The protests that began after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have, in a matter of weeks, now reached all 50 states, and about 2,000 American cities. They’ve cropped up around the world. And they keep going.
The rallying for black lives and a wholesale reckoning with police brutality and racism feels like a release of pent-up pressure, boiling and rattling in the American body politic for generations, finally unleashed at the start of a dark summer, with thousands still dying from a novel coronavirus and millions and millions unemployed.
And amid cries of “Black Lives Matter” and “defund the police,” change is starting to happen. Cities and states are adopting laws that once sat dormant, to increase police accountability and transparency. Many municipalities, their budgets squeezed by the coronavirus response, are rethinking police funding. Some places, like Minneapolis, are trying to envision an entirely new model for public safety.
To better understand this moment, and what is unfolding, Vox spoke to four activists across the country, most of whom have been fighting systemic racism and police brutality long before this season of protest. Vox asked them how they saw this current movement, what challenges the protests still face, and how the outpouring on America’s streets may have changed what’s possible.
The conversations, edited for length and clarity, are below.
Miski Noor, Black Visions Collective: “A perfect storm of people’s righteous rage and anger”
34, Minneapolis, Minnesota
What you set out to accomplish: I think what was immediately clear was that we wanted justice for George Floyd — and justice wasn’t actually enough, which is why we began the call for folks to know that now is the time to defund the police and invest in the community.
We were really pushing for folks to understand how critical it is for the Minneapolis Police Department to acknowledge the harm their institution has caused black families, to make an official apology.
And then we believe the city really needs to commit to divest funds from the police and invest in healthy community and safety measures. If the city really wants to illustrate accountability to George’s family, and to the hundreds of other families whose loved ones were killed by police, it has to invest in a way where the police will feel it. Accountability really looks like — in the language that they speak — money.
What we’re really wanting to make clear to the city council and our mayor [Jacob Frey], was that the police are really upholding a strategy of white supremacy that dehumanizes black folk. Because despite continued profiling, harassment, and killing, the Minneapolis government continues to invest in the police, leaving black communities vulnerable and our city no safer. Defunding the police actually means that Minneapolis cares about everybody who lives here.
I think people are really rising up for that, and for really transformative change. Because the current system can’t actually keep black folks safe, as well as many other marginalized communities.
Why these protests are happening now: I think there’s a bunch of things that come together. One, black communities are, and have been, living in persistent fear of being killed by state authority like the police and immigration agents, and even white vigilantes who are emboldened by state authorities like [President Donald Trump] when he says things like, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
What’s happening in Minneapolis is not unique. It’s happening all over, you know, we saw it in Brunswick, in Indianapolis, in Tallahassee, in Atlanta, and Louisville. Eventually we saw protests, and even some uprisings in all 50 states and all across the world.
Modern-day policing institutions have their roots in slave catching, so it’s critical to remember that these systems from the beginning were created to hunt, to maim, and to kill black people. The police have long been an uncontrollable force of violence, terrorizing our communities without accountability and with too many resources. That’s the foundation of the police for this country in general.
And Minneapolis, specifically, has been the poster child of reform. All of the things that could be tried were tried here. Before there was George Floyd, there was Philando Castile and Jamar Clark and Christopher Burns and David Smith, Terrance Franklin, Marcus Golden, Fong Lee. I could go on and on and on about all of the different folks that have been murdered by the police here. Black people account for more than 60 percent of the victims in Minneapolis police shootings from 2000 to 2018. The only time we saw any MPD officer actually be convicted in decades was Mohamed Noor, who was black, who murdered Justine Damond, who was a white woman and her family got a $20 million settlement.
The Minneapolis Police Department received a review from Obama’s Department of Justice in 2015. As part of a settlement [over the death of David Smith, who was restrained by police] the MPD was ordered to give the police training, not to put detainees in prone position, which is the exact way that [former MPD officer] Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
In 2018, Black Visions, along with Reclaim the Block, was able to shift $1.1 million dollars from MPD and have that reallocated to community-led safety, like the creation of the Office of Violence Prevention. We just got that office in 2018, and we haven’t even had a chance to see how we can benefit the community, and the city council were already trying to take it away. Right now, we even have a black police chief. Even with all of that, [the police] still manage to kill black folks.
Those are some of the circumstances we were coming up inside of. Then the pandemic. And then police terror happened inside of that. It feels like just so many different elements coming together for a perfect storm of people’s righteous rage and anger, leading them to the streets and staying in the streets for weeks on end.
How the protests have changed what’s possible: The protest makes me extremely hopeful. Like I said, I believe in righteous rage and anger and grief that community members are expressing. They are coming together like I have seen and haven’t seen before. It’s been really deep and vigorous.
