George Floyd died at the hands of police officers one ago yesterday. His death set off a wave national protests in a nation that had been locked down for two and half months. The reaction to Floyd’s death and the summer of protests and riots that followed laid bare the divisions in this country. It also began movement toward a racial reckoning that’s long overdue. 

Floyd’s death followed years of video-taped deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police and white vigilantes without any accountability. Minneapolis, where Floyd died, erupted almost immediately. Cities across the nation followed. In places like Raleigh, businesses already shut down from the pandemic were looted and vandalized.

The country quickly fell into two camps. Most people focused on the injustice of police brutality and the continuing string of deaths of Black men. Republicans and conservatives, though, focused on the riots and protests that raged all summer. Black Lives Matters was countered by Blue Lives Matter. 

Activists on the left demanded police reforms. Activists on the right demanded a crack-down on protests. Progressives worried about the lives of Black people. Conservatives emphasized protection of personal property. 

The division laid bare conservatives’ fallacy about race. They do not believe that discrimination against African Americans exists and they never have. Instead, they emphasize individual behavior. In their world, only individuals can be prejudiced, not systems or societies. In relatively recent history, they denied that segregation was discriminatory and they fought integration. They’ve consistently opposed efforts to improve voting rights and civil rights. Today, they do not see the deaths of Black men as evidence of systemic racism, but as the choices of individuals. 

And that’s the nut. Conservatives do not worry about police killing African American men because, in their world view, the cause is personal. Deaths result from either a single bad cop, or, more often, the poor choice of the victim. They don’t see patterns. They see incidents. 

They ask, “Why didn’t Andrew Brown stop when he was told to do so?” not “Why was Andrew Brown so scared of police?” And they never ask, “Where are all the videos of unarmed White men being assaulted or shot by police?” They compare the grievances of a group of people who share a skin color and are disproportionally victims of police brutality to the grievances of a mob of insurrectionists trying to overthrow the government based on a lie. They are pushing back hard against a the tide of history.

The response to George Floyd’s killing was a cry of anguish and anger to a situation that had been simmering for decades. Cities erupted like they haven’t since the 1960s. And like the 1960s, conservatives see the problem as people attacking private property, not as a collective reaction against oppressive authorities. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problem, they are focused on trying to prevent reactions like the one we saw last summer. They are increasing penalties for destruction of private property and protecting people who run over protesters.

On civil rights, conservatives have been consistently wrong. They are, as Buckley described, standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” But history won’t stop and the murder of George Floyd will bend the arc of history a little more toward justice. And 50 years from now, conservatives will once again look back and see how wrong they’ve been.

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