we did consider issuing a demand to cut the police budget by half. Organizing is hard work, of course. But in most places, the alliance of local government and the police is unassailable. Even in a place like Ann Arbor, leaders act as if they agree with Trump: you have to dominate.
The quest for accountability continued after the demise of Ann Arbor to Ferguson. By 2017, a new group, “Transforming Justice Washtenaw” (TJW), had formed to press for civilian oversight of the police department. The new group had to contend not just with the adamant opposition of the police force and its union but with a mayor and city administrator who were lukewarm about the idea, as were the mayor’s city council allies. These officials sought to weaponize the city charter and the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police against TJW. TJW and the mayor issued dueling plans, with activists demanding a civilian review board that was independent, citizen-led, and democratic. The city eventually passed the mayor’s plan, which extended him the authority to appoint eleven members to a commission that would not be independent but “part of city government.”
It was at best a half-step forward. There appeared to be little discussion of creating civilian police oversight before the movement that arose in the wake of Rosser’s death. Our protests, pamphlets, and writings put policing onto the local political agenda, and many of us tried our best to keep Rosser’s name in the conversation long after. Our campaign not only contributed to developing a culture of protest around structural racism and police killings—we organized responses to the spate of killings in 2014 and 2015 elsewhere—we produced a body of work for future activists to draw upon and learn from. But any analysis of outcomes is wholly incomplete without thinking about the deeply entrenched nature of police power. There was not any slogan, policy change, or form of political engagement that was going to convince law enforcement in Ann Arbor to cede any power to its residents, especially those who might be the most vulnerable to state violence. We were, and are, fighting an institution that believes itself to be essential to an “orderly society.”
In September 2020, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan engaged in an “abolitionist strike” in response to the university’s slow Covid-19 response, and in solidarity with Black and brown victims of state violence. Members of the union Alejo Stark, Jasmine Ehrhardt, and Amir Fleischmann summarized its platform:
Therefore, GEO’s proposal of a “safe and just” campus articulates two sets of demands: Covid-19 demands . . . And anti-policing demands which include disarming, demilitarizing, and defunding campus police (GEO is demanding a 50 percent cut in the campus police budget, which should be in turn redirected to community-based initiatives), as well as severing ties from both Ann Arbor police and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
GEO’s actions represented more than a continuation of Ann Arbor to Ferguson’s critique of local policing—it was an escalation. Not every member of Ann Arbor to Ferguson, including myself at the time, would have considered themselves a police and prison abolitionist. However, GEO organizers understood what I still failed to comprehend: we needed to find a way to dislodge and dismantle police power if we hoped to prevent police killings. GEO activists learned from our campaign for accountability and started to talk about transformation.
The Thick Blue Fortress
It’s been more than ten years since Trayvon Martin’s death, and more than eight years since Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed. The two waves of protests—in 2014–2015 and 2020—raised existential questions about an institution with outsized power in American life.
Though I hoped the uprisings of 2020 would somehow break through, my mind reels back to hard lessons learned from my own activism in Ann Arbor in the fall and winter of 2014.
A key difference between the first and second waves of Black Lives Matter protests is that more anti-racist activists in the summer of 2020 directly called for dismantling police power, not just reforming it. This distinguishes the Black Lives Matter movement from the civil rights movement, which pushed for overturning Jim Crow segregation in the South, racism in the North, and the fulfillment of citizenship rights for all Black people. Though civil rights and Black Power activists protested police brutality, the focus of the movement was on voting and desegregation.
That also conveys how daunting it is to sustain a movement against police power in the United States. It was ultimately possible to get a portion of white America to see Black voting rights and an end to outright segregation as a matter of fundamental democratic fairness. Getting white Americans to imagine drastically reduced police forces is a harder sell. Many Americans not only adhere to the late Los Angeles Police Department Chief William H. Parker’s Cold War-era delusion that the police represent the “thin blue line” between order and disorder, but many valorize the institution—while having no experience with police misconduct. And one does not have to go far to find pro-police messaging, or “copaganda,” when they turn on the television, with many shows presenting police as heroic at best and complicated at worst. Blue Lives Matter stickers plaster the bumpers of cars across the country.
There is much work to be done in deflating the “we serve and protect” public image accepted by most of the white population. Shocking videos of police brutality—Rodney King, George Floyd, and so many others—seem to have only temporary effects. More recently, police incompetence and passivity during the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, demonstrated something fundamental: most police are far from the superheroes they pretend to be. When they have the upper hand, they are quick to use lethal force, especially against victims they see as less than human. But while fourth graders were being massacred in Uvalde, police, in a true “Blue Lives Matter” moment, held back. And as usual, the initial police version of events turned out to be a slipshod patchwork of falsehoods.
Police leaders and union officials aggressively guard their public image. They are respectfully quoted in the media while disparaging anti-police-violence protesters, and they have called for boycotts of celebrities who articulate anti-police positions or express support for political prisoners. Beyond copaganda, though, there’s no getting around the question of who holds actual power. Activists have learned that the expansion of police forces also means the growth of police unions. While some in the labor movement might try to find common cause, police unions invest considerable resources to defend officers accused of brutalizing and killing citizens. And local police unions might endorse Democrats and Republicans, but the Fraternal Order of Police, which describes itself as the largest national police officer association, has not endorsed a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996.
