UT Dallas historian explains why Floyd killing was a turning point in the fight to end police brutality

Anger and frustration around police brutality and racism nationwide reached a boiling point with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

An expert at The University of Texas at Dallas said years of racial injustice paired with the tense moment in today’s society may explain why Floyd’s death became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Protests against police brutality are not new and can be traced back to Emancipation in the 1860s, said Anne Gray Fischer, an assistant professor of history who specializes in policing and political movements. In the 1960s, there were hundreds of uprisings in response to police violence, she added.

“The struggles we are seeing today are bound up with the longer history of the black freedom struggle since the Civil War,” she said.

There was a brief period following the Civil War when police forces were made up of freed slaves charged with targeting white terrorists, such as the Ku Klux Klan. By the late 1800s, local law enforcement generally became protectors of wealthy white people and their property, she said.


“Protecting some comes at the expense of others, and that zero-sum logic has consistently proven itself to be white protection at the expense of black lives,” she said.

Over the course of decades, black Americans have witnessed police officers not only turn a blind eye to violence but also sometimes participate in it, Fischer said. This has created an environment where many black Americans do not see police as protectors but rather as terrorizers, she said.

“For black people in the U.S., the police are a constant presence in their minds, and that presence carries with it a lethal threat of violence,” she said.

Part of why police brutality has continued is because reform proposals, such as better training and more inclusive hiring, have had little impact on the level of police authority, Fischer said.

“The calls we’ve seen in the last 50 or 60 years don’t materially change police autonomy, discretion or power,” she said.

Compounding the issue of excessive power is the militarization of police forces, Fischer said. Increased federal and state funding over the years has been allocated toward the purchase of military equipment, such as tanks, riot gear and military-grade weapons, she said.

“[This happened] alongside legal rulings that empowered police to act with full discretion and to shield themselves from accountability,” she said.

Better training depends on internal police oversight, but society has witnessed the repeated failure of police to enforce their own code of conduct, Fischer said. This has contributed to the erosion of trust between citizens and officers, she said.

“In the Twin Cities, it was only after public protests that the police involved with George Floyd’s murder were then charged,” she said. “It was actually quite surprising that they were fired in the first place.”

A big part of the solution would be more public oversight, Fischer said. Floyd’s death was caught on video, but there are many instances of police violence that are hidden from public view, she said.

“[Public oversight] is something that police departments have historically resisted because they want full autonomy to practice their methods in the way they see appropriate or that they see fit,” she said.”

Priorities have shifted with this latest incident, Fischer said. Instead of fighting for oversight, people are now questioning whether funding for police would be better spent on education, health care and basic social services.

“Money that could be going to invest in communities is being drained away and lavished on police departments,” she said.

For Fischer, the outrage that followed Floyd’s death would likely not have reached the level it did if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

Black people are more at risk for contracting the virus and are also dying at a much faster rate than those who are not black, she said. These disparities are rooted in political and social inequality, such as inferior access to health care, she added.

“All of these public health issues that disproportionately impact black communities are being revealed in the pandemic,” she said.

Protesters are motivated by a tremendous sense of urgency to solve a problem that goes back at least 150 years, Fischer said.

“We’ve been experiencing generations and generations of violence and the devaluing of black lives, and I think people are extremely frustrated,” she said. “Yet, at the same time, they’re hopeful that by going on the streets and making their voices heard, that that will affect some meaningful change.”

From a historian’s perspective, protests are useful because they serve as an enduring source of inspiration for future generations, Fischer said. The public’s view on whether violence is an effective form of protest is also beginning to shift, she said.

“People seem to be coming around to the idea that black lives are more valuable than property,” she said. “Property can be replaced, can be insured, can be rebuilt. George Floyd’s life cannot.”

Fischer said she hopes Floyd’s death will enact meaningful change and will give way to a shift in policy. But an end to police brutality cannot happen without police giving up some of their power, she said.

