A year after George Floyd's death, America is still grappling with police violence and reform

"Justice for George Floyd looks like George Floyd actually being here."

May 25, 2021, 8:15 AM

At 23, Afeni Evans had just gotten out of the Army and was studying political science at a community college in Maryland. Her goal was to someday help craft policy from inside the government.

But on Tuesday, Evans will mark one year since her "entire life definitely changed" -- the day that George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in an incident that was caught on video in excruciating detail.


Remembering George Floyd

A year after George Floyd was killed, ABC News dives into the cataclysmic, generation-defining moment that led to change around the world.

Within hours, Floyd's name spread from the corner of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street, where witness Darnella Frazier, a high school student, made a 10-minute cellphone video capturing the 46-year-old begging Chauvin and two other officers helping to hold him down for his life.

Watch "After Floyd: The Year that Shook the World -- A Soul of a Nation Special" streaming now on Hulu

When Evans finished watching the video in its entirety, she said she felt an initial swell of anger.

People march during an event in remembrance of George Floyd in Minneapolis, May 23, 2021, as the one year anniversary approaches.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

"At that moment, I watched that video and knew George Floyd definitely deserved better, and that I was going to do my part, at least, to make sure that he didn't die in vain," Evans told ABC News.

Millions of people like Evans who had seen the same footage -- many of whom had been cooped up in their homes due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic -- poured into the streets in an unprecedented show of protest. They demanded change in policing and buttressed a broader racial reckoning.

The moment united people across racial and ethnic lines from coast to coast, galvanized a new generation of young activists and led to some reforms.

It also prompted a moment of crisis for law enforcement and, for some, deepened the already simmering political divisions in the country.

"This video comes out, and we are reminded all over again how Black people are treated in this country and how our lives are just stolen from us without a second thought," Evans said.

Evans said she left college and went to Washington D.C. But instead of working in government as she had once hoped to do, she became a full-time community organizer and self-described "warrior for justice" on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. At one point, Evans said she protested for more than 200 straight days in the District of Columbia, getting arrested multiple times for alleged civil disobedience, being shot with rubber bullets and tear-gassed.

Afeni Evans, 23, says she left college and became a full-time protester and community activist after watching a viral video of George Floyd's death.
ABC News

"A year ago was my first time protesting ever, or being this politically active," Evans said. "I doubt that a lot of people go outside for their first protest and then end up becoming a full-time organizer in a year."

In December, Andre Hill, 47, was fatally shot in Columbus, Ohio, by a white police officer now facing a murder charge, when he emerged from a friend's garage holding a cell phone. The officer has pleaded not guilty.

In April, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot dead by a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center after being pulled over for having an expired tag on his car. The officer, who claimed she mistook her gun for her Taser while she and other officers scuffled with Wright, has been charged with manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty.

"I really think that it's unfair for Black people to continue to be killed in this country and nothing really changes," Evans said.

'Rainbow movement'

Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, told ABC News that Frazier's video was "the straw that broke the camel's back" after years of protests over Black lives lost at the hands of police and the disproportionate use of force against members of the community.

A Northeastern University study published in March 2020 found that Black Americans were twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers, compared with their representation in the population.

And an ABC News analysis of arrest data voluntarily reported to the FBI revealed that in 800 jurisdictions, Black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people in 2018, after accounting for the demographics of the cities and counties those police departments serve.

"That video really allowed the world to observe that moment," Wasow said of the Frazier video. "I think the public is beginning to appreciate that there's a pattern and that pattern reveals something that many in Black America understood, but may not have been as visible to much of non-Black America."

The widespread outrage over Floyd's death also caused an "incredible awareness in the halls of Congress," Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., told ABC News. She credited the "rainbow movement" of protesters and activists with forcing elected leaders on both sides of the aisle to confront the issue of abusive policing.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Southern California, sponsored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the House in March sent to the Senate.
ABC News

Bass said for the last 50 years, the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she is a member, tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation related to policing.

That changed on March 3 when the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Bass sponsored, aiming to hold police accountable for wrongdoing, banish long-criticized law enforcement practices like chokeholds and no-knock warrants and create a nationwide registry of bad cops.

The legislation is now being mulled over by the Senate and President Joe Biden, who plans to meet with Floyd's family on Tuesday at the White House. Biden urged lawmakers in his joint address to Congress in April to send the policing reform bill to his desk to sign into law.

"The key ingredient that was different this time was the massive movement that took place in every single state," Bass said. "The difference this time, especially in the protests, is that it became a rainbow movement. It was multiracial people, of every ethnic group ... (that) turned out in the streets."

