Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway.
Protesters: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last May, activists organized protests against police brutality in the biggest cities and smallest towns across the US. Everywhere from New York City and Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine, and Wilmington, North Carolina. We even saw protests reaching communities with populations less than 1,000, like Millerton, New York, where at least one person stood with a Black Lives Matter sign. Several polls estimate that between 15 and 26 million people in the US participated in demonstrations last summer.
In almost every pocket of the country, people marched and they chanted, they prayed, they knelt, they stood and sat and laid in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Even though we later learned Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for even longer, 9 minutes and 29 seconds. In some cities, protesters blocked freeways, they filled entire streets. They demanded justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, all in the thick of a deadly global pandemic.
These mass public actions demanding justice we're not restricted to the United States. People in Thailand, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, and across the globe, demonstrated in solidarity with Black Americans. In the UK, people came together in London, not only to condemn Floyd's murder but also to protest the police violence and systemic racism, all too familiar in their own lives.
Protester: Justice for Black people, justice for all Black people.
Protesters: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: At the heart of these global protests was a reckoning with the Imperial histories and the racist practices that continue to shape the lives of marginalized and oppressed populations. In Bristol, a city in South West England, protesters even toppled a statue of a 17th-century slave trader and dumped it into the harbor.
In France and Australia, the murder of George Floyd resonated with Black and Aboriginal people who are all too often killed in police custody.
Protesters: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In Indonesia, the uprisings following Floyd's death inspired the indigenous Papuan population, to take to the streets and to social media, with Papuan Lives Matter. In Nigeria, months after the summer's protest, the spirit of Black Lives Matter was felt during the country's #EndSARS movement, which called for the dissolution of this Special Anti-Robbery Squad due to its widespread abuses, including torture and killings.
The culture and the politics of Black Americans has long been agenda-setting for social movements around the world. The global impact of George Floyd's murder and the movement it ignited is no exception.
Protesters: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here to discuss that and more is Omar Wasow. He is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. Omar, thanks for joining us.
Omar Wasow: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Omar, clearly neither racial justice nor state violence are new or even particularly rare. Why is it that this moment resonated across the globe?
Omar Wasow: I think there's three main reasons that murderer George Floyd was so powerful. First and foremost is the video, particularly Darnella Frazier's footage that just in a way that was just very visceral, very intimate, very powerful, allowed people to see the profound indifference to human suffering that officer Chauvin indicated as we could watch the life drain from George Floyd's face. That footage really was exceedingly important. That's an echo of what we've seen in the past where, whether it was Emmett Till or Rodney King, the documentation of in particular state violence can be very powerful at mobilizing people.
Another really important factor is that Chauvin himself was just so extreme in his level of indifference. This wasn't an ambiguous situation. It was just very stark, so much so that we saw other police forces criticize that behavior which we almost never see.
Lastly, I think that the timing in the midst of the pandemic meant that one of the core challenges for any social movement is trying to get a bunch of people to show up at the same place at the same time. People always have things going on in their lives, but during the pandemic, suddenly, people were able to focus on this particular injustice to a degree that would have been much harder without the pandemic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate that because it reminds us that protests don't just pop up, they don't just emerge, they are actually organized by activists who bring people together in those spaces. They're also, in addition to the work of activists and organizers, there's also those what you have written about as seeds, those seeds of an agenda. Actually, just this week, you publish an academic paper in the APSR, titled Agenda Seeding, and thinking about 1960's Black protest movements, I'm wondering about the ways that Black American movement for freedom have ceded agendas abroad before. Is this something that we've seen happen?
Omar Wasow: Yes. It's a great question. I think part of what is, for me, deeply fascinating about how social movements work is the way that they learn from each other. for example, just to go back to the 1940s, Bayard Rustin, a key influence on Martin Luther King's commitment to non-violence. Rustin goes to India to learn from disciples of Gandhi about their non-cooperation movement.
We've seen similar echoes of the current Black Lives Matter movement as the introduction that's really helpfully outlined on movements around the world. In particular, the emphasis on police violence, on unjust state violence, that has helped to focus-- When those incidents arise in a place like Colombia, in recent weeks, people have described it as their own George Floyd moment. In that way, there's a template and a sense of legitimate outrage at state violence that helps to mobilize people building on what they've seen in Black lives matter in the US.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I appreciate that you started with Rustin because that shows us the Black Atlantic, the currents moving the other way, but it does often feel as though it was only from US-centric out. I'm thinking of us learning just yesterday that Sasha Johnson of Black Lives Matter activists in the UK, is in critical condition after being shot. We don't know, from initial reports, whether this shooting was directly related to her activism, but still, I wonder about, for example, the capacity of Sasha Johnson to be a figure, like George Floyd, also reigniting movements here in the US.
Omar Wasow: We definitely see this kind of cross-pollination happening in many different contexts. Even, for example, there was the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, and that helped influence the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States. Some of that is about tactics, there's a particular method of protest, like occupying a space, but in other cases, like what you're describing, their ways in which an iconic figure can become a rallying point for a movement.
We also see, just to speak to the international dimensions, there are ways in which sometimes they're activists moving from one place to another learning from each other. The scholar Zeynep Tufekci, for example, has talked about how people in Turkey, who organized a protest in Istanbul, also helped share some of the methods they learned with folks in Tahrir Square.
There is, and particularly in the age of the internet, there are ways in which people are communicating, sharing tactics, or trying to figure out how can they get their voice heard. In the particular case you're saying, it's obviously still too early to say whether the UK might influence the US in this specific case, but it's certainly happened historically.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You dropped social media there. I just want to think about the ways though, that that has sometimes looked a little different relative to global actors. We're being celebratory of this idea of ideas and activism moving back and forth, but in the 2016 elections here in the US, foreign entities actually exploited Black Lives Matter language and images to work against interests of racial justice. How can we navigate that question of these illegitimate uses globally?
Omar Wasow: One of the core challenges for any social movement is to capture the moral high ground and hold it, and there will always be a counter mobilization that tries to delegitimize the claims for equality or justice of that movement. What I find in the 1960s is there are tactics. It requires, often, extreme kinds of methods, but making oneself the object of state violence, the strategically doing that, and getting media coverage of those kinds of attacks, that, of course, can lead to trauma, injury, and death, but help to elevate an issue and do it in a way that helps to just illuminate the injustice in a very profound way. That kind of tactic can work, but it's very hard to sustain.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Omar Wasow, is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He's also a little bit the whole reason that I know about the BlackPlanet, and those questions of global organizing. Omar, thank you for your work for so long. Thank you for joining us.
Omar Wasow: Thank you for having me. I'm really grateful.
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