To help listeners understand the origins of the social unrest of May & June 2020, we created this special supplemental episode that provides historical background & context for turbulent current events. The large turnout & enthusiasm for the current Black Lives Matter protests occurred because of social developments that have been festering for decades: growing police militarization, continuing racial inequities, failing US health care preparation for a pandemic, escalating economic inequality, & media-driven political polarization. In addition to discussing the long-term & short-term causes of the protest movement, this episode discusses conflicts between protesters, counter-protesters, & law enforcement, and examines the public perceptions of these demonstrations. The program concludes with informed speculations about the movement's likely impact on the future of American politics & society.
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This is “From Boomers To Millennials,” Episode 9C, “Living Through History,” a special supplemental episode of our Modern US History podcast providing background about current events. If you prefer our regular year-by-year historical content, you may want to skip to our next episode. But we think if you stick around, you’ll find it worth your while. This episode will provide you with historical context for the current protest movement & civic unrest in the United States. This program reflects the situation when we recorded it during June 2020. Future listeners will be aware of specific subsequent developments; for this reason, we focus on the big picture & general long-term trends leading up to Spring 2020. Ours is a well-researched but subjective & incomplete overview of the background to the present situation. Nevertheless, at this time, when so many people are trying to have their voices heard, this is our attempt to use our platform to shed some light on the historic context of current issues.
One of the most important factors leading up to the protest movement of summer 2020 was the militarization of police departments in the United States during the 21st Century. Our key source on this topic is a 2013 book titled “The Rise of the Warrior Cop” by journalist Radley Balko, currently of the Washington Post. Listeners may be surprised to learn that Balko does not have the ideological background you might expect of someone critical of police policies. He began his work on this issue at the Cato Institute, a right-leaning free-market libertarian think tank. His book critiquing the over-militarization of police gained praise from publications on both sides of the US political spectrum.
The buildup of police muscle began during the late 20th Century. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, high crime was a serious problem in urban areas of the USA. There was heavy pressure on politicians to take bold action to reduce crime. According to Balko, new laws passed during the Nineties allowed police departments to begin buying military-style equipment from the Defense Department. Local law enforcement agencies often gave this equipment to their Special Weapons And Tactics (or SWAT) teams. These teams were first developed by the Los Angeles Police Department (the LAPD) as a response to the riots & insurrections in that city amidst the turmoil of the 1960s. During the 80s & 90s, more & more cities of various sizes incorporated a SWAT unit into their police departments. Balko notes (Quote) “With all that military gear [allowed by 90s crime bills], plus . . . federal drug policing grants . . . just about anyone running a police department who wanted a SWAT team could now afford to start & fund one” (close quote). As a result, police in quiet small towns obtained the arsenal needed for SWAT forces. Balko contends that this development was usually unrelated to any significant increase in crime in local municipalities, but was instead driven by (quote) “a kind of masculinity-infused arms race between police agencies” (close quote).
In the decades that followed, supporters of continued militarization of police sometimes justified this stockpiling of military gear by citing the inherent violence of American society, particularly the issues of terrorism & mass shootings. After the events of September 11, 2001, terrorism provided a rationale for further militarization of the police based on an assumption that anyplace in the US could be victimized by foreign terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security liberally doled out grants to local law enforcement enabling them to buy military-style equipment in preparation for terrorist attacks. Balko writes that (quote) “Defense contractors . . . shifted their focus to police departments, hoping to tap a new homeland security market . . . expected to be worth $19 billion [dollars] annually by 2014” (close quote). Fortunately, there were relatively few major terrorist acts in the USA during the 2 decades following 9/11. The vast majority of police did not need to deploy their new equipment against terrorism. Balko reports that small town departments argued (quote) “the equipment was necessary ‘just in case’ of the rare school shooting or Al Qaeda attack . . . But once they [got] the gear, they [mostly used] it for drug raids” (close quote). Militarized SWAT teams began using massive force, which sometimes included throwing nonlethal stun grenades when bursting in upon suspected lawbreakers (whom often were only accused of nonviolent drug crimes). Suspects were usually terrified & occasionally injured or even killed during these SWAT raids that made use of overwhelming force. Some citizens reported law enforcement officers shooting their household pets during such raids. Balko argues that (quote) “police are almost always cleared of any wrongdoing in these [pet] shootings. An officer’s word that he felt a dog posed a threat to his safety is generally all it takes” (close quote).