“If police can show an active commitment to de-militarizing themselves, de-escalating violence, to standing down and relinquishing their total authority ... I do think that would be an important first step,” she said.
By Olivia Lueckemeyer
Olivia Lueckemeyer graduated in 2013 from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree in journalism. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2016 as reporter for the Southwest Austin edition before her promotion to editor in March 2017. In July 2018 she returned home to the Dallas area and became editor of the Richardson edition.


MOST RECENT

Grizzly Burger House's menu includes the Hawaiian cheeseburger and more. (Courtesy Grizzly Burger House)
Grizzly Burger House now serving hamburgers, more in Richardson

The restaurant offers a variety of hamburgers as well as breakfast dishes, Philly cheesesteaks, chicken strips and more.

Chicken-fried steak and eggs ($11.99) are served with hash browns and Texas toast. (Courtesy The Cottage)
The Cottage eatery opens in Roanoke and more DFW-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Feeding Texas hosted a Jan. 19 webinar to discuss legislative highlights for the 87th Texas Legislature. (Screenshot courtesy Feeding Texas)
Food insecurity in Texas' 87th Legislature: Hunger relief organization Feeding Texas to propose legislation addressing hunger

Hunger relief organization Feeding Texas hosted a webinar Jan. 19 to discuss increasing funding and accessibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the 87th legislative session.

SPENGA North Dallas Richardson is currently open and plans to hold a grand opening event Feb. 1. (Courtesy SPENGA North Dallas Richardson)
SPENGA North Dallas Richardson opens local fitness studio

SPENGA offers one-hour group training workouts that include 20 minutes of spin, 20 minutes of strength training and 20 minutes of yoga.

Volunteers prepare care packages for those found unsheltered and facing homelessness on the night of the point-in-time count in 2019. (Courtesy Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance)
Annual homelessness count adapted to answer questions brought on by pandemic in Collin, Dallas counties

The point-in-time count in Collin and Dallas counties will not look like it has in recent years, when upward of 1,000 volunteers would canvas the streets to get an accurate count of the number of unsheltered residents facing homelessness.

COVID-19 vaccines
DATA: Texas has vaccinated about 9% of estimated Phase 1 recipients

Over 1.1 million individuals from the Phase 1 population, which is estimated to include 13.5 million individuals total, have received at least one dose.

Bob Popinski, policy director of Raise Your Hand Texas, shared the organization's top education priorities for the ongoing legislative session. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
‘What does virtual learning and remote learning look like moving forward?': Raise Your Hand Texas policy director talks legislative priorities

Bob Popinski is the director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based organization committed to improving public education. He spoke with Community Impact Newspaper in late December about the 87th legislative session, which began Jan. 12.

iDanz Performing Arts Studio offers dance lessons in various styles, such as hip-hop, jazz, tap, ballet, Afro-fusion and more. (Courtesy iDanz Performing Arts Studio)
iDanz Performing Arts Studio to hold open house for new Richardson location

The studio’s instructors specialize in dance, choreography, show production and artistic development.

A Layne's Chicken Fingers restaurant will open in Roanoke in 2021 at the site of the former Dairy Queen on US 377. (Courtesy Layne's Chicken Fingers)
Layne's Chicken Fingers to open in Roanoke; meat, seafood market set for Frisco and more DFW-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The British Emporium offers a wide selection of imported goods and groceries. (Courtesy The British Emporium)
British Emporium to continue operating at Fish & Fizz in Richardson

The business offers traditional British foods, such as brandy butter, mince pies, crackers and more.

The new 945 area code will be deployed Jan. 15 for the region that presently uses area codes 214, 469 and 972. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Frisco gets new area code; Popeyes to open in McKinney and more top DFW news

Read the top news from the past week from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Burnt BBQ & Tacos' menu offers several different barbecue and taco options. (Courtesy Burnt BBQ & Tacos)
Burnt BBQ & Tacos opens in Plano and more DFW-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.