The Lynching of George Floyd: How America’s Oldest Pastime Found a New Audience
We are living in unprecedented times. Not because of the violence. America has always been a fantastical hybrid of national self-righteousness and blithe racial terror. Not even because of the virus. The country has seen pandemics before. What we have not seen is the widespread, inescapable idleness of the last three months. By some estimates, more than 1.5 billion people have been ordered to shelter in place since the pandemic began. In all of that stillness, America’s ordinary racial violence echoes more widely than we are accustomed.
In my small neighborhood outside Chicago’s south side, the echo arrived by robo-call on a Monday evening: Curfew started at 7. If you were outside after 7pm, though the world is still brilliantly lit at that hour, you would be confronted and told to go home. Outside was closed.
And anyway, there was nowhere to go. Everything was boarded up. The Walgreens was looted and closed. The grocery stores temporarily shut down as a precaution. This comfortably unremarkable little neighborhood was suddenly a food desert. When the looting started, we ordered potato chips and granola bars online. Target doesn’t ship tomatoes.
On TV and in the newspapers, everything was on fire. Banks, barber shops, fitness centers. Everything that could not be looted was on fire. Everything that could be looted was ripped open and stripped in broad daylight. The footage was gut-wrenching.
The governors say the people are hurting. The president says the governors are weak.
I hope they don’t burn my neighborhood. But what is the appropriate response to a lynching?
In 2012, when Trayvon Martin died, we marched. We gathered and we grieved. When the man who killed him was acquitted, we organized anew. That terror, too, echoed beyond the black community. But there was no pandemic then. Life as we knew it went on. Between meetings and marches over a dead black boy, we went to the movies, and to the ballpark, and to the beach. Thus began the last decade’s oddly normal-seeming dance of racial terror and collective distraction.
Two years after Martin was killed, we watched Eric Garner die (July 17th). Then we watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in IMAX. As Mike Brown’s body lay in the street (August 9th), Guardians of the Galaxy played in 4,000 theaters. By the time Tamir Rice went to play in the park (November 22nd), many of us were numb. But we rallied, railed, and went to see The Hunger Games. As Tamir’s family planned his funeral, Mike Brown’s killer was cleared. The day he was buried, Eric Garner’s killer was cleared.
In what seemed like a big deal at the time, NBA players took the court for warm-ups wearing t-shirts bearing Garner’s last words. “I can’t breathe.” Then they played basketball.
It is difficult to quantify the power of distraction. Of simply having something else to do. But in the last six months of 2014, when Garner, Brown, and Rice were killed, Americans spent more than $5 billion at the movies. The NBA played 262 games.  13 million people watched the World Series. And Sunday Night Football averaged 20 million viewers.
There was still plenty of anger. But there were also so many other things. We danced.
In the spring of 2015, on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, Walter Scott was shot in the back in South Carolina. Two weeks later, Freddie Gray died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. The next day, the man who shot Rekia Boyd was acquitted. Footage of Scott’s murder and Gray’s injuries made the rounds as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers wound their way through the NBA playoffs. When they met in June, it was the most watched NBA contest since Michael Jordan’s last Finals appearance.
A few weeks later, Philando Castile’s death was streamed on Facebook Live. The summer movie season was just ramping up. The weekend following Castile’s death, Americans spent $215 million at the movies. Most of us saw The Secret Life of Pets.
For every crisis, a game. For every shooting, a blockbuster.
Of course, it is not only racial violence that American soothes with pomp and spectacle. In the last twenty years, sports have become the official palliative of national pain. After September 11th, President Bush took the mound in Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. A grieving nation roared at the sight of the Commander in Chief delivering the first pitch in a broken city. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, businesses rebuilt, families rebuilt, churches reconvened. But it was the return of the New Orleans Saints to the field that marked the city’s rebirth in the minds of many. When bombs exploded near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon, there were public statements from the president, governor, and mayor, along with witnesses and victims themselves. None of it resonates now. What echoes even now, is David Ortiz standing on the field in the first Red Sox home game following the attack, declaring for those in Boston and beyond that “This is our f*cking city.” In America, it seems that we can absorb whatever comes, as long as there is sports.
