Editor’s note: This article references anti-Black violence and police brutality.
After a now-fired police officer used his knee to pin down George Floyd — resulting in his death — the country erupted into days of fiery protests and an outpouring of responses.
Floyd’s death was not isolated: The March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the May 27 killing of Tony McDade were both at the hands of police officers. And the three incidents come after the Feb. 22 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, where no arrest was made until May 21.
These deaths — especially Floyd’s, which was filmed by a bystander and shared widely across social media — led to outrage about racism, police brutality and the lack of arrests.
Local leaders including Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and President Martha E. Pollack have since spoken out against these incidents.
“Well right now we have a lot of little black kids in this country that are afraid,” Myrick tweeted on Friday. “They are witnessing live lynchings. They see that millions of Black Americans are in chains. They know that this pandemic is devastating black communities especially.”
Growing up I always felt lucky to be alive *now* and not *then.*
*Then* was a terrible time. Black Americans had shorter lives because they lived in terrible conditions, and any diseases that swept the nation took a disproportionate toll on Black Americans.
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) May 29, 2020
Both Myrick’s anger and personal experiences resonated with Black students at Cornell.
“[Myrick’s Twitter thread] really touched my heart,” said William Henderson ’22. “Those were personal things I’ve experienced, and that I’m sure other [black people] on campus have experienced, especially coming to an Ivy League, a predominantly white institution.”
In fall 2019, 35.8 percent of the undergraduate population and 84 percent of staff identified as white.
Black Students United at Cornell released a statement on their social media, echoing these emotions and calling for action.
“This is a grave moment for the country, and we mourn with our Black communities nationally,” they wrote. “We all need to come together and continue to fight for the justice of those murdered, in hopes of eliminating the blood shed by Black bodies in America.”
Recognizing the “unfathomable” pain felt across the nation by the black community, Pollack promised to do “all we can as a university to address this scourge of racism,” in her Friday email to the campus community.
“We will address it directly in our educational programs, in our research and in our engagement and related activities, working through the ways we know best to push for a world that is equitable and kind; where people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin; and where everyone has the same opportunities to grow, thrive and enjoy their lives,” she continued.
While some students appreciated the gesture and that the University acknowledged their pain and grief, others felt the message was hollow.
“[The response] was so underwhelming,” said Valerie Odonkor ’22. “The amount of emails we’ve gotten from the administration that have been so long that I have to keep scrolling and scrolling … but this short, very vague and bland email just really upset me even further. I was like, ‘Okay, then what was the point?’”
Odonkor pointed to numerous other racist incidents on campus, asking for tangible solutions in response to what Pollack called a “scourge of racism.” Ultimately, Odonkor spoke to the deep pain she witnessed her peers express on social media, asking for a real actionable response.
“We’ve heard this before,” Odonkor said about Pollack’s language. “This is a message that could have been sent in 2013 or 2016.”
In 2017, Pollack convened a Presidential Task Force to address problems of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell after the assault of a Black student in Collegetown. The task force submitted its final recommendations on June 8, 2018, with the proposed changes ranging from compulsory diversity education to a revised campus code of conduct.
Still, the huge response to Floyd’s death felt different than other incidents of fatal police brutality, for Henderson. He attributed this to the role of social media and its ability to circulate information. Seeing the video of Floyd’s death — among other recent incidents — he said, really sparked outrage.
In the video, Derek Chauvin kneels on Floyd’s neck for a total of eight minutes and 46 seconds, continuing to kneel almost three minutes after Floyd stopped protesting and became unresponsive. Throughout the video, Floyd is heard pleading, “I can’t breathe.”
Many police officers around the country, including in Ithaca, have criticized Chauvin’s fatal technique as notoriously dangerous.
“The viral video was utterly appalling and abhorrent to watch and the actions of the police officer(s) involved are in no way consistent with any appropriate arrest and control tactics nor any level of human decency,” wrote Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor in a Friday press release.
The technique largely isn’t used anymore; neck restraints and chokeholds are basically reserved for when an officer perceives a life-or-death situation, according to the Minneapolis Police Department manual, The New York Times reported.
“Reverence for life must always be our top priority and all persons should be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion,” Nayor continued, writing, “anything less will not be tolerated within the law enforcement profession.”
Over the last few days, thousands of protesters in cities across the U.S. took to the streets, some vandalizing police vehicles, setting buildings — including a police precinct — on fire and taking items from damaged stores. Officers have used tear gas and fired rubber bullets into crowds.
“The situation in Minneapolis, is no longer, in any way, about the murder of George Floyd,” Walz said in a Saturday press conference. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities.”
Similar criticism of the protest tactics came from President Donald Trump, who previously called the video of Floyd’s death “shocking.”
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
The phrase harkens back to the civil rights era, when Miami police chief Walter Headley used it while cracking down on Black protesters. Trump told reporters Friday that he didn’t know the racially charged history behind the phrase.
Twitter deemed that this tweet violated its rules about “glorifying violence,” but the company ultimately left the tweet up for “the public’s interest,” with an accompanying warning.
Since Trump’s tweet, the protests have spread beyond Minneapolis, with the country bracing for more nights of unrest in the streets. U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned on Saturday that people inflicting destruction could face federal charges.
Police car just drove by demonstrators on Classon Ave in Brooklyn — some of whom had been throwing cement — and opened passenger side door into a protester. pic.twitter.com/vd8Lq60TXC
— Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs (@NickAtNews) May 30, 2020
But on Saturday night, protesters in Nashville briefly set fire to City Hall, two police vans were filmed plowing into protesters in New York City, Miami protests shut down highway traffic and protesters in Philadelphia attempted to topple a statue.
The protests in at least 48 cities across the country signaled anger over racism and police brutality that existed long before the death of George Floyd.