It was the community who were setting up patrols and actually kicking white supremacists out of our city, and doing medic training, and setting up food drives and food banks and providing transportation for folks and all of that. We’ve really seen our people take abolitionist theory to practice in a lot of ways, and really show up for each other and take care of each other in really concrete and incredible ways.
I really think that the protests, the uprising, across the country and across the world, have really served to give me hope. It serves to give other folks hope around what is possible when our people come together and what’s possible when we actually all care about black life and want a world in which black life, black humanity, black dignity is protected — and that we have systems that actually do that and honor black life.
The protests have shown us that Minneapolis can be a city where all of us have high-quality housing and livable wages, where rates of overdose and addiction actually go down instead of up, where people have faith in their neighborhoods.
We can build this Minneapolis by investing in community-led safety infrastructure. I think that a city budget is how elected officials actually illustrate what is and what’s not a priority. The city council, in the past, has been reluctant to implement strategies for community safety, and instead have opted for more cops. I think that, right now, the majority of the city council — with a supermajority of city council, a veto-proof majority of the city council voting to disband the police — is saying they want to actually pursue this, and that is really, really exciting.
That Minneapolis that I described is much more possible now. What’s coming is that we have to continue to hold their feet to the fire. It’s actually on communities, on organizers, to continue to hold [elected officials] accountable. Part of that was them making a public commitment. Now the work has to continue, the hard work of imagining and implementing and experimenting with what that really does look like for every member of our community.
What challenges remain: I think having an authoritarian, fascist in the White House doesn’t help, who is hell-bent on doing everything he can to endanger not only black people, but protesters and anybody who actually wants to have a democracy. The rights of protesters being respected and protected has been a concern.
The way that folks are talking about looting or rioting — versus uprising and rebellion — is a challenge. We need folks to understand a violation of property should never be equated with human life. When that happens, every protester is put at risk. That’s part of why we’ve been demanding that local and state officials ensure that there aren’t any abuse of powers and there’s no use of lethal force on protesters, and that the police and the National Guard cease using things like sponge markers and rubber bullets and tear gas.
One of the major challenges on the ground has been continuing to figure out how to keep ourselves safe as we face challenges from the police, from the National Guard, and from white supremacists. All of these different forces descended upon our city, and what does it mean for us to be creating safety in real time for one another, as we push our city to continue to imagine what public safety looks like for all of us and long term?
Another concern is really thinking about democracy and its relationship with social movements. A democracy that ignores social movements is no democracy at all. A lot of people don’t want to hear the cries of social movements or refuse to acknowledge it. And so we have been demanding attentive and responsive representations that not only hears the cries of community in crises, but also works with the community to solve problems. The Minneapolis city council’s vote was also really encouraging on that front.
Where the protests will go from here: I hope for other cities and locales, that they continue to have the same movement and organizing to defund the police and move it closer to a police-free future in which abolition — full abolition — is possible.
I don’t see things slowing down here in Minneapolis. The city council is in the middle of crafting the budget right now, and we’ll be voting on it. We’re going to continue to see what happens here — and see that [the city council] sees their commitment through.
I don’t see people stopping. There have been so many wins, the community continues to win. And what the community is doing right now is taking care of each other.
The memorial [for Floyd] has been there ever since that first rally that started. There’s going to be some transition around what are the pieces that we’re able to keep permanently. Folks have a really beautiful vision around turning that intersection into a roundabout or maybe a garden. What is the most wonderful use of that space that fits the community? How does it need to be transformed to honor everything that’s happened there?
Folks are thinking about what it means to rebuild some of the community institutions, some of the black businesses. Folks are coming together to do that work.
We are still inside of a pandemic. What is the spike that Minnesota is going to see? What is the work that we’re going to need to do to help keep our people safe and alive in a pandemic and continue to provide care? All of those different conversations are coming up.
So what is the short-term and immediate — and then also the medium- to long-term planning that we’re doing around creating and keeping safety. I also think people are going to continue to build — between Portland and Los Angeles and New York — more and more and more institutions, calling for the divestment from the policing institutions and defunding the police in and of themselves.
I think we’re going to see that more and more become possible from here.
Ashton P. Woods, Black Lives Matter Houston: “This is a demand for real change”
35, Houston, Texas
How you see the recent protests: I think the protests that we have now are more of a critical mass as opposed to just spontaneous pop-ups in certain parts of the country. It might not be active everywhere, but this is a demand for real change — none of that, you know, symbolic gesture-madness that they try to push: ‘We’ll make a new no-chokehold rule’’ and all of that other stuff. They actually need to change laws.
We’re not just talking about attacking police brutality. We’re talking about the system in its totality. That’s elected officials and other appointed officials who make the policies, laws, and rules that enable the police to do what they do.