The US violent crime rate began to drop during the mid-1990s & continued to do so for the next 2 decades. Despite this, high-profile violent incidents kept the US public fearful & supportive of heavy-duty police capabilities. Above all, mass shootings proliferated since the late 1990s. In one of the deadliest incidents, 20 elementary school children were savagely gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut by a disturbed young man during December 2012. In another appalling tragedy, a gunman perched in a Las Vegas hotel room killed 58 & injured hundreds of people attending a country music festival during October 2017. Given the recurrence of such mass-casualty events, police capacity for a massive response seemed necessary. Yet even militarized police were not able to solve the problem of mass shootings. Balko notes that at the 1999 Columbine High massacre in Colorado that kicked off the new epidemic of school shootings, a SWAT team arrived while the shooters were still murdering their fellow students, but it (quote) “held off from going inside . . . because they deemed the situation too dangerous” (close quote). Balko indicates that subsequent SWAT team responses to school shootings have been better & more proactive than the police response to Columbine, but he notes that they have nevertheless usually been unable to stop shooters before they had taken numerous lives.
Of course, a major factor enabling these violent incidents was the sheer ubiquity of deadly weapons. The rate of gun sales in the USA repeatedly spiked during the first 2 decades of the 21st Century. According to the New York Times, almost 2 million guns were sold during the month after Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential reelection. Sales reached similar numbers in March 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Journalist Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports that (quote) “there are more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the US, or enough for every man, woman, & child to own one and still have 67 million guns left over” (close quote). Police defended their arms buildup by pointing out that they never knew what kind of arsenal they might be facing. Given the country’s gun violence problem, most Americans believed police to be vital public employees to maintaining safe & orderly communities. Indeed, American law enforcement officers faced an often-difficult job that forced them to deal with many stressful situations. Their duties required them at times to encounter highly volatile people, many of whom were not the stereotypical “career criminals” that police traditionally have focused efforts upon. Because the US health care system did not adequately provide treatment for the unpredictable mentally ill, such individuals often ran afoul of law enforcement if they became disruptive in public. According to medical expert E. Fuller Torrey, it appears that (quote) “at least one-third . . . of all officer-related shootings result from the failed mental illness treatment system” (close quote). Because the federal government & local authorities did not adequately provide medications, shelter, & treatment to people suffering from mental illness, that task fell to law enforcement, which was bad for the police (who generally were untrained to handle mentally troubled people) & bad for those in need of psychiatric care. Dr. Torrey writes that (quote) “jails & prisons have become America’s new psychiatric inpatient system” & “the sheriffs, police, & courts have become the new psychiatric outpatient system” (close quote).
Despite their facing the unpleasant challenges of having to interact with a potentially armed population that includes troubled individuals, data indicates that 21st Century American police officers did not face an extremely dangerous job. Obviously, being a member of the police involves a lot more risk than the average office job; over 100 cops die on the clock each year. However, Balko finds that (quote) “The job of police officer has been getting progressively safer for a generation. The number of officer fatalities peaked in 1974 & has been steadily dropping [ever] since. In fact, 2012 was the safest year for police officers since the 1950s” (close quote). According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, law enforcement was not 1 of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the US during 2018. Journalist Beth Braverman finds that bureau data indicates fishermen, loggers, ranchers, steel workers, sanitation workers, & truck drivers all faced more danger of dying on the job than police officers. Workers with these important jobs may not be celebrated as “heroes” in American culture in the same way that police often are, but they have a greater risk of workplace fatality. This decrease in danger for police can be explained largely by the growing numbers of officers, their increased firepower, & their top-notch protective equipment, which allows police to overwhelm & outgun criminal suspects in confrontations.
In the 21st Century, many other developed countries had taken different approaches to law enforcement, & most had a far lower rate of police shootings than the United States. In 2018, every major Western European country had less than 15 fatal police shootings, compared with over 1,000 people killed by police in the USA that same year. Time Magazine recently reported there are (quote) “19 countries worldwide where police officers are typically unarmed, & permitted to use guns only in exceptional circumstances” (close quote), including Norway, Iceland, Finland, & the UK. The U.S. was one of the few developed countries where firearm ownership was common & legally regarded as a Constitutional right for civilians, making policing more dangerous. The USA remained reluctant to emulate other nations’ law enforcement & criminal justice systems.
