A demonstrator next to a burning building in Minneapolis in...

A demonstrator next to a burning building in Minneapolis in May 2020, as protests raged after the death of George Floyd. Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

Four years ago, the murder of George Floyd, the Black man whom the nation watched die while pinned to the ground under Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, galvanized protests against racial inequity and police brutality. Massive protests, and in some cases riots, erupted across America. Progressives sounded loud calls to “defund the police” or even abolish policing altogether. There were also calls for a national “reckoning” with pervasive racism.

In 2024, the movements for racial justice and police reform have disappointingly little progress to report.

Of three federal bills proposed to curb abuses in policing, none has passed. Some state and local measures, including bans on police chokeholds and use of tear gas, have made headway, not only in progressive jurisdictions but in more conservative ones including Suffolk and Nassau counties. As measured by police use of lethal force, the results are not impressive: The annual number of fatal police shootings has climbed slightly since 2020.

Meanwhile, some forms of violent crime, particularly murder, spiked in 2020-2021 — though it’s hard to say to what extent this was related to fallout from racial justice protests (perhaps including less aggressive policing) and to what extent to upheavals linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some progressive locales which pursued more lenient policies toward minor offenses have struggled with widely reported increases in petty crime and disorder that make these places less livable. In Portland, progressive District Attorney Mike Schmidt was just defeated by centrist challenger Nathan Vasquez. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has proposed a record increase in the police budget. The symbolism, four years after “Defund the police” became a fashionable slogan on the left, does not escape anyone.

One stubborn fact with which most progressives failed to grapple is that poor and minority communities whose interests are ostensibly championed by social justice activists overwhelmingly want more policing — even if they want policing to be fairer and better.

Racial justice results are also mixed. On X, formerly Twitter, philanthropist John Arnold writes that donations to racial equity organizations and programs, which spiked in the summer of 2020, have dropped off again. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs are being reconsidered or overhauled by many businesses because the current model — which encourages a focus on racial identity and oppression — is too polarizing. Racial justice activism coexists with a conservative pushback against “wokeness,” which often cuts across racial lines.

What went wrong? Partly, the problem is that the summer of 2020 tried to give simple answers to complex questions. Floyd’s murder was a depraved act by a cop who showed little regard for a human life. But most lethal police violence happens in far less-clearcut situations, and statistical analysis shows it cannot be explained by racism — even if race is sometimes a factor. Most victims of police brutality are white. The focus on white bad cops and Black victims may have been detrimental to broader advocacy for curbing police abuses and promoting accountability.

The movement was also undercut by extremism and intolerance. Many activists condoned or downplayed riots and looting; aside from massive economic damage, at least 18 lives were lost. Reports of people losing their jobs for mild social media criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement, or even for statements seen as insufficiently anti-racist, made social justice look like the enemy of free speech.

Both racial equity and more humane, more accountable policing remain important goals. The summer of 2020 is an object lesson in how not to pursue them.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.


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