June 11, 2020 by Jessie Cheng
“This is terrible.” “I have no words.” “Sending my thoughts and prayers.” “When will it stop?” “Change is needed.” On June 3rd, over 28 million Instagram users posted black squares with the hashtag #blackouttuesday. Just a week since then, mainstream social media has already forgotten about George Floyd and the need to fight for concrete political change.
For African Americans, racial injustice is a lifelong battle. For the rest of us, our distance from the direct impact of discrimination means we do not need to confront it every day. But for activism to create lasting political change, it is necessary for protests to continue beyond the span of public outcry’s initial rush. Without continuity, the public drowns out its own voice, and awareness can only be temporary. However tenacious the tide of activism was a week ago, the public has already retracted its attention from the murder of George Floyd, rendering the overall war against police brutality short-lived and incomplete.
Last year in America, more than a thousand black people were killed by the police. Yet only the death of 46-year-old George Floyd, captured in a video showing white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin suffocating Floyd by kneeling on his neck, spurred national insurgence. Of course the straightforward and indisputable moral inferiority in Floyd’s case warrants the political world’s outcry, but where was social media during the deaths of the other thousands of police brutality victims?
The last incident resembling Floyd’s death was that of Eric Garner in 2014, whose words “I can’t breathe” since became a rallying phrase of the Black Lives Matter movement. While Garner’s family continues to cope with their trauma, the rest of us shifted our focus elsewhere long ago. Following a peak of outcry, public support for change dwindles until the next shocking tragedy demands our unified commiseration.
It is not that we are ignorant. Rather, the public has a short attention span when it comes to issues affecting marginalized groups of society. And when the public forgets, politicians get away with dropping political change from their agendas. While Floyd’s murder has set off an uproar, non-black communities have already ceased to support Black Lives Matter and similar movements with the same strength.
This cycle of numbing and diminishing support occurs not only with police brutality. In the wake of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, when a former student opened fire and killed 17 people, the March For Our Lives protests drew over a million students onto the streets to stand against gun violence. Yet in the year since Parkland, there have been a total of 31 school shootings, none of which received significant attention from mainstream media. While some individuals continue to participate in social action, the majority of the public moved on.
A tragedy should not be necessary for the public to speak out against injustices in our political system. But sadly, the attention span of the public is limited. What is important, and promising, is the amplification of activism against political injustice following each new incident. Though much frustration over George Floyd’s death feels hauntingly familiar, more public figures and celebrities are acting in solidarity, protests today extend beyond national borders, and movements have raised tens of millions of dollars to support activist causes. Are we doing enough? Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. History will judge not only the strength of our actions, but also their continuity. For thorough and lasting political change to occur, passion, outcry, and protest cannot be temporary.
Jessie Cheng is a Grade 12 student at SMUS.