“It feels different this time.”
That is the way Nicole Hannah-Jones began her recent essay in the New York Times Magazine.
The “it” Hannah-Jones was referring to was the response to the murder of George Floyd on a city street in Minneapolis in full view of passersby, one of whom had the presence of mind to video-record his death at the hands of police. A locked-down nation watched in horror for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as Derek Chauvin’s knee choked the life out of George Floyd.
The protests began in Minneapolis. Say his name — George Floyd. Quickly, other names were added. Say her name — Breonna Taylor. Say his name — Ahmaud Arbery. Say his name — Rayshard Brooks. The list grew longer — Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner.
Protests erupted across the country — from New York City, home to two million African-Americans, to Vidor, Texas, where blacks make up one-half of 1% of the population — and around the world, in England, Turkey, Brazil and Kenya.
Demands were made for police reform. Some went further — defund the police.
The city council committed Minneapolis to completely revamping the police department. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would redirect some police department funds to youth programs and social services.
Black Lives Matter appeared on placards carried by thousands of demonstrators and in giant yellow letters on a street that leads to the White House.
And then ...
Then Confederate statues started coming down across the South and Rebel flags began to disappear from NASCAR events and a Senate committee called for the names of Confederate generals to be removed from army bases.
And the Dixie Chicks became the Chicks.
And Gone with the Wind was gone.
So was Aunt Jemima.
And Mississippi — Mississippi, for crying out loud! — following the lead of its flagship university, which lowered the state flag for the last time five years ago, finally “retired” the last state flag in the United States that included the Confederate battle emblem.
It was a kairos moment — the time was ripe for centuries-old grievances of racial mistreatment, discrimination and inequalities to be addressed.
There was a line from George Floyd to Aunt Jemima and the Chicks, but tracing that line would have to wait for calmer times.
The protests became a movement that spread like wildfire, whipped by the winds of a once in a lifetime opportunity for change.
In the midst of the heated moment, Monmouth University coolly released the results of a poll that revealed that 76% of the American people believe that “racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States” is a “big problem,” up from 51% just five years ago. Fifty-seven percent said that the anger that led to the nationwide protests was “fully justified.”
When asked whether police officers were “more likely to use excessive force” with blacks, or “just as likely to use excessive force against black and white” given the same type of situation, 57% said that police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks. A scant 1% said that police do not use excessive force.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, concluded, “It seems we have reached a turning point in public opinion where white Americans are realizing that black Americans face risks when dealing with police that they do not.”
Yes, Nicole Hannah-Jones, it does feel different this time. But you aren’t sure, are you? Eight thousand five hundred words later, you concluded your essay by asking, “Will this moment only feel different? Or will it actually be different?”
That is the haunting question.
We’ve been down this road before.
In a recent opinion piece, Journal executive editorial page editor Allen Johnson wrote, “Over and over, we keep wondering, finally, will this be the event that will shock us from our shameful indifference about race. And over and over it doesn’t happen.”
In an exchange of emails with Johnson, I said, “Like you, I find it difficult to be even cautiously optimistic.”
But there is reason to hope this time — that cannot be denied. And in hope there is an imperative to believe that, as Sam Cooke wrote and sang, It’s been a long time coming, But I know a change gonna come.
Believers are, according to an ancient Hebrew prophet, “prisoners of hope.” (Zechariah 9:12)
Do we still believe? Do we dare hope — one more time — that this time will be different?