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Historians wonder: Is this a watershed moment?

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, many observers of the nationwide protests weighed in on social media with their historical assessments.

Some draw comparisons to the 1960s, or talk about what Martin Luther King Jr. would and wouldn't have wanted, or look at the protests that have turned violent and say: This is not the America I know.

But how are historians processing this moment in the context of U.S. history?

The Day reached out to history professors at Connecticut colleges and universities whose specialty areas include African American history, race and ethnicity, civil rights and/or social activism.

Five people gave phone interviews this past week: David Canton from Connecticut College, Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar from the University of Connecticut, Siobhan Carter-David from Southern Connecticut State University, and Scott Gac and Cheryl Greenberg from Trinity College.

Same story, different reaction

These historians are sadly not surprised by another incident of police brutality against a black person.

Canton is seeing what he refers to as "'Groundhog Day' of police brutality." Carter-David said this "is the American way, so I'm not particularly surprised by anything that's unfolded."

The killing of Floyd reminded Ogbar most immediately of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police — the bystanders, the recording, a black man face-down on the ground saying he couldn't breathe.

"It seemed almost like an example of street theater: This is what policing can do; this is my warning to all," Ogbar said, noting he read Chauvin's actions as "a demonstration of just his hubris."

But while historians aren't surprised by another incident of police brutality, they are surprised by the scope of the reaction this time.

"The only time we've come close to what we're seeing now is after King was assassinated in April 1968," Ogbar said. But that was in 125 cities and unrest didn't last as long. Ogbar said Thursday, "Having nine straight days of protests and actually global demonstrations is unprecedented. I've never seen anything like this before."

Canton said the demonstrations of the 1960s happened primarily in black neighborhoods and shopping districts, whereas protests are now happening downtown.

He said another change is that current protests are interracial. Speaking of other demographic anomalies, Carter-David said she was shocked to see police officers taking a knee and Mennonites out protesting.

Another difference Canton sees is that in the past, protests were more systematic.

"There was training, it was organized, it was a complex system governed by black institutions — churches, black colleges, social organizations," Canton said.

Civil rights movement was complex

"I think that when people think of the civil rights movement, they have sort of key moments that come to mind in their sort of cardboard interpretations of very, very complex events, people, movements, ideas," Ogbar said, citing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington.

The reality, he said, was that there were five major civil rights organizations with different strategies and goals. Both he and Gac described Malcolm X as a "foil" to King.

Ogbar said when people heard Malcolm X saying he doesn't believe in the American government and black people would be best served by creating their own nation-state with a right to defend themselves, King "all of a sudden became a lot more attractive." That made white Americans more willing to consider compromises, something Ogbar thinks is often left out of the conversation.

He noted that "sometimes the most recalcitrant forces change because of some threat of violence," and people will find extralegal means to fight legal injustices.

"Give me one time in U.S. history when monumental change happened because people asked nicely," Carter-David said. "It hasn't. It hasn't at all. That's just not human history."

Greenberg said the elevation and valorization of King says to schoolchildren that ordinary people don't have power and we have to wait for the next great leader, while the reality is that he was effective because there was a grassroots movement of people behind him marching and boycotting.

"Behind every leader was a group of marchers and behind every group of marchers was somebody cooking for them and somebody clearing the way and somebody paying their bail," Greenberg said.

What will it take for change to happen?

There have been points in history when people thought an event was a watershed moment at the time, only to not see lasting change. For example, Gac was in college when the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and he thought the consequent uprising in 1992 was going to be a pivotal moment.

An example Greenberg gave was the school segregation that remained after Brown v. Board of Education, but she noted many historians point to this as a spark that created groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"There's a case where the failure of something to change then provoked a change later," Greenberg said.

Canton said the "difference between the moment and the movement" is sacrifice, that if you look at SNCC in the '60s, "that was your job 365, not just the reaction but being proactive about Jim Crow racism."

In the present day, he said, there will be CNN specials and corporations running to embrace diversity, but the ultimate test is whether there's real policy and systemic change. That, he said, will require "doing something that's inconvenient" — not just going on Change.org, and getting off Netflix and Instagram. His fear is that young people — the ones he said tend to change societies — will be angry for two to three months and then go back to their lives.

Canton does not see police brutality improving if President Donald Trump is reelected and the country gets more Republican judges. He feels former Vice President Joe Biden is "just running so he can beat Trump" and hasn't verbally expressed progressive policies, but hopes that Biden, if he wins, will surround himself with more progressive people.

"Biden has to be ready to be more nuclear than the New Deal, greater than the Great Society," Canton said. "There have to be policies now to address these inequities."

Conditions for change?

Carter-David said as a historian, "pessimism reigns." Greenberg said she's also pessimistic because when change occurred in the past, it was under a sympathetic president, whereas she characterized Trump's words and actions as "terrifyingly provocative."

She believes one factor that will lead to change is increased access to education for education's sake, saying that working-class students concerned about survival — whether black or white — don't have this opportunity.

Gac hopes we're seeing the conditions for change.

"Whether it's violent or it's peaceful, it's not easy, and more often than not has required significant changes in political leadership," Gac said. For example, he noted that Abraham Lincoln was a member of a political party that was only five years old when he ran.

Ogbar thinks there's a lot of reason to be optimistic, and he pointed to the progress that has been made. An example he gave was that even avowed white supremacists today will eat in a restaurant with black people present, whereas 60 years ago, they would've been willing to blow up the restaurant.

"When you think about that level of moral depravity juxtaposed with our current level of moral depravity ... there's been progress," he said.

He thinks, unfortunately, we will see another case like that of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Tamir Rice, but is hopeful the cop "will be held accountable and treated for the criminal he or she is."

Ogbar believes the "majority of police officers approach their job with integrity" but the systemic problem has been that the bad guys are protected by the good guys. He compared it to how the majority of priests aren't pedophiles but were protected by an institution.

He's optimistic when he looks at how multiracial protests have been, and Greenberg said she was "heartened" by the white support in current protests. Greenberg also thinks people are waking up to see there's something "structurally wrong" with policing in America, that it's not just a bunch of bad apples but a rotten tree.

e.moser@theday.com

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