Polls conducted last summer, including ones by the Pew Research Center and Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 16 million to 26 million people in America participated in at least one BLM protest following Floyd's death, making it the largest social movement in U.S. history.

We were stained

Robert Boyce, the retired chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, said the yearlong push to reform, defund and, in some instances, abolish the police in the wake of Floyd's killing has cast a cloud over the nation's 18,000 police agencies.

"I think after last May when we saw the tragic end of George Floyd's life, we were all in law enforcement very upset by it and repulsed, as most people were," said Boyce, an ABC News contributor. "We were stained across the country as being Derek Chauvin, and we're not anywhere close to that. But this particular incident was so revolting, and so senseless, that I really think it changed the way policing will happen across the country."

Boyce said that he and others in law enforcement agree with many of the proposals in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, such as banning racial profiling and chokeholds, and giving the federal government more leeway to investigate local police agencies and force changes in practices and policies to emphasize de-escalation over the use of deadly force. Some advocates for the legislation say it's a first step in creating a national standard of policing.

"We could do better. There's no question," Boyce said, referring to the legislation. "I think what you got to see is national standards across the country. It's high time for that."

But Boyce disagrees with the part of the legislation calling for an end to qualified immunity for police officers, a judicially created doctrine that shields officers from being held personally liable in lawsuits for constitutional violations.

"When you take action as a police officer, you're acting on behalf of the city, nothing personal. You're doing the city's work, you should be indemnified by the city. It's as simple as that," Boyce said. "You're putting in the head of police officers that they won't be backed up by the city when they take action, when they're compelled to take action."

Advocates for ending qualified immunity counter that police will think twice before they act if they know they can be held personally liable.

Some cities, like Minneapolis and Louisville -- where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician was fatally shot during a no-knock search warrant on her apartment in March 2020 -- have already implemented significant police reforms, outlawing chokeholds and imposing severe restrictions on the use of no-knock warrants. Elected officials in other cities, including Austin, Seattle, New York and Portland, Oregon, voted in 2020 to reallocate funds from police agencies to other services like housing and mental health assistance.

But creating a blanket policy for all police departments has been difficult and rife with disagreement, leaving some rank-and-file officers feeling as if they are under attack.

"I mean the fact of the matter is we have 18,000 police departments in the United States and 18,000 ways of policing," Rep. Bass said. "And you would think with any profession you would want to have national standards and accreditation."

Comparisons to the civil rights movement

A USA Today/Ipsos poll released in June 2020 showed that 88% of Americans were following news of the early days of protests that erupted over Floyd's death. Terms such as "Black Lives Matter," police reform," "protests" and even broader terms like "police" were searched on Google more in June 2020 than at any other point in the search engine's 22-year history.

Wasow said social media played a huge role in quickly spreading the word of Floyd's death and in organizing demonstrations with lightning speed.

Demonstrators take part in a protest, June 3, 2020, in downtown Los Angeles, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was restrained by Minneapolis police.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP, FILE

"A key strategy of the civil rights activists in the late 1950s and early '60s was to organize protests so they could be documented by TV news crews as a way to move public opinion and force change," Wasow said. "Now individual activists with just a smartphone can try to document state violence on their own."

As with the civil rights movement, modern-day advocates for police reform are facing a "short window when the nation says this is urgent and legislation gets passed," according to Wasow.

He noted that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed within a year of the March on Washington, and that the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act came on the heels of a series of civil rights marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

'You cannot train brutality out of American policing'

Protesters and community organizers such as Afeni Evans say they feel what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called "the fierce urgency of now." Evans believes it's time to scrap the existing model of policing in America and start from scratch, given that there have been more police killings and excessive force incidents since Floyd's death.

"You cannot train brutality out of American policing," Evans said. "Justice for George Floyd looks like George Floyd actually being here, like there's nothing that a settlement can do, there's nothing that this guilty verdict (against Chauvin) can do to actually combat the fact that George Floyd is no longer here, Breonna Taylor is no longer here ... All these Black people that have been killed by the police, no matter what we do, we can never bring them back."

She said the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act falls short of what she and many other activists would like to see -- which is fewer police officers and more money going to improve healthcare, education and to create higher-paying jobs in minority communities.

Evans said the past year has also given her resolve that she and many others in her generation, Gen Z, are rising to meet the challenge.

"We know what we're doing is going to place us on the right side of history," Evans said. "I really think that we reflect the government we're all fighting so hard to have."

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