TN Politics: George Floyd Inspired a Wave of Reforms, and Backlash

May 28, 2021

Scene from a George Floyd protest in Memphis in 2020.
Credit Katie Riordan

A year has passed since a Minneapolis police officer killed a black man by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes in view of bystanders who were prevented from intervening by other police officers.

The murder of George Floyd continues to drive debate at every level of government, says political analyst Otis Sanford. 

In the immediate aftermath, protests erupted across the country and while a vast majority were peaceful, some resulted in violence and looting. In one of the many consequences of the George Floyd murder, Republicans in Congress have reframed those protests as an argument against forming a commission to look into the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It would be hypocritical, they say, for Democrats to investigate the sacking of the U.S. Capitol building by Trump supporters brandishing racist iconography -- nooses and Confederate flags -- without also focusing negative attention to Black people protesting systemic racism. 

Here in Tennessee, House Democrats introduced legislation to address problem areas in policing. Called the George Floyd Act, it was tabled for much of the year. The state's Republican supermajority overwhelming agreed to two reforms -- restricting the use of chokeholds and banning no-knock warrants (which was the focus of the simultaneous Breonna Taylor protests). 

But since the presidential election, Tennessee Republicans lawmakers pivoted to a platform with an overtly racist agenda. It has been clear, for example, that many of numerous instances of drivers running over street protesters are politically motivated. Tennessee Republicans joined other states this year in trying to give legal immunity to people who run over protesters, and also making street protests a felony offence. While it did not pass, one of the legislature's final acts this session was banning "critical race theory" from being introduced to Tennessee's public schools.

Mark White, a Republican of Memphis and chair of the education committee, said he believed history should be revised to indicate that everyone is treated equally in the U.S., or as he has said, to observe the Golden Rule -- "do unto others"  and end the "blame game," which would necessitate ignoring centuries of white colonialism and systemic oppression of people of color.  He believes white children are discriminated against when informed that the color of their skin affords them certain historical advantages in the U.S. 

Political analyst Otis Sanford argues that this backlash against Black people stems in part from the progressive gains made -- mostly by local authorities -- to reform policing in the wake of the George Floyd protests.