So while many skeptics might characterize demands to defund the police as unrealistic, the protest movements have drawn a line between the authoritarianism embedded in policing as an institution and practice (which includes the prison system) and grassroots participatory democracy, or the right of communities to determine what justice should look like. There are efforts all around the country—led by groups such as the Chicago-based Black Youth Project 100, Black Visions in Minneapolis, the Detroit Justice Center, and Project Nia—that define safety and fairness expansively, to include racial, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Most important, they speak the language of democracy and inclusion—but not in the way you’d ever hear from the leader of a police union. As Cathy J. Cohen, a University of Chicago professor and the founder of the Black Youth Project wrote in November 2020, “The rebirth of our democracy lives in the possibility of protest, organizing and, as Frederick Douglass famously insisted, agitation.”
Organizing is Local
Nobody ever knows where mass protests might lead. Yet the focus on tangible reforms often obscures the important work going on in the background: the practice of continuous political engagement with local peoples and communities, which is necessary to turn short-lived protests into an enduring movement. Sociologist Charles Payne refers to the community organizing tradition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as “slow and respectful work.” It is true that organizers and their groups do not typically start mass uprisings like the one that erupted in summer 2020. However, after they catch up to the people, they provide the crucial support of assisting protesters on the ground.
The focus on tangible reforms often obscures the important work going on in the background: the practice of continuous political engagement with local peoples and communities, which is necessary to turn short-lived protests into an enduring movement.
Grassroots organizers, radical organizations, and the networks they comprise, can also play a role in the short windows of opportunity that accompany disruptive moments. Even though the commitment was brief, the Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis took advantage of the uprisings when it pressured local leaders to pledge to transform the city’s system of policing. “Defund the police” might not have emerged as a signature demand if it were not for Minneapolis activists. And when mass protests develop, either locally or nationally, it is often the community organizing groups that help direct support to protesters in need (through bail funds and other forms of mutual aid), educate non-participants who might be interested in joining in protests, and continue to frame issues in a manner that continues to mobilize support.
Still, there are always tensions and contradictions within community organizing, movement and institutional building, and mass protests. As movement scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward warn in Poor Peoples’ Movements, mass protest and institutional building can be in conflict, as the latter might sap the energies of the former or even actively discourage spontaneous protest. Yet it is important to build robust movement institutions that won’t collapse under the weight of their contradictions. They must be flexible and retain the ability to honestly assess mistakes and experiment with tactics and strategies.
Paying attention to community organizing reminds us of the importance of local, and even state-based, political work. It is tempting to measure the “progress” of protests and movement-building against the national legislative scoreboard. But cuts to police budgets, the implementation of grassroots justice projects, and the transformation of economic and political conditions that breed state and interpersonal violence will occur locally, where democratic participation is more achievable. When we see democracy wither in cities and towns, we know we are in deep trouble.
As I found out in Ann Arbor in 2014, confronting entrenched power can cause a person to question whether the long hours of movement work are worth the effort. But what would it mean to go beyond the binary of failure/success and to adopt a more nuanced view? That’s the advice of activist-intellectuals Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth A. Ritchie in Abolition. Feminism. Now. They contend that we miss much in terms of the impact of abolitionist organizing when we focus on “dominant metrics for success and failure created by the very systems and institutions that produce and naturalize racist and heteropatriarchal violence.” They point to “normative evaluative logics of success,” such as passing legislation, crafting policy, and creating organizations as examples.
As historians Mary Frances Berry and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argue, protests and movements can reverberate long after street demonstrations and campaigns dissipate. National events sometimes mobilize people locally and create protest cultures. These cultures not only demonstrate what is possible in terms of building peoples’ confidence and capacity to act, they can establish necessary networks for future protests and organizing.
All the while, we know that the power imbalance between racial justice activists and the police is huge. I’ve come to think about the meanings of the 2020 protests in the context of this dialectic. While the saying “it’s a movement, not a moment” has almost become cliché in the last several years, it is vital that we think about what the summer 2020 uprisings did in that moment—the protests against the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ushered in the kind of legitimation crisis for the police that this country has not seen before. The global protests against state violence also initiated a leap forward in anti-racist consciousness, especially among the young. While mass protests can open opportunities for accelerated changes in politics and culture, the results are seldom assured. They can bring us to a moment of reaction, as we have experienced, or to what I call the “in-between” moment of political struggle, until the next wave of protests.
Cathy J. Cohen, speaking as “a Black queer woman in a country built on anti-Blackness,” wrote in 2020 that there is “no saving, repairing, or reimaging democracy, at least for me, that does not start with the cessation of our systemic death. To save democracy, first and foremost, you have to stop killing us.” And, as abolition-feminists such as Davis, Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Andrea J. Ritchie have long noted, the movement to stop police killings must be oriented toward long-term transformation. This orientation forces us to think about how policy changes, collective actions, and institutional efforts not only save lives in the near term but also undermine the legitimacy of policing in the long term. It requires attention to grassroots participatory democracy and a rejection of a system of criminalization, punishment, and our consent to be ruled by the arm of the state that exploits its monopoly on deadly force. Instead of just asking, “What bills has the movement gotten passed?” we should be asking how we can enlist more people in a movement to create a more humane, nonviolent, and democratic system of public safety, one that is based on justice and respect, not domination.
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