Historian Mary Frances Berry responds to the George Floyd protests

The professor of history and Africana studies speaks with Penn Today about protesting injustice, pushing for change, and the history of African American civil rights.

Mary Frances Berry
Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history and Africana studies. (Image: Jim Abbott)

America is in mourning. Across the country, people grieve for George Floyd, who died on May 25. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and father, was suspected of using a $20 counterfeit bill to purchase cigarettes. As Floyd lay handcuffed, face down in the street, a police officer pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes until the man finally ceased breathing. 

Floyd’s death was the latest in a series of attacks against unarmed Black men and is reminiscent of Eric Garner’s 2014 death, also captured via cellphone video. “I can’t breathe,” both men said. This phrase has become a rallying cry for protesters, many of whom are affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy shot dead by a neighborhood watchman, who was later acquitted

Amid the omnipresent threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of protestors have poured onto city streets to condemn institutionalized violence, demand an end to the killing of Black people, and call for justice. Police have used rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas; some protestors have broken windows and started fires.

Penn Today spoke with Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies, about this moment in history and how it can inform us. In addition to her professorial role, Berry has an extensive career in public service, including as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980 to 2004. 

As a historian, can you talk about what led us to this moment?

Slaves were considered property of their owners and not human beings with rights. They were under the control of their masters. In order to leave the plantation, the slave needed a written pass. Whites established nightly slave patrols to keep slaves in their quarters, and any white person had the authority to stop a slave, demand his papers, and use force to capture runaways. After emancipation, involuntary apprenticeships and incarceration for minor offenses, peonage, and convict leasing put many Blacks back into slave conditions. Thereafter, policing of Black neighborhoods and mass incarceration were used to control Blacks.

After the 1960s rebellions in Newark, Detroit, and other places, the federal government gave more sophisticated hardware to police, funded special weapons and tactics teams, and essentially militarized the police, which continues today. The call to defund police is because they are seen as absorbing disproportionate taxpayer resources that could fund housing, education, and other needed programs which controllers of Black people use to reinforce white supremacy like the slave patrols.

What is your own personal history with the police? Would you feel safe calling 911 for yourself or a family member? 

Based on my own experience and that of other family members and the cautions expressed by relatives and friends in law enforcement, I might call only in extremes. Police seem to have trouble distinguishing victims who call for help from offenders.

In the past, you’ve referred to so-called ‘riots’ as rebellions. 

When large numbers of people are protesting an injustice, like the murder of George Floyd, and demanding changes in the political and economic system, they are rebelling against the existing system. Those in that category are not just venting anger that requires cooling off of arrests but substantive policy responses that will erode capitalist greed and white supremacy. Just legislating reforms in police practices is not the answer.

We’ve had protests before. Why is this different?

We have a graphic video, which the defense will find difficult to explain away, but conviction will still be problematic. It is also murder in the time of COVID and massive unemployment and lockdowns, which some people are so psychologically over. 

What effect will this have on the primary and general elections? Is voting perceived as another means of ineffective protest? 

Many of the protesters express the view that neither violence nor nonviolence or voting has changed the inequality in our nation. Politicians, in their view, only pay lip service to the need for change and expect the tide to pass. Looting and burning of property may mobilize some voters and the racial injustice may motivate others. But some people may just decide not to vote at all, tired of false promises and knowing that elected officials—state, local, and national— are unable to produce positive change. Pushing them to move seems the only remedy. We should hope that not another stark murder by the police is caught on camera. 

What change do you think these rebellions will bring? And how will history remember them? 

If history is any guide to the future, politicians and leaders in every field will revert to the status quo. If the protesters persist in their demand for change, we will get some efforts at police reform. History will note whether once again we refuse or simply cannot do the harder job of reducing the underlying causes of discontent identified in report after report, including the 1968 Kerner Commission report.