“In the United States, the current protests have ancient roots”

Protesters hold up a portrait of George Floyd in New York on June 5.
Protesters hold up a portrait of George Floyd in New York on June 5. EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS

For Heather Ann Thompson, historian, African-American specialist at the University of Michigan, the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, during his police arrest on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Northern United States), by its brutality touched a nerve center. “The fundamental problem of this country is that of inequality and persistent racism”, she explains.

Protests continue in the United States against police violence and racism. Does this movement have anything in common with the protests of the 1960s for civil rights and the riots of the spring of 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4?

In some respects, what is happening today is indeed reminiscent of the events of the 1960s. As in those days, the protests we are witnessing have ancient roots. After a series of murders of African Americans, dating back to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 [un adolescent noir lynché dans le Mississippi, accusé d’avoir sifflé une femme blanche], that of Malcom X (in 1965) or Martin Luther King, many have had the impression that, whatever they do, whatever the laws, the police, or whites in general, continue to treat black people differently. And after police brutality during civil rights protests, the assassination of King sparked a collective reaction.

Today, we are also in this case: numerous murders of blacks, men and women, have followed one another. This time it was the murder of George Floyd that hit a hot spot. The conditions of his death are so brutal and unambiguous; everything is filmed and no reasonable person can see anything other than murder. For blacks, this violence is not new, but it has puzzled many whites, at least those who do not associate with African-Americans.

Another element is similar to the situation in the 1960s: the economy was doing pretty well, as it was right now – before the Covid-19 pandemic of course. However, at the same time, in the health and education sectors, the situation for blacks remains dire. As if the gains, major or minor, since the 1960s had been erased.

What differences do you see in the level of mobilization, the nature and the causes of the demonstrations?

The protests are more massive today. The level of frustration is also different: in the 1960s, the country had not yet adopted part of the laws such as guaranteeing the right to vote for blacks or positive discrimination. Today all of this exists and yet the impression remains that things have gotten worse. Furthermore, even if in the 1960s whites, especially from the north of the country, participated in marches in cities in the south [plus ségréguées], we’re seeing more white people today in the protests. Many young people are angry and frustrated with the Trump administration over gender, color. This forms a powerful combination for movement.

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