And so we dance. In our grief, and our rage, and the unmistakable violation of our humanity, we gather and we protest. We shut down highways and confront police. We post online, publish op-eds, print up t-shirts, and appear on TV. And then, because life goes on, we turn on the game. And go to the movies, and gather in bars, and go to the beach. We are human, and this is what human beings do.
In the months leading up to Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, all of America’s favorite pastimes were thriving. NFL ratings were up 5%. Frozen and Star Wars sequels were printing money at theaters. In what appeared to be a competitive primary, black and white women vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination with queer and Jewish men. Life was good. But change was coming.
On March 12th, the NCAA canceled its national basketball championships. The same day, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. Major League Baseball initially announced it would delay Opening Day by at least two weeks. Since then, the league has missed more than two months of its regularly scheduled games. Churches remain closed. Bars and restaurants are barely operating. And in perhaps the most telling statistic of how limited our options for distraction have become, the total U.S. box office for the month of April 2020 was $52,000. National unemployment in the same month reached 14%, the highest rate since the Great Depression.
By the time George Floyd lay prone on a street in Minneapolis pleading for his life, 40 million Americans who would normally be at work were sitting at home with nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, and nothing else to watch. Many of them were already in mourning, having lost loved ones to a crisis they couldn’t have imagined. Most of them said good-bye from a distance, if they got to say good-bye at all, watching online as their loved ones were eulogized in funerals they could not attend. Often, grieving people cope by keeping busy. But all of the usual distractions are gone.
Still, we began as we always do, with protests. In the beginning there were marches. Peaceful. Angry. Respectable. But then there were riots. By the third day, there was looting. The white supremacists came. The state police came. The National Guard was called. There were curfews. The mayors sympathized, and pled for calm. The governors declared states of emergency. Eventually, the president emerged from his bunker to address the week’s events. The looting, not the lynching. But it doesn’t matter. Every level of American government is now publicly reckoning with the aftermath of its racial violence.
Meanwhile, white citizens across the country are having their own Come to Jesus Moments on race. Many Black Americans have found themselves inundated with calls, texts, and emails from concerned white friends and coworkers who suddenly want to talk about race. A black male friend of mine texted recently about the “avalanche of calls from every do-gooder white woman I’ve ever known in my life.” Another reports hearing from both white men and white women wondering what it’s like living through this time “as a black man.” A black female colleague who works in an overwhelmingly white space received a similar email from her supervisor. It was a well-meaning private message, reflecting at length on what a difficult time this must be for her.
All of this, it seems to me, is the appropriate response to a lynching. And all it took to get here was the end of the world as we knew it. Deprived of our distractions, we are all suddenly painfully focused on everyday casual, hand-in-pocket racial terror in America. Some of us are shocked. Some of us wonder what took so long.
Since the night Trayvon Martin walked to the store, Black Americans have been waiting for our fellow citizens to stop and notice how horrifically easy it is to get away with killing black boys. It took an act of God, but here you are. At last.
For black citizens and organizers, the unjust, impossible urgency of this moment cannot be overstated. After two weeks of earnest national discourse, the clock on America’s attention is already ticking. The NBA has approved a plan to return to play by late next month. Major League Baseball is frantically hashing out the number of games for which its owners will pay its players. While universities continue to wrestle with how to hold classes, some were quick to make clear that they plan to hold football games. And Hollywood is quietly planning to lure Americans back to the movies this summer. AMC has announced it will reopen nearly all of its theaters next month. The first major movie release is scheduled for July 17th. Normal is coming.
It has been fifty years since America’s collective attention was seized by the horror of its own violence against black people. There are centuries’ worth of work to do, conversations to have, systems to dismantle, institutions to rebuild. If we are very lucky, we have six weeks.