Melissa Chan of Time Magazine notes that (quote) “it’s rare to see officers indicted for killing civilians” & “convictions are [even] rarer” (close quote). American juries were often persuaded by officers’ assertions that they shot out of a reasonable fear for their lives. One negative consequence of this is that some police may be more reckless because they know they are unlikely to face career-threatening consequences for violent actions against citizens. A civilian committing a violent assault in 21st Century America could face criminal charges & would also face personal civil liability under tort law. Police officers, on the other hand, were rarely charged with crimes, & those who used excessive force did not face personal civil-law consequences, because the local government employing the officer had to foot the bill for fighting or settling a lawsuit. Because of city contracts with police unions that shield individual officers from misconduct-related disciplinary or termination proceedings, officers may not face personal consequences even if their misbehavior provoked multiple misconduct lawsuits that cost the taxpayers a great deal of money. Balko observed that (quote) “You could make a good argument that police should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens” or that “they should be held to the same standard. But it’s hard to conceive of a convincing argument that they should be held to a lower one. But that’s exactly what we’ve done” (close quote).
Another major causal factor that contributed to the current protests in 2020 was the USA’s long history of treating African-Americans as a subordinate caste, one that had been economically marginalized & harshly policed. Most people of African descent in the United States were not descended from immigrants who came to the North American continent by choice; their ancestors were instead brought here in bondage via the slave trade. The militant American black leader Malcolm X memorably told his supporters in a 1964 speech: (quote) “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock . . . landed on us. We were brought here against our will; we were not brought here to be made citizens” (close quote). The era of slavery was followed by a feudalistic sharecropping system that allowed Southern blacks only slightly more freedom than they’d had under slavery. A Jim Crow legal regime also denied them any meaningful say within the democratic process. This history of southern segregation was fairly well-known by most Americans educated in the post-Civil Rights era, but most people were less well-informed about the discrimination faced by Northern blacks in housing, employment, & education that kept them effectively segregated.
During the 1960s, there were riots & insurrections in urban centers across the United States, & one of the key trigger points was police abuses within struggling black neighborhoods. This phenomenon repeated itself during the ensuing decades, such as with the LAPD beating of Rodney King caught on videotape in 1991. A heavily-white suburban jury then acquitted the officers who beat King, & this verdict sparked several days of rioting in Los Angeles during April & May 1992. Two decades later, outrage over the 2013 acquittal of a volunteer civilian neighborhood watchman who shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin in Florida inspired the “Black Lives Matter” (or BLM) protest movement. In subsequent years, the BLM movement have protested police shootings of a number of black citizens, including Tamir Rice of Ohio, Michael Brown of Missouri, Eric Garner of New York, Philandro Castile of Minnesota, & Breonna Taylor of Kentucky. Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement countered with their own slogans of “all lives matter” & “blue lives matter,” but BLM activists viewed these phrases as an attempt by those uncomfortable with the issue of police violence against African-Americans to change the subject.
Anger persisted in part because of the disproportionate number of black Americans who experienced negative encounters with the police. Pew Research Center data from 2015 indicates that 18% of African-Americans reported being “unfairly stopped by police” within the past 12 months. In contrast, just 3% of white Americans said they had been unfairly stopped. Racial inequities in the 21st Century United States were not limited to interactions with law enforcement. Even after programs like affirmative action that were designed to alleviate racial disparities, the 2015 Pew data shows that Blacks & Hispanics continued to lag behind Whites & Asians in terms of average educational attainment. The black community also continued to suffer from higher levels of unemployment & poverty than the US population at large.
Another factor contributing to the 2020 protests was the unease, disruption, & underemployment that existed in US society because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. This deadly disease has killed over 120,000 Americans so far. It has required people to quarantine themselves at home (when possible) & to wear protective masks in public. The pandemic has badly disrupted the US economy, with small businesses & lower-income workers facing the most financial uncertainty. The virus’s trajectory reflected the nation’s racial & socioeconomic disparities. According to journalist Emma Grey Ellis, writing in Wired magazine, the Centers for Disease Control finds that racial minorities have suffered a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 cases & fatalities. For example, (quote) “In Wisconsin, a state that is only 6% black, black people account for about half of its Covid-19 deaths” (close quote). Most members of the medical community interviewed by Ellis were not surprised that the novel coronavirus epidemic has disproportionately impacted African-Americans. Ellis argues that (quote) “structural inequalities have kept black Americans significantly poorer than their white counterparts . . . [they] tend to live in more polluted, more densely populated areas . . . & are overrepresented in settings where people are unable to effectively social distance, like prisons & homeless shelters. They disproportionately work jobs currently considered essential, yet also are far less likely to have paid sick leave” (close quote).
