The coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the United States in 2020, forcing everyone indoors and upending the country’s economy. But, in May, the nation’s attention sharply jolted away from the virus after a white police officer in Minneapolis was filmed putting his knee on Black man George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, until he stopped breathing.
Americans burst into the streets in the millions to protest police brutality and racial injustice. The rallying cry moved beyond Floyd’s death to the deaths of other Black Americans like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, and Elijah McClain.
Anger boiled over into anarchy, from looting in New York City and burning down police stations in Minneapolis, to Confederate statues being toppled in the South. With an estimated 15 to 26 million Americans taking part in the demonstrations over summer, experts told The New York Times that it was probably the largest movement in American history, accompanied by seismic changes in how the media, political leaders, and law enforcement approach race and justice.
These were the iconic moments in an iconic summer of protest.
As the video of Floyd’s death reverberated around the world, the city where it happened erupted. Buildings burned and state officials instituted an 8 p.m. curfew after several police precincts were set on fire.
As residents kept flooding the streets, cops deployed tear gas, flashbangs, and rubber bullets, often indiscriminately at lawful protesters and journalists. The National Guard was captured on video charging into crowds. Protesters choked amid clouds of tear gas. Reporters were injured live on air.
MSNBC host Ali Velshi was hit by a rubber bullet, freelance photographer Linda Tirado was blinded in one eye after being shot, a CBS News crew reported being hit with rubber bullets despite being nowhere near the crowds, and a CNN producer was struck with tear gas in scenes that anchor Don Lemon said resembled “a war zone.”
But the scene that stopped many Americans in their tracks was the sight of Black CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez being handcuffed on live TV while trying to report from the smoldering streets as daylight broke. A group of cops in riot gear surrounded him—even after he identified himself as a reporter and politely asked how he could best comply with their move-on orders.
Then, in a stunning example of grace and professionalism, Jimenez calmly asked his camera crew to move as he was told he was under arrest and escorted away. He was later released from custody after public uproar reached the governor’s office.
A Showdown at Lafayette Square
As protests grew, President Donald Trump only inflamed the situation by referring to those exercising their First Amendment rights as thugs—even suggesting that looters should be shot. But when Trump was mocked for retreating to the White House bunker during a particularly heated night of protests, the enraged president turned tough talk into disturbingly tough action.
In the afternoon of June 1, police officers near the North Lawn of the White House suddenly charged at peaceful protesters, throwing tear gas and using force to aggressively disperse the docile crowd. The reason? The president wanted to walk defiantly to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church—which had been partially set on fire the weekend before—to pose for a photo with a Bible.
Flanked by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Attorney General Bill Barr, U.S. Army General Mark Milley and others, the stunt was a low point, even for Trump. Milley later confessed he almost quit, dismayed that the military would be drawn into domestic politics.
Barr, on the other hand, personally gave the orders for Park Police to disperse protesters and then quibbled over whether tear gas or some other chemical weapon was used—just one of the countless times the Trump administration denigrated, undermined or tried to violently quell the historic protests.
Goodbye Confederate Monuments
In the South, Confederate monuments toppled as the movement for racial justice swelled. Since May, more than 130 Confederate statues and tributes to slavery have gone. Several were toppled in late-night acts of vandalism or by government decrees, but at least 35 were transported to new homes by sympathizers who realized they were under threat.
In Montgomery, Alabama, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was toppled from its pedestal in front of his namesake high school. Nearby, in Birmingham, some residents tore down the monument of Charles Linn, one of Birmingham’s founders and a former Confederate Navy officer.
Richmond, Virginia also became a monument battleground after Gov. Ralph Northam said that a statue of Lee would be taken down—along with four others depicting Confederate figures.
Military bases named after Confederate generals came under scrutiny, too. The Pentagon and Congress vowed to remove Confederate tributes, but Trump vetoed the annual defense spending bill in protest this month.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 1,800 Confederate symbols are still displayed on public lands.
From Brooklyn to Fifth Ave
New York City, an early epicenter of the coronavirus, saw some of the most dramatic scenes, from staggeringly large protests to chilling brutality to rampant looting.
An unprepared, disorganized NYPD cracked down violently on anti-police brutality protesters. One officer drove his car into a group of protesters, others bashed cyclists with batons or kettled bystanders when curfews were enacted. In one case, NYPD officer Vincent D’Andraia shoved 20-year-old Dounya Zayer to the pavement and called her a “stupid fucking bitch” after she’d asked why police were forcefully ordering people off the street.
Demonstrators took a violent turn, too. Rioters in Union Square ignited boxes outside the Strand bookstore while others lit trash cans and blew up cop cars. In Brooklyn, police vans were set on fire and, in one of the most chaotic nights of summer, hundreds of people smashed into hundreds of storefronts in midtown Manhattan for hours.
Some of the most famous thoroughfares in the world, like Fifth Avenue, were overtaken by mobs smashing windows, loading up cars with loot, playing music, and lighting fires outside department stores. Designers stores in high-end neighborhoods of Soho and Chelsea were also stripped bare. The following night, there was an 8 p.m. curfew in the city that never sleeps.
The Wall of Moms
The federal government thought their decision to send unidentified, heavily armed agents into big Democrat-run cities in July would finally end the weeks of persistent protests.
Portland, however, had other ideas. The sight of anonymous agents—later revealed to be Customs and Border Protection in camouflage uniforms—shoving protesters into unmarked vans, shooting a projectile into an activist’s head, and using wildly aggressive “crowd control tactics” only motivated more residents to come out.
Protests swelled by the thousands. Among them were a group dubbed the “Wall of Moms”—local mothers who donned matching yellow shirts and bike helmets, and linked arms to create a wall between law enforcement and vulnerable protesters. (Behind the iconic images, the group was later accused of being anti-Black and was reborn as Moms for Black Lives Matter.)
A Slogan to Remember
It’s hard to think of a catch cry more enduring from the summer of protest than “Defund the Police”—a slogan that became as divisive as it was misunderstood. For some activists, it was a literal demand. For others, it was a push to reform policing by diverting funds away from bloated police budgets to mental health-care and community programs instead. For right-wing actors, it became a political weapon. Trump based much of his 2020 campaign messaging on it, concocting far-fetched images of 911 calls going unanswered and non-existent antifa gangs taking over the suburbs.
Back in Minneapolis, where the historic summer of protest began, it became a muddied ideal. The city council took an extraordinary stand after Floyd’s death, voting unanimously to defund and disband the Minneapolis Police Department. But, months later, as crime surged in the city, council members quietly tried to walk back their grand pledge. Instead, they voted to redirect $8 million from the police budget to other services.