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February 21st, 2022

Anniyah Shelton

The Sparks of Change: 

Why the Protests of George Floyd are a Turning Point in American History

I. Introduction

“I can’t breathe,” were the last words that were cried out by a Black man named George Floyd in the Summer of 2020. After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, more than 4,700 protests erupted across the United States from the first protest in Minneapolis on May 26th until July 3rd, 2020. In the beginning of July 2020, at least 1,360 counties or more than 40 percent of counties in the U.S. had a Black Lives Matter protest for George Floyd. Contrary to previous Black Lives Matter protests, 95 percent of counties that protested for George Floyd at the time were majority white. Additionally, surveys conducted in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles during the Summer of 2020 indicated that the majority of protestors were white. Experts have observed an increase in the number of white protesters that attended the protests for George Floyd compared to the number of white protestors of the Civil Rights Movement. The incredible amount of white participation in the protests for George Floyd displays how this movement was unprecedented in American history. The diversity and size of the protests, the media’s focus during the protests, and the COVID-19 pandemic were all factors in amplifying the 2020 protests for George Floyd and transforming this social movement into a turning point in U.S. history.

II. Diversity and Size of the Protests 

The protests of George Floyd have been named the largest and one of the most diverse movements in American history. Figure 1 represents protestor data that was collected from the beginning of June 2020 until the beginning of July 2020 in Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. According to the data, 54 percent of protestors were white, 21 percent of protestors were Black, 7 percent of protestors were Latinx, 11 percent of protestors were Asian or a Pacific Islander, and 8 percent of protestors were multiracial. Not only are these protests observed by experts to be more ethnically and racially diverse than previous progressive movements during the Trump presidency, experts found the protests for George Floyd to be more diverse than the March for Racial Justice in 2017, previous Black Lives Matter movements, and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. This data clearly demonstrates how racially diverse these protests were at their peak. 

Source: The Brookings Institution

Similarly, a Pew Research Center study showed that those attending a protest for George Floyd were more diverse and younger than the American population altogether. While 11 percent of America is Black, 17 percent of those who attended protests in early June 2020 were Black.  Comparatively, 64 percent of all US adults are white while 46 percent of the people who attended protests that focused on racial equality in early June 2020 were white.  While the protesters were certainly diverse, they were also young with 41 percent of the protestors being between the ages of 18 and 29. The protests for George Floyd generated more active white participation in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and even translated to substantive and meaningful change across the country when recent social movements have yielded minimal results. With an unprecedented level of white participation in the protests and demographics that are more diverse than the American population overall, the protests for George Floyd were arguably some of the most diverse social movements in American history. 

According to early June 2020 polls, the size of the protests for George Floyd ranged from 15 to 26 million people in the U.S. These numbers far outnumber the highly organized Women’s March of 2017 and Civil Rights marches. While the Women’s March of 2017 had a turnout of about three to five million in a single day, the Black Lives Matter protests for George Floyd would collectively be five times as large according to some polls. These numbers make the protests for George Floyd the largest movement in American history, displaying the sheer scope of these protests in the Summer of 2020. Most importantly, a social movement that is the largest in American history established by a coalition as diverse as America indicates a universal agreement across racial and ethnic differences that Americans are demanding a country that is more fair and promotes justice for all of its citizens. 

III. Social Media and Mainstream Media Coverage on the Protests

 Social media and traditional news organizations reveal other factors that sparked the frustration and demand for change evident in the 2020 protests for George Floyd. According to a Pew study graphed in Figure 2, #BlackLivesMatter has been used about 47.8 million times on Twitter, amounting to 3.7 million times per day between May 26 and June 7. The increase in hashtags is directly connected to the timing of George Floyd’s death with #BlackLivesMatter passing 1 million tweets after his death. On May 28, #BlackLivesMatter received a groundbreaking 8.8 million tweets, making this the highest number of Tweets containing #BlackLivesMatter in a day. The number of #BlackLivesMatter hashtags shows the amount of engagement that Black Lives Matter amassed after the death of George Floyd and thus the amount of awareness raised about issues affecting people of color in America. 

Source: Pew Research Center

Another example of online activism is Blackout Tuesday. This campaign was pioneered by music artists on Twitter to motivate more people to reflect on the killing of George Floyd. People posted black squares on both Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Blackout Tuesday was a successful method for celebrities with large online platforms to raise awareness about police brutality and racism in America. Tiffany Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, and Mick Jagger posted a black screen on their social media accounts condemning the social injustices happening to Black Americans. Mick Jagger stated, “It is heartbreaking to see America tearing itself apart again over issues of race.” 