There is historical precedent for public outrage following a disease epidemic. After the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 came the Red Summer of 1919, a time of terrible racial tension & racist violence. Perhaps the fear, pressure, & pent-up energy of being under quarantine created an atmosphere conducive to an outburst of rage again in 2020. The fact that numerous people were at home rather than at the office, & were discouraged from congregating indoors, meant there was no shortage of available participants prepared to take part in outdoor protests. Increased news consumption during the pandemic also helps explain the massive outcry that occurred in response to a graphic incident of police brutality.
One other long-term factor must be noted to understand the US protests of 2020: forty years of growing income inequality. According to the Washington Post, by the 2010s, the wealthiest 400 individual Americans controlled more wealth than the entire bottom 60% of the US population. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that between 1998 & 2018, common household expenses (including health care, childcare, higher education, & housing) had become more expensive for middle-class people (even when controlling for inflation). A declining standard of living helped contribute to an overall shortening of average American lives. OECD / World Bank data found that US life expectancy stopped increasing & actually began to decline for 3 straight years starting in the mid-2010s. In the Great Recession’s aftermath, a rising stock market did little to mitigate the continuing decline of the middle class. More & more Americans expressed support for far-left or far-right movements that sought to upend the political status quo. This background of political anger & polarization helped create an environment in which Black Lives Matter protesters & counterprotesters were discontented enough to take their beliefs & their grievances to the streets.
The specific catalyst for the current unrest was a video of American police brutality that went viral around the world. In May 2020, a group of Minneapolis Police officers detained & handcuffed a 46-year-old African-American man named George Floyd for passing a fake $20 bill. Floyd, distraught at the prospect of being arrested, fell down on the ground as officers tried to put him in the squad car. It appears Officer Derek Chauvin was angered by Floyd’s lack of cooperation, & he proceeded to press his knee into the prone man’s neck for over 8 minutes. Despite Floyd’s protestations that he could not breathe, & the outcry of bystanders, Chauvin continued his chokehold, & other officers observed it without intervening. Only after Floyd had stopped moving & breathing did Officer Chauvin finally release his grip. Onlookers had used their mobile phones to videotape the encounter, & soon the footage of an unarmed black man dying at the hands of police was being circulated on social media & attracted nationwide news coverage.
The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd started in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, but quickly spread to towns all across the US. Demonstrators expressed outrage over the racial profiling & police brutality implicated in the death of George Floyd & other black men & women in recent years. Most demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful. However, the presence of heavily armed riots cops created an atmosphere of tension at many protests. Radley Balko notes that in recent years activists have expressed growing concern over police responding to political demonstrations by arriving en masse wearing (quote-unquote) “Darth Vader-like” black armor. One activist stated (quote) “When the police come to a protest dressed like that, armed, & expecting confrontation, both police & protesters start to think that a confrontation is inevitable” (close quote). During the protests of 2020 there were numerous incidents of heavy-handed police tactics, such as the use of tear gas & rubber bullets to disperse crowds. A particularly egregious moment was caught in a video depicting Buffalo police shoving an elderly man to the ground & leaving him there as he bled from his skull.
In other situations, conflict broke out between pro-Black Lives Matter protesters & counterprotesters opposed to their cause. In some cases, people upset over the demonstrators’ criticisms of the police seized & ripped up their protest signs. In Salt Lake City, a 57-year-old white man stepped out of his car & threatened protesters with a knife & a bow-and-arrow. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, (quote) “The crowd responsed by attacking [the man] & flipping his car. The vehicle was burned. Police pulled [him] out of the melee,” but the man who had threatened the crowd was later charged with a felony for (quote) “aiming his weapon at protesters.”
There were other notable exceptions to the general rule of peaceful protest. Some participants in the demonstrations engaged in aggressive behavior, including property damage. The social acceptability of wearing masks at protests during the pandemic may have made protesters (on both sides) believe that they had sufficient anonymity to get away with reckless actions. Unemployment from the pandemic had caused an increase in economic insecurity, which may have influenced some protesters’ decision to participate in looting of stores. Other looters & vandals acted out of political anger, or were simply chaos-loving opportunists, taking advantage of the volatile situation to engage in various forms of property destruction.
