By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
The cry for justice for George Floyd has gone worldwide, as thousands of people thronged streets in cities and towns across the globe over the weekend to stop runaway police brutality and to demand equality under the law. It has been a long wait for African Americans in particular, who have endured a chronic epidemic of killings by police and racism. (Pictured above: a partial list of those slain, written on the street in Minneapolis where Floyd was suffocated by police.)
In Bristol, England, protesters toppled the statue of a slaver and rolled it into the sea. From Richmond, Virginia, to Birmingham, Alabama, several Confederate statues in the United States, erected to preserve a notion of racial superiority, are or will be gone. Washington, D.C., saw more than 10,000 people protesting Saturday alone, many of them masked to deter COVID-19. The city’s mayor had christened an area near the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza—and demanded the removal of military and National Guard units. On Sunday, the White House said it ordered the guard to withdraw.
False reports spread on Facebook of mysterious—and it turns out, nonexistent—outside leftist rabble-rousers that would join the marches. Those rumors so frightened small-town residents and businesses that some boarded up and grabbed weapons to protect their town centers from, as it turned out, simply peaceful local protesters. Many police departments ended up joining in the many protests in hamlets, towns, and cities in America, which each living former U.S. president endorsed. The Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Sen. Mitt Romney, marched with 1,000 members of a church group in Washington on Sunday “to make sure that people understand that Black Lives Matter.” (Below, a speaker at the Lincoln Memorial.)
The marchers also demanded their community leaders break the paralyzing chokehold of police unions, which have kept scores of bad cops on police forces. Some protesters seek to better protect city residents from shifting city funding from the militarized police approach to civilian mental-health professionals and social workers (and teachers, often paid a fraction of the police base+overtime salary). In a historic move, on Sunday the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to shift to this approach. Last week, dozens of new examples of police brutality have flooded American screens, angering taxpayers who saw the frequent police use of gas and projectiles like rubber bullets, which have caused serious injury.
Historically, some efforts to intimidate underrepresented people have boomeranged—the police repression against women protesters did not stop women from getting the vote a century ago; the snarling dogs and police beatings of unarmed civil rights protesters in Alabama led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Perhaps the outrage today over the massive militarized response against the people of the nation’s capital may propel long-running efforts to grant statehood to the District of Columbia and its 705,000 residents.
With 9 of 10 Americans polled agreeing with the charges against the Minneapolis police who suffocated George Floyd—or saying charges should be heavier—the snowballing protest may galvanize and embolden people to hold their public officials to account. The thousands of protesters in Washington this weekend seemed determined on that front. “I want to be a part of the change,” said Michael Shipman, sitting on a bench with his 10-year-old son, Ayzeyh. "I'm trying to teach him the same thing.“
The hint of momentousness also led Howard University student Shel Evans to bring along her 9-year-old daughter, Christin: “[I] wanted her to be able to see this,” Evans said. “This is history."
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Instagram photo of the day
Seeking justice: One of the thousands marching in Washington, D.C., this weekend for justice, Maria Modlin walked with a group of protesters from the Lincoln Memorial to Lafayette Square. "I am so happy to be alive at this time to be a part of this great movement. It’s ‘we the people.’ Not ‘them the people,’" she said. Said one speaker at the Lincoln Memorial, Philomena Wankenge: "Don’t underestimate the youth, because we are a force to be reckoned with.”
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Today in a minute
The 7,500-year-old face: Analysis of a Neolithic skull has revealed not only how she looked but also where her people, in modern-day Gibraltar, originated. About 90 percent of her DNA indicated heritage from far to the east, in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. Subscribers can read more here.
A blockbuster Maya discovery: Lasers helped researchers discover an enormous 3,000-year-old earthen platform topped with a series of structures, including a 13-foot-high pyramid. The find, in Mexico’s eastern Tabasco state, has been identified as the oldest and largest monumental construction discovered in the Maya region, Tim Vernimmen reports for Nat Geo. The total volume of the structure is greater than the largest Egyptian pyramids, says archaeologist Takeshi Inomata. “When you walk on the site, you don’t quite realize the enormity of the structure,” Inomata says. “It’s over 30 feet high, but the horizontal dimensions are so large that you don’t realize the height.”
Volunteers for history: During the COVID-19 quarantine, people volunteered to transcribe historical documents from the Smithsonian. The extra help has led to transcriptions of astronaut Sally Ride’s letters, Rosa Parks’s recipes, and Walt Whitman’s poems, the Washington Post reports. “There is a strange meditative aspect to it,” says one volunteer, Meghana Venkataswamy. “It’s enough to take one’s mind off of whatever else is happening in their lives”—including the pandemic.
The big takeaway
Before George Floyd: This image is of a silent protest of more than 3,000 black people through Washington on June 24, 1922, demanding an end to lynchings. One sign read: “Congress Discusses Constitutionality while the Smoke of Burning Bodies Darkens the Heavens.” From 1877 to 1950, more than 4,400 black men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs, DeNeen Brown writes for Nat Geo. Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, says this legacy of injustice—and America’s refusal to reckon with it—persists to this day. “So when Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor or George Floyd are killed, the immediate instinct of police, prosecutors, and too many elected officials is to protect the white people involved,” Stevenson says.
Related: It’s systemic, and more than protests are needed
In a few words
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The last glimpse
When Chinese stood up for change: This is an image of students marching though Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. They were among millions of people throughout China who wanted a more representative government. With the end of the Cold War, they didn’t see the need for the authoritarian rule of the few. Hard-line Chinese leaders launched a massacre of the pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989. China’s rulers have never apologized for its killings of some of the nation’s best and brightest; instead, Beijing has spent the last 31 years trying to erase the memory of its murders from history. Last week, Beijing banned Hong Kong’s annual vigil to massacre victims, but people showed up anyway. “Commemorating what happened there,” Erin Blakemore writes for Nat Geo, “has become its own form of protest.”
Read: How a peaceful protest at Tiananmen Square turned into a massacre