What you want to accomplish: There are always specific goals because this is about pitching people who would get mad at you. You can’t protest without making a whole piece of it being about education. I mean, if you leave a protest and you don’t know half the people you stood next to, you’re part of the problem.
My responsibility to Black Lives Matter Houston is to make sure people know who to be mad at. [They should] be mad at their elected officials, everything from the governor down to the city council members because each can make rules and ordinances and policies that could change the trajectory of our people. People don’t really understand that. And when I say people, I mean white people.
This is about not just making policy, but enforcing the policies — and to have the bodies or entities that are there so it happens. Different agencies have inspector generals, departments where people can go and whistleblow. I think we need to take that a step further. We need to have people on advisory boards that are not political appointees, that have subpoena power, who are able to hold people to the mat. Hold people’s feet to the fire. I don’t think we have enough of that now. That’s why there’s been a lot of protesting. Because it’s not just George Floyd. It’s Breonna Taylor, and the six people who were murdered here.
Whether the coronavirus pandemic has shaped these protests: The medical system has been dismantled over the last 10 years. After we got the Affordable Care Act — even though it wasn’t perfect — people had some home health care. You’re telling the people to stay home, don’t wear a mask — and then you tell them to wear a mask, and when they wear a mask they go to the store they get accosted for wearing the mask and have to justify why they’re buying a gallon of milk. Racial profiling — you know, just the whole imagery and whole ideology toward black people is a problem.
A lot of us have watched family members die. You can definitely see the haves and the have-nots out of the situation. So when you tell somebody to stay home, [somebody] who gets laid off from their low-paid minimum wage job, has kids. [You tell somebody], “Oh yeah, you should cook at home,” but you’re living in a food desert and the only grocery store … the items that they sell are not exactly healthy. What are you promoting to us? There’s these connections that talk about overall approaches, and how we’re treated economically as well as by law enforcement that needs to be recognized. I don’t think people talk enough about that.
Where the protests go from here: I don’t know how long they’ll go, but I just know that they’re not stopping anytime soon. And I wouldn’t stand in the way of it. Because it makes people uncomfortable. It makes people uncomfortable.
Anyiwei Maciek, One Fargo: “I think that change is going to come”
22, Fargo, North Dakota
What you set out to accomplish: The original March that was on Saturday [May 30 in Fargo], it was created a couple days after George Floyd’s death happened. Me and my friend Morgan, who is actually white, we were just Snapchatting and she commented, and we were just talking about how sad it was. We brought up the Ahmaud Arbery case and I was like, this is so messed up that we were talking about this three weeks earlier, me and you, about how this is not okay.
North Dakota has kind of stayed really like silent, and that made me start realizing that race is kind of a taboo thing that we don’t really even talk about here. And [my friend Morgan] was like, yeah, I completely agree. And I’m just like, do you think if I created a march any people would show up? When I did it, I had the thought in mind that it would probably be 30 people that showed up. I honestly did not think it would get as big as it did.
Fargo cannot just stay silent this time. We can’t just say “rest in peace” and “hashtag Black Lives Matter” and move on like this. [George Floyd’s death] literally happened three hours away from us.
Have the protests changed what’s possible: After the protests, we kind of sat back and were like, okay, it can’t just stop as a protest. We’ve had people come say, Hey, I’m so happy that you guys did that protest. It’s about time someone like talks about the racism that’s here in Fargo. So many people were telling us that. This just can’t stop here.
We definitely need to talk about police reforms and the different things that can get the entire citizens of Fargo — not just white and black, but everybody — to feel comfortable and safe around police officers. I’ve talked to numerous people who have said that if something happens, they don’t even file a complaint anymore with the police because the police don’t really follow up or sometimes, they don’t even write a report. That’s something that needs to be changed and that needs to change now.
What challenges you face: A lot of the threats that we’ve been getting, talking about racism you do get that crowd that’s not really for it. White supremacists and people like that. Those have been kind of scary — but the amount of support and love that we’ve been getting has outweighed all of that.
Where do you see the protests going: I don’t want to condone the rioting and looting, but I think [something changed] once it turned to that, once people saw Minneapolis burning down the police precinct and burning down the city — basically seeing how much the city hates the police department. All the other cities, they’re really starting to realize the power that their citizens have. They might start doing police reforms. Some states are trying to defund the police. I think a lot of changes are about to come, that’s why it feels totally different. Because I don’t think we’ve ever even talked about defunding police in such a massive way prior to this. I think even the fact that that’s a topic — I think that change is going to come.
Briana Perry, Black Lives Matter Memphis: “Win these demands and really push for this new world we’re all just imagining”
28, Memphis, Tennessee
What did you set out to accomplish: The official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter has been around for almost five years now. What we are still seeking is very much so tied to the work that we’ve been doing on the ground for years.
We have two campaigns at the chapter. One is around ending money bail and the other around ending pretrial detention.
