The slow-motion execution of George Floyd has ignited an incandescent social movement. In every state and around the world, people of all colors, genders, and ages are coming together to march in fury and in hope, to renounce the past and redeem the future.
The animating cry of “Black Lives Matter!” was created by three Black female organizers in 2013, enraged and heartsick over the acquittal of the man who had murdered the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. They and many other organizations and activists built a movement. The anger and optimism behind this movement echo similar seasons of protest against state-sanctioned brutality toward Black people, from Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose 1965 murder by Alabama state troopers inspired the Selma to Montgomery march, to the long list of unarmed Black women and men who have died at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes.
An astonishing amount has changed in the few weeks since Floyd’s murder. The chokehold that killed him has been banned in 20 cities and counting. Confederate monuments have toppled, pulled down by protesters or (finally) removed by officials. Around the country, communities are pushing police out of schools, and considering how to slash law enforcement budgets and reinvest the funds to address the root problems that police are so ill-equipped to handle.
But too much has stayed the same. Since Floyd’s murder, police have killed Black and brown men in Georgia and California. Around the country, six Black people have been found hanging from trees, supposed suicides that chillingly resemble lynchings and have sparked demands for investigation. As of now, no charges have been filed against the Louisville police officers who broke into Breonna Taylor’s home last March (using a no-knock warrant that has since been banned) and shot her dead as she slept.
Now is our chance to escalate the energy of the moment and move from protest to power to policy change. We have done it before
The changes triggered by the protests are crucial, but more is needed to uproot the racism so thoroughly embedded in our nation’s social, economic, and political systems. Public policies of the past helped create our current practices of exclusion and disinvestment. For instance, today’s residential segregation is the direct result of 20th century mortgage lending policies and restrictive housing covenants that limited where Black people could live. Time has not much altered these discriminatory patterns; only policy change can do so.
Now is our chance to escalate the energy of the moment and move from protest to power to policy change. We have done it before.
One of the most celebrated protests in US history, the 1963 March on Washington, forced America’s attention to the fight for civil rights and voting rights. The voting rights campaign was led by NAACP local branches, which embraced the young activists from SNCC and Core who led the sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the early 1960s and passed on to them years of experience in struggle.
I attended Tougaloo College, an HBCU in Mississippi where I had the opportunity to be trained in activism by veteran organizers from the NAACP, SNCC, and other civil rights organizations. I often listened to these elders revisit the strategy debates of that era, and I was struck by the clarity of their vision. It helped me to understand how the 1963 march changed the political climate in America. This shift led to the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 and created favorable conditions for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally outlawed tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests that had disenfranchised the vast majority of Black voters in the south.
Today’s nationwide protests have created an unprecedented alignment of people who look like America, all of us standing together for justice. We must use that people power to transform not only hearts and minds, but laws and leadership. The most direct and urgent route is through the vote.
Trump has proven to be a danger to the health and safety of everyone in America, Black people in particular. Elective offices farther down the ballot also impact Black people’s daily lives: the school board members who shape our children’s education; the district attorneys who decide whether to file charges; the mayors and city council members who hire police chiefs and determine police department policies.
After voting with our feet in protest, we must use the power of the ballot box to send a new and forceful message about the policy solutions we demand and the values of racial justice those policies must embody.
Like the March on Washington, today’s protests are catalysts for change. They have opened the eyes of a nation so we can transform the issue of racial justice from a partisan debate to a national soul-searching, through which people of all colors can use the tools of democracy to create a better and more just future for our families and our country. Even as we march, we must fight – and vote – for our very lives.
Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP