Twenty-two and a half years.
One of the longest prison sentences ever doled out to a U.S. police officer in the killing of a Black person.
This moment of accountability came a year after the murder of George Floyd sparked a global movement against police violence and racial injustice. Former Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, was sentenced on April 20 to 22 1/2 years in prison. While many see this as a step forward in the long march toward racial justice in America, there is still a long road ahead.
Last summer’s mass protests predominantly receded, and the world is reopening following COVID-19. The conclusion of the summer of so-called racial reckoning is not the end of the Black Lives Matter movement. Several high-profile deaths of Blacks during police encounters last summer generated great levels of support for BLM among white Americans. But, a year later, that white support for the movement has declined to even lower levels than it was before.
The question arises: Where do we go from here?
Editor-at-Large of The 19th, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, Errin Haines, facilitated a virtual conversation between USC alumna, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and civil rights activist Alicia Garza on June 17 about the future of Black Lives Matter. Bass graduated from the USC Keck School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program in 2015 and represents the area surrounding USC.
The panel began the discussion by putting the movement in the context of history, recognizing the progress made this year toward racial equality.
“We are this generation’s imprint on a movement that is much older than us,” said Garza. She attributed the rapid growth of Black Lives Matter and increasing civil rights advocacy to the advancement of technology and the sharing power of social media.
As COVID-19 created a more virtual society, audiences have become more receptive and aware of racial injustices that were either overlooked pre-pandemic or not as widely circulated in mass media.
Rep. Karen Bass said the public outrage following the killing of Floyd was critical for the movement, but wished it didn’t take “the world witnessing an individual being tortured to death—on video– for the country to be shaken.” But, Bass said people made connections between that tape and the injustices that riddle US history books.
According to Garza, in order for the nation to move forward, it must undo the practices that cause divisions amongst itself. BLM aims to address those divisions by lobbying for cuts to police departments’ budgets in several major cities and voting rights legislation that would amplify and Black voices in the electoral process and protect marginalized groups.
Bass has dedicated herself to helping make that change. She sponsored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, a bill that was drafted by House Democrats — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus — to reform a wide range of policing practices and increase law enforcement accountability and transparency.
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House in June 2020, but has not yet been introduced on the Senate floor.
According to Bass, federal and local change in policing is a necessary step towards protecting the rights and lives of the Black community. But, until the root causes of inequality in America are addressed, all advancements are fleeting, she said. She believes that fixing various health, social and economic problems is the key to bringing about substantive change.
Turning the cries of the Black community into real change has faced opposition, both from former President Donal Trump and other conservative lawmakers. Garza believes that this is because the U.S. is caught in a culture war that does not prioritize the challenges being faced by marginalized communities.
“We had an administration that wasn’t interested in solving problems-especially as it relates to our communities,” she said.
Last July, Trump denounced the BLM movement in a tweet, reproving New York City’s decision to paint the slogan in front of Trump Tower and calling it a “symbol of hate.” Republican legislators in 34 states have introduced more than 80 anti-protest bills thus far in 2021. Some of those bills sought to prevent the cutting of police budgets and provide some legal protection to people who injure protesters.
The danger, Garza warned, is the perception that politics just isn’t working. In order to keep the fires of the movement burning, she said, Black communities must feel the changes in their communities — and soon.
To those disappointed and discouraged by the lack of progress, Bass asked that people stay involved in the democratic process.
“Politicians cannot work miracles,” she said.”Until we get rid of these rules, until we increase our majorities, we are stuck.”
The panel also recognized the advancement in racial equity and increased support for underserved communities since the transition of power to the Biden-Harris administration. But, Bass worries that the administration’s statements about closing the gap and addressing racism haven’t been strong enough, she said.
One particular instance that disappointed Garza was Vice President Harris’ response to the Republican Party’s rebuttal following President Joe Biden’s April 28 speech to Congress. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only Black Republican in the Senate, contended “America is not a racist country.” Harris agreed with Scott that the country is not racist, but noted its racist history.
“This shouldn’t be the level of fight that it is right now,” said Garza.
Garza believes that the effort required for the smallest changes can be attributed to the public disagreement surrounding the idea of what racism is.
As long as that is up for debate, she said, America is not going to make much progress.
The panelists ended the discussion addressing a key issue plaguing the country: Will we see legislation on voting rights and police reform?
“Absolutely yes,” Bass said. “They’ve tried everything and they can’t stop the browning of America.”
Garza says the way forward is staying engaged and mobilized.
“We’ve got to stay mad as hell...” Garza said. “We’ve got to take this on and own it as if our futures depend on it – because they do.”