'I can’t breathe': The refrain that reignited a movement

By Jasmeet Sidhu, Senior Researcher, Amnesty International USA

“I can’t breathe"

Three words uttered by George Floyd as his life was extinguished beneath the knee of a police officer in the USA have again become a rallying cry for racial justice and police reform in the U.S. and across the globe. The last time these words sparked an uprising, they were cried out by Eric Garner as he was killed by police in New York City in 2014. In a showing of historic solidarity- the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the US’ Civil Rights Movement- millions of diverse crowds have taken to the streets for weeks, protesting, chanting, kneeling, and demanding change, not just in the United States, but also around the world.

#BlackLivesMatter, a simple call for racial equality, has become a freshly renewed motto for reimagining policing, now supported by two-thirds of US Americans. Widespread protests have overtaken the streets of the United States for more than four weeks, with no end in sight.

Astonishingly, if unsurprisingly, the protests in the USA calling for an end to police violence were met with more police violence. Amnesty International has documented many of these instances in our recently released interactive map, pinpointing over 125 incidents where law enforcement unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets, impact rounds, pepper balls, even bikes and batons against protestors who included young children, in some cases targeting journalists, legal observers and medics.

During the time of these ongoing protests worldwide-- despite the police repression in the USA-- real and meaningful change has occurred. Here are ten examples of change that has come about in the USA since the protests began.

  1. The officers involved in George Floyd’s death were charged

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, leading to Floyd’s death, has been arrested with charges enhanced to second-degree murder following protests, and three other former officers involved in the incident have also been charged with lesser offenses. This is an important step towards accountability not just for George Floyd, but for all victims of police violence. 

Scene from the racial justice protests in Washington, DC following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA. Scene from the racial justice protests in Washington, DC following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA.
Alli Jarrar/Amnesty International
  1. Conversations on defunding police have begun

In a shocking move, a majority of Minneapolis city council members, the city where George Floyd was killed, pledged to disband the city’s police department and instead implement a novel community-led safety model. In Los Angeles, the mayor proposed slashing up to $150 million of the LAPD’s budget. Mayors in other cities including Boston, MA, Lansing, MI and Seattle, WA have also said they would consider cutting police funding.

  1. Monuments memorializing the US’ racist history have been removed

In Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Birmingham, Washington D.C., Richmond, San Francisco, and dozens of other US cities, monuments and statues dedicated to individuals with racist pasts and legacies have been removed, including those honoring Christopher Columbus, Frank Rizzo, Captain Jay Banks, Robert E. Lee, Junipero Serra, Charles Linn, and Albert Pike, among others.

  1. New laws at state and local levels addressing police reform are being passed

Here is a list of some of the legislation that has been swiftly passed in recent weeks:

  • The cities of Denver, Colorado, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Houston and Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and Phoenix, Arizona have all banned the use of chokeholds in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death;
  • Iowa, New York, and Connecticut passed statewide laws or issued executive orders banning the use of chokeholds by law enforcement;
  • Seattle, Washington banned the use of chokeholds and teargas following law enforcement’s use of the gas against protestors;
  • Washington, DC implemented a three-month ban on the use of rubber bullets or chemical irritants on peaceful protestors;
  • Louisville, Kentucky banned "no-knock" search warrants in the city, by unanimous vote.
  1. Federal lawmakers introduce new laws to address police reform and racism

Bills addressing qualified immunity for law enforcement, use of body cams, racial profiling, use of force standards, policing transparency through data, enhanced police training, and other reforms have been introduced. On 25 June 2020, one side of the USA’s legislative body, the House of Representatives, is expected to pass the Justice in Policing Act with a number of positive provisions. However, the companion proposal in the other legislative body (the Senate), the Justice Act, falls woefully short on human rights.

  1. Police use of force standards are being modified and reevaluated by police departments, and some departments are taking swift action in response to violence
  • Various police departments across the USA reevaluated and banned chokeholds in the wake of George Floyd’s death, including Aurora, Michigan; Phoenix, Arizona; and San Francisco, California; among others;
  • Mayors and law enforcement officers from Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; and Columbia, South Carolina have joined together to create a Police Reform and Racial Justice Working Group;
  • For the first time in two decades, New Jersey, under the direction of their attorney general, will update its use of force rules for all police;
  • The New York Police Department has committed to disbanding its problematic plain-clothes anti-crime unit;
  • Two Buffalo, New York police officers who- without provocation- shoved a 75-year-old peaceful protestor, cracking his skull, have been arraigned on felony assault charges. Law enforcement officers in several other cities who engaged in excessive force against protestors have also been charged with offenses ranging from assault to harassment.
  1. Sports leagues acknowledge impact of racism on the industry

In an extraordinary reversal of course from just a few years ago, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) banned the Confederate flag from all racing events. The Association stated: “The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”

The National Football League (NFL) Commissioner owned up to the league’s past mistakes, citing their failure to recognize players’ criticism of racism and peaceful protests against police brutality against African Americans. The league also pledged to give $250 million over ten years to fight racism.

Scene from the racial justice protests in Washington, DC following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA. Scene from the racial justice protests in Washington, DC following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA.
Alli Jarrar/Amnesty International
  1. Corporations Take Action to Address Racism

While business leaders still have a long way to go in addressing racial inequity and bias in the industry and workplace, some have taken encouraging steps in the past few weeks.

  • Amazon imposed a moratorium on police use of the company’s facial recognition product Rekignition.
  • Johnson & Johnson addressed colorism by pledging to halt sales of its skin lightening creams, which allude to fairer skin as preferable to darker tones.
  • A unit of PepsiCo Inc with purview over the Aunt Jemima Syrup brand, will retire the name and image of Aunt Jemima, branding clearly rooted in offensive racial stereotypes. The company also plans to spend $400 million to support Black communities over the next five years.
  • Famed coffee conglomerate Starbucks Corp loosened its staff policy, allowing employees to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts and pins to demonstrate their support stance against racism.
  1. Juneteenth is considered for observance as a national holiday

The 19th of June is observed as the earliest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, known as Juneteenth in the USA. Federal legislators introduced legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday. Only four states across the USA did not recognize the date as a state holiday or observance: Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Employers across the USA including companies like Twitter, Nike, Mastercard and Vox Media made Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employees.

  1. President Trump Signs Executive Order Re: Banning Chokeholds

After weeks of protests and pressure from impacted communities, President Trump signed an executive order incentivizing police departments to ban chokeholds with federal grants, and requesting law enforcement to create a national registry tracking law enforcement who have a record of excessive force. Amnesty International is unsatisfied with the Executive Order and believes there is much more that needs to be done, but it is a positive outcome that global pressure has forced the administration to do something.

Of course, much more change is needed at all levels, and activists and organizers are continuing to do the work make real, lasting change. It is worth noting that the people of the USA and in countries around the world, alongside leaders in the civil rights and global human rights movement, have persisted in demanding that Black people be treated equally and that police be held accountable for their racially biased policing and use of force. Their unrelenting voices and the injustice of George Floyd’s death have brought about meaningful social change, united a movement for equal rights, and compelled activism and action in the midst of a global pandemic. This movement for justice, accountability, and equality is a marathon, not a sprint, and we know that with global solidarity, we will prevail.