Protests to polls: Where the movement for racial justice sweeping the U.S. goes next

As protests calling for police reform and an end to systemic racism continue, activists and community leaders say the energy on the streets is shifting into local grassroots organizing focused on changing policies.

Energy from streets will move to local organizing as groups build on momentum

Protesters in New York take to the streets during a march against police brutality on June 11. Demonstrations against systemic racism have continued for more than two weeks across the U.S. since the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Attending George Floyd's funeral — and coming face to face with the open casket — Rev. Stephen A. Green was overcome with emotion but also a renewed sense of purpose.

"Walking in and seeing George Floyd lying in that casket, I saw myself," said the community organizer and pastor with the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York.

"I got back on a plane and landed in New York even more fired up for the work ahead so that there are no more George Floyds and Breonna Taylors and Ahmaud Arberys."

Taylor was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Ky., apartment in March while Arbery was killed during a confrontation with two white men in Georgia in February while he was jogging. The men, a father and son, and a third man who filmed the confrontation have been charged with murder. 

After more than two weeks of ongoing protests across cities large and small in the U.S. following Floyd's death in Minneapolis on May 25, his funeral in Houston on Tuesday was a moment of pause for many like Green to take account of what's been achieved and look ahead to where the movement for racial justice is going.

Floyd, who is Black, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck while detaining him outside a convenience store for allegedly paying with a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and three other officers who were present on the scene face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

A shift in the movement

Green said the movement will start to see a shift in tactics from mass protests in the streets to grassroots community organizing that includes voter registration and canvassing.

"I think this is now a transformative moment for the movement as we focus on moving from protest to the polls and really leading to November and beyond," Green said, referring to the upcoming presidential election.

Rev. Stephen A. Green, a pastor with the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York, was one of 500 invitees to George Floyd's private memorial service on Tuesday. He says he left the event with a renewed sense of purpose in the fight for equality and justice. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

A view to the future was what swept over 16-year-old Jalen Keys, who came to Houston with her family from San Antonio, Texas, to watch the final leg of the funeral procession as Floyd's casket, in a horse-drawn carriage, passed by.

"I want to be a part of something ... that can be really big," she said. "This whole situation is changing the world, and I'm just glad that we can be out here and be a part of it."

Change has begun

Already the demands by protesters for change in the U.S. have found a receptive ear in the chambers of city councils and state legislatures.

In New York, for example, the state legislature passed a package of police reforms that had been stalled for years.

Among the new measures signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday is a provision that criminalizes the use of chokeholds by police officers that lead to serious injury or death. It would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison. 

The bill was named for Eric Garner, a Black man who died after being placed in a chokehold by an officer in 2014. The restraint had been banned by the NYPD in 1993.

The New York state legislature also repealed a controversial law that shielded police records from public scrutiny and passed a law mandating more transparency in arrest data.

Cuomo also issued an executive order calling on police forces to update their training and modernize policies. If not done by April 1, 2021, with public input, local forces could lose state funding.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, centre, signs into law on Friday a sweeping package of police accountability measures that received new backing following protests of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. (Kevin P. Coughlin, Office of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via The Associated Press)

In Washington, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is pushing a series of reforms, including banning chokeholds, a national database to track officer misconduct and requiring federal officers to wear body cameras.

"I think this is one of those moments where as long as the pressure stays on, I think that we'll continue to see change," said Rashawn Ray, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

From streets to online

Ray said pressure doesn't have to come from a continuation of street protests but could come from smaller groups organizing through social media that are more targeted in their activism.

He said the Black Lives Matter movement underpinning these protests emerged in a similar fashion in 2014 after an outcry in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.

"I do think there's something about keeping momentum going, particularly for the media, but the research I've done shows that the movement for Black Lives mobilizes people and then very quickly becomes highly organized online, particularly via social media," Ray said. 

Protesters march down Fifth Avenue in New York on June 10 calling for police reform. Protests continued in cities across the U.S. in response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

He said November's presidential election is a key moment that anti-racism groups will focus their attention on, knowing that if Democratic nominee  Joe Biden is elected U.S. president and the Democrats gain control of the Senate from Republicans, conditions would be ideal to pass the kinds of reforms that protesters are demanding

"I think [the election] is a key moment because it's going to tell us whether or not the policy window that we're in will increase or whether it will end in November," Ray said.

While slogans such as "Defund the Police" have gone from protesters' cries to politicians' speeches with lightning speed, some who attended Floyd's funeral say they want to see lasting structural change — not just more promises from elected officials.

"They're going to have to change because now we're on them, we're on their necks to change," said Elaine Jones, a resident of Houston's Third Ward, where Floyd grew up. 

The resolve to press on was further fuelled by fiery calls to action from speakers at the funeral who implored those in attendance and watching the livestream to not let Floyd's death be in vain. 

"George Floyd fell. and now. the entire world stands up," said Bishop James Dixon outside the service. "George Floyd went down in injustice; we rise up in justice. He went down in hate; we rise up in love. He went down in discrimination; we rise up in equality."

WATCH | Family members demand justice at George Floyd's funeral in Houston:

Passionate, political tributes at George Floyd’s funeral

1 year ago
After a passionate and political memorial service, George Floyd was laid to rest in his hometown of Houston, just more than two weeks after his death at the hands of Minneapolis police triggered global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality. 2:03

Expanding the movement

Green said addressing systemic policing issues is just the first step and that the movement needs to expand to include economic disparities, education and health care.

He said the three evils of society identified by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s — racism, poverty and war — need to be addressed. 

"The movement is in a position now to take on a new direction, to really continue the legacy that the [Floyd] family talked about," Green said. 

But there is some debate about how best to move forward. Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights leader in the U.S., has proposed a march on Washington, D.C., in August to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew more than 200,000 people and where King delivered the famous "I have a dream" speech.

However, others have argued that the movement should stay decentralized, with protests focused as much on the cases making national headlines as on the local examples of police brutality.

Researching the problem

Ray said another shift that will come in the movement is toward gathering more data on the problem. He points to the creation of initiatives such as Campaign Zero, which emerged out of the Ferguson protests. It aims to end police killings in the U.S. through such policy proposals as training, body cams and limiting the use of force, and it backs up its solutions with data and research.

He pointed out that many of the changes being proposed now are based on data and research collected over the last five years.

"So, data tell us where we should focus our attention — not just where the gaps are but also where we might be able to formulate best practices."

Ray said there is always a fear that policy changes will be bogged down by process and politics. But he said the situation is ripe for change, with a politically vulnerable president, a Republican leadership that appears willing to listen and Democrats pushing the issue.

"You have everyone focused on this issue at once, which is rare and which is going to lead to something. The question is whether or not people think it's going to be enough."


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.