In another Pew Research Center study, it was found that Americans were following the protests of George Floyd in June 2020 just as closely as the COVID-19 outbreak. While 46 percent of Americans watched the COVID-19 outbreak ‘very closely,’ about 42 percent of Americans say they watched the 2020 George Floyd protests ‘very closely.’ The numbers indicate that the protests for George Floyd had just as much media coverage as the COVID-19 pandemic.

There has also been a difference in opinion about how much media coverage focused on the nonviolent protests or the acts of violence around the protests for George Floyd. While about 51 percent of Americans said that the nonviolent protests for George Floyd received too little coverage, 44 percent of Americans believe that the destruction surrounding the George Floyd protests received too much coverage. Lastly, a majority of Black Americans believe that news coverage has been covering the decision to prosecute the officers involved in George Floyd’s death and the larger issue of race in America too little. Clearly, Americans were following the George Floyd Protests of 2020 closely as social media played an outsized role in spreading awareness online and news organizations failed to correctly cover what Americans wanted to witness. The outcry of support on social media and the type of coverage desired by Americans on the George Floyd Protests confirms that many Americans deeply cared about the protests and simultaneously advocated for change that would improve the livelihoods for people of color.

IV. Impact of COVID-19 on the Black Community

COVID-19 has impacted people of color, specifically Black communities, much different than white communities in America. The U.S Census Bureau of Labor Statistics documented in Figure 3 how Black communities experienced more unemployment than white communities during the pandemic. The pandemic has shown the systemic issues that Black communities have to face on a daily basis. Even before the pandemic, Black people were “more likely to be poor, less likely to have health insurance and more likely to work in the front-line jobs that put them at risk of both infection and unemployment during the pandemic.”

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

During the pandemic, the US Census Bureau found that Black people were more likely to face job loss, food insecurity, financial instability, and more anxiety. The combination of these factors has led to Black people not being able to pay their rent and 11.1 percent of Black people not having enough food to eat compared to white people.  Overall, Black communities were found to have struggled more financially, mentally, and physically than white communities during the pandemic. The protests for George Floyd were a culmination of Black communities facing police brutality, racism, and a greater effect of the pandemic than white communities. After disproportionately suffering from a litany of dilemmas stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Black communities and people of color used the protests for George Floyd as a pivot in American history to demand a more equitable America.

V. Conclusion

The impact of the George Floyd protests have made an imprint on the American people with the diversity of the movement showing a mutual realization of racism still persisting in America, the attention the protests garnered on social media and in news organizations focusing on different topics, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Black community. We are already seeing the results of the protests for George Floyd too. In Austin, the city has successfully defunded the police. Austin was able to cut $20 million from the police department and move $80 million more from the agency by rearranging certain responsibilities to other organizations. Police funds were reallocated to medical services for COVID-19, community medics, mental health resources, food access, and more. The change in the police budget even allowed the city council to buy two hotels and support homeless residents in the city. Austin was able to successfully implement the reallocations of funds to services in the community and many more states have been able to do the same. The protests for George Floyd have been incredibly impactful and generated significant change, showing that Americans can make a difference through collective organization and advocacy.



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Barroso, Amanda, and Rachel Minkin. “Recent Protest Attendees Are More Racially and Ethnically Diverse, Younger than Americans Overall.” Pew Research Center. June 24, 2020. 

Buchanan, Larry, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” The New York Times. July 3, 2020.  

Cooper, Gael Fashingbauer. “Blackout Tuesday: Protest against George Floyd’s Death Spreads Far beyond Music.” CNET. June 2, 2020.  

Fisher, Dana R. “The Diversity of the Recent Black Lives Matter Protests Is a Good Sign for Racial Equity.” Brookings. July 8, 2020.

Harman, Amy, and Sabrina Tavernise. “One Big Difference About George Floyd Protests: Many White Faces.” The New York Times. June 17, 2020. 

Levin, Sam. “These US Cities Defunded Police: ‘We’re Transferring Money to the Community.’” The Guardian. March 11, 2021.   

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Mitchell, Amy, Mark Jurkowitz, J. Baxter Oliphant, and Elisa Shearer. “Majorities of Americans Say News Coverage of George Floyd Protests Has Been Good, Trump’s Public Message Wrong.” Pew Research Center. August 20, 2020.    

Monte, Lindsay A., and Daniel J. Perez- Lopez. “Covid-19 Pandemic Hit Black Households Harder than White Households, Even When Pre-Pandemic Socio-Economic Disparities Are Taken into Account.” July 21, 2021.  

The New York Times. “How George Floyd Died, and What Happened Next.” The New York Times. November 1, 2021.