In May of 2020, protests, demonstrations, rallies, and rebellions sprung up across the United States in response to the recorded police murder of George Floyd. In many respects, these actions resembled the then-established pattern by which viral instances of anti-Black police violence sparked group demonstrations that were in turn met by repressive state violence. That summer, the streets were filled with many of the same demands, chants, signs, and people present at the demonstrations against the state-sanctioned killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and the countless other killings to follow. One slogan and movement in particular came to define the summer of 2020: Black Lives Matter.
But the popular mobilization of 2020 differed from those of years past both in quantity and quality. For one, the pandemic that had already torn apart the fabric of American society made the very act of protesting mean risking contact with a deadly virus. Despite that—or, perhaps, in part because of the way that COVID lockdowns had fundamentally disrupted our collective sense of reality—the 2020 demonstrations were of a size and scope unknown to American public life. An estimated 15 to 26 million people participated in this nationwide movement, enough for the New York Times to suggest that it was the largest in American history. Measuring this movement by tallying the number of protests or participants, however, misses its cultural and political dimensions. These mass demonstrations ushered in a social transformation that appeared to revolutionize how many (largely white) Americans perceived race, power, and politics. As phrases like “white privilege,” “antiracism,” “Black Lives Matter,” “defund the police,” and so on proliferated across social media, in storefront windows, and at dinner tables, American society seemed to undergo a long-overdue reckoning.
Yet the widespread participation that made this movement the largest in American history also rendered its goals and methods uneven. By some accounts, this was an uprising where masses occupied physical space, made radical demands to defund or abolish the police, and stood defiant against an oppressive state. For many others, though, 2020 marked the start of a conversation, a call for White America to “do better,” or another data point on the arc of history’s predetermined bend toward justice. In a sense, this was a mass movement without a fully developed mass politics, one in which a protest organized by prison abolitionists could have signs present that read “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.” The flipside of the movement’s massive numbers was that the larger it got, the harder it became to identify its political demands; aside from agreeing that George Floyd’s recorded murder was an unacceptable exercise of state violence, few values can be said to have been shared across the movement’s roughly 26 million participants.