It is difficult to generalize about those few demonstrators who engaged in destructive actions. On the Right, some commentators alleged these acts were being directed by a conspiracy of Antifa groups, the American version of Europe’s “antifascist action” left-wing street-fighters. Based upon these unsubstantiated theories, the USA’s Rightist President, Donald Trump, characterized Antifa as a terrorist organization. Among liberals, there was sympathy for the outrage that racial discrimination caused African-Americans, but concern that illegal actions went too far & were counterproductive. Some liberal politicians & black activists accused white anarchists of putting minorities in danger by committing property destruction that might be blamed on African-Americans. On the Left, commentators debated whether looting & vandalism could be politically justified. Leftists also expressed concern about agents provocateur; reports circulated of people with military-grade equipment methodically destroying property & quickly leaving the scene. Some alleged these were undercover police or right-wing troublemakers trying to escalate chaos in order to justify a massive crackdown. Most vandals wore masks, so responsible parties often could not confidently be identified, leaving spectators to interpret events through their own ideological prisms.
The fractured broadcast & online media environment caused public reactions to vary significantly. Some on the Right defended the police, even when they wielded excessive force against the protesters, & some on the Left defended the protesters, even when they were pointlessly destructive. People of any political persuasion could find mobile-phone videos on social media that backed up the narrative they were already inclined to support. However, the demonstrators appeared to be winning the early media battle for hearts & minds. Vox.com reported that a June 2, 2020 poll from Reuters indicated that almost 70% of Americans were at least somewhat sympathetic toward the protesters.
In spite of this degree of public support of the protests, the US federal government had a largely unsympathetic response to the unrest. President Trump, in one of the few consistent political positions of his decades-long career as a real estate magnate turned professional celebrity, had a history of praising violent crackdowns on protesters. Politico reports that in a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump defended the Communist Chinese government’s murderous July 1989 attack on unarmed pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The future president said (quote) “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were . . . horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak” (close quote). In response to the demonstrations protesting police mistreatment of black citizens, Trump stated (quote) “I am your President of Law & Order,” & he subsequently called for the US military to be deployed against protesters & looters across America. However, he soon received pushback from the military establishment limiting the success of this proposal, & former military leaders such as Jim Mattis & Colin Powell criticized the plan, suggesting that it was constitutionally inappropriate to use the nation’s armed forces against US citizens.
This narrative brings us up to the turbulent present. The protests have continued for weeks. Prominent current & former politicians have attempted to respond to protesters’ call to reform police procedures. According to the Chicago Tribune, former President Barack Obama (who had attempted some modest reforms while in office) now (quote) “asked mayors across the nation to sign a pledge to review their city’s use-of-force policies, engage communities for their input, report their findings, & reform the policies” (close quote). The Boston Globe reported that in Congress, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash (a libertarian-leaning independent & former Republican) joined with progressive Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts to propose a bill ending the qualified immunity of police officers from civil lawsuits. In some urban municipalities, political momentum is likely to effect change to local policing policies, as has already occurred in Minneapolis & other cities. However, presidential veto power & continued Congressional gridlock means immediate changes to federal laws remain unlikely. It remains uncertain whether the protest movement will succeed in altering the political & economic status quo, or if they will instead provoke a political backlash among a silent majority of anti-reform Americans. The destruction of various statues has created controversy even among those who support the protest movement in principle. It also remains to be seen whether the unrest will lead to a long-term mitigation or escalation of American racial tensions. The multiracial composition of the protests is a significant break with past urban uprisings, which were mostly limited to African-American communities. One thing seems clear: criminal justice policy will receive higher priority & attention within the American political conversation than it has in the past. Furthermore, the protests may have ushered in a new era of increased social activism in the United States not seen since the 1960s & 1970s. In 2020, America’s future appears anything but certain, & anything but boring.
Please join us next time, when we will return to the Fifties & at long last release our Season One finale, Episode 10, entitled “Understanding the Baby Boomers’ Childhoods,” which will cover events of 1955 with a particular focus on social & cultural history. If you like what you heard in this episode, do us a favor & follow our show on Twitter & Instagram. If you really want to be a hero, you can support us with a Patreon donation, help us grow by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts, or recommend “From Boomers to Millennials” to a friend. You can find a list of the many sources we consulted in researching this episode on our Patreon page. If you have thoughts, suggestions, compliments, or complaints about this episode that you would like to share with us, you can reach us via e-mail at [email protected]. Thanks, as always, to our listeners. Please stay safe out there, & keep on listening