And so that is what we’re calling for right in this time. This call for defunding the police — it’s very much so rooted in that, and thinking about how are we investing money and resources into social services. As a part of our end money bail campaign, the tactic we use is a bailout.
Since 2017, we’ve participated in the Black Mama’s Bailout. We also do like Juneteenth and Father’s Day bailouts. We pay in full — we don’t use bail bonds. Through this tactic we’re highlighting the injustices of the money bail system because there are so many people who are sitting in jail right now, pre-trial, simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Most folks don’t have $20,000, so that’s what we do, we pay that, we pay their bail and we also provide them with supportive services. Because what we know to be true is that in order to curb recidivism and contact with the criminal legal system is providing people with the resources that they need to survive and thrive.
We’ve just really seen the lack of supportive services infrastructure. There is no infrastructure for formerly incarcerated folks. And so for us, shrinking the police, jail, and prison budgets and investing money into social services, community services, is always something that we’ve been interested in and have pushed for and continued pushing for in the midst of these protests
Why the protests are happening now: It’s definitely a culmination of years and years of organizing and definitely tied to the work that we’ve been doing with BLM for years.
I think about the generations and generations of systemic racism and systemic oppression and all of these experiences that we’ve been — that black folks have had for, again, generations and generations and generations, and I would say that the pandemic has highlighted and unearthed a lot of those oppressions.
We’ve seen like how black folks have been impacted by Covid-19 in various ways and the risk factor or the issue is racism. It is a white supremacy. We see all the ways, the myriad of ways that black lives have always been devalued. We really see that in this moment. Even though we’re thinking about police violence, it highlights all the ways that black people for centuries have been devalued in this country. And, for me, it is a result of pushing and organizing for years.
What challenges have you faced: Definitely the challenge was of work in the South, of being like overlooked and devalued. I’m really happy that I do work here, and I think that the South is often overlooked. In a lot of different ways, whose stories are uplifted, often times it is like people like in the North on the East Coast and the West Coast.
And resources, money — they don’t make their way to the South. But there’s amazing work that’s being done in the South, and that has been done in the South for generations. And we’re up against so much here. Just centuries of endemic racism and oppression — that’s true for the rest of the country, but also thinking about in the aftermath of Jim Crow laws, and those things being very specific to the South. The fact that the South also has been the testing ground for a lot of like harmful things. That’s just to say there’s a lot of things that happen to the South. There’s a lot of very powerful organizing here, that has always happened in the South. And so that’s a challenge I want to highlight, too.
Definitely people trying to shift the messaging or change it. Some people, maybe it’s an introduction. [Organizers] are like, hey, we’ve been calling for these things for a while. This is the message. I think another challenge is people trying to shift the messaging, or like shift what we mean by certain demands, and it’s like no, we’re clear. We’ve been very clear for years.
But again, we’ve been doing it for years and we’ve been clear on what we mean and what we’re pushing for. I want to be clear, because I’m not necessarily right now thinking about new folks coming to the movement and being energized. Let me say that there are elected officials and people in power who are trying to appear to be progressive. I want to say that that is who I’m thinking about. [Those who say], Oh, of course, sure Black Lives Matter and moving beyond just saying that and taking what we’re saying and have been asking for in our demands as a practice and not trying to water it down
Where the protests go from here: I think that this is a ripe opportunity for one, people being politicized. A lot of folks are joining in. I also am very excited about the young people — there a lot of young people who are in Memphis and also nationwide who are leading these protests, who are leading these conversations. What it looks like to affirm young people’s leadership, I’m looking forward to that.
And also with just some of the demands that I shared earlier. I think that there could be some energy around ending money bail and pretrial detention. This is a fight that is going to be a statewide fight. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer introduced a resolution to decrease the police budget and like reinvest those funds in other ways including education and health care. Unfortunately it didn’t pass, but I do think it is an opportunity to build on that and pushing folks to defund the police, shrink those budgets and invest that money into black communities. There should be more of a conversation and more action around it.
And nationwide, similarly. I think there are a lot of cities that are being very bold and pushing further demands around defunding the police. We see the results. They’re happening. We’re seeing what’s happening in Minneapolis. We’re seeing other places thinking about disinvestment [in police]. We see that in different parts of the country. It’s definitely an opportunity for us to continue to build power and to win these demands and really push for this new world we’re all just imagining.
This is also something that I’ve been thinking about: what we’re trying to dismantle, what we’re trying to get rid of, and also what we’re trying to build, right? We’re trying to be these sustainable and thriving communities, where communities have access to the full spectrum of health care without discrimination and judgment. I’m a reproductive freedom person, that is my paid job, so I do want to highlight that, too. Access to clean water, access to education, all of these things that we know that are human rights and that communities need to thrive.