Everyone remembers where they were when they watched George Floyd die a year ago today — for they were all, figuratively, in the same place. Locked down, immobilised and already united in global fear of the still-new pandemic, all of humanity saw the same thing: the murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of a 46-year-old black man, as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds (later analysis showed that the precise duration of the lethal choke hold was, in fact, nine minutes and 29 seconds).
Floyd’s murder was only the latest killing of a person of colour by US police officers. The names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor and far too many others were already tragically well-known.
What made Floyd’s death different? First, it was a grotesque tableau of unimpeded horror: Chauvin, convicted last month of second and third-degree murder and manslaughter, looked around impassively, apparently indifferent as his actions were captured on phone video. Two other officers assisted his restraint of Floyd and a fourth stopped passers-by from intervening. It was nothing short of a lynching for the digital age.
Second, because the world was already paralysed by Covid, there was no excuse but to watch and to absorb the full ghastliness of the killing. Never again would it be possible to deny the existence of institutional racism: here was a group of police officers engaged, in plain sight, in the murder of a black man, quite sure of their entitlement to act as they did.
In the worst possible sense, it was a moment of absolute clarity. As George Floyd’s life was snuffed out, so there was a global release of human energy and collective outrage.
Black Lives Matter graduated from a hashtag to a global movement. There were rallies and protests in cities across America and in countless other countries. On June 7 in Bristol, the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down by a crowd and pushed into the harbour.
A year on, what has changed? Police forces around the world have undertaken to examine their culture and practices, to root out unconscious bias. Corporations were quick to align themselves with the new demands, promising to pursue diversity and inclusion in the workplace with greater focus. The phrase “systemic racism” finally entered common discourse — and was used by Joe Biden on election night and in his inaugural speech.
And some of the progress has been measurable. The use of Body-Worn Video (BMV) cameras has become more widespread — and should, indeed, be universal. In March, Sir John Parker’s review of the composition of company boards reported that 80 per cent of FTSE 100 companies now have at least one ethnic minority member. This academic year, Cambridge University accepted record numbers of black and ethnic minority students.
Yet in so many other ways the initial burst of energy and good intentions has been squandered. The use of stop-and-search powers by the police against black people remains deplorably disproportionate. Only four per cent of judges at High Court level and above are black or from ethnic minorities. Black people are more than four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act and 10 times more likely to be subjected to a community treatment order.
On this, as in so many other areas, the Government has promised action. But, as the shadow justice secretary David Lammy declared last June, what is needed most urgently is not more rhetoric but the implementation of reviews and recommendations on racial justice already made and gathering dust in Whitehall in-trays.
As Lammy warned it would be, the Government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities, led by Tony Sewell, was a muddled embarrassment, attempting to minimise the problems of institutional racism and even — in a notorious passage, now hastily amended — to claim that the “slave period” was not just about “profit and suffering”.
Performative politics, in other words, has not been matched by practical action. A year on from the day the world stood still — and as it starts, gradually, to turn at something like its normal pace again — we should take time to recall and hold on to the outrage that seemed, momentarily, to unite us all. We should also reflect, with both humility and impatience, that there is still, sadly, so very much to do.