Could his death become an historical fact?
What is an historical fact? According to British historian, E.H. Carr, a fact of the past is not necessarily an historical fact. He argued that an historical fact must be something that happened in the past and is recognised by historians to be historically valuable, that is, used in their accounts of events and change. However, he had little time for Cleopatra‘s nose, just as one has little time for oxygen when charging an arsonist.
But where does an event like George Floyd’s death go?
Floyd’s death (or at least the protests following it - please note that this is a key difference itself worthy of articles) occurred in the context of a racism and racial history somewhat peculiarly American. Indeed, if this tragic death occurred without this, even if the policemen were racist, it is almost certain these protests would not be happening with such force (if any force at all). Americans are frustrated. In a few short years, black persons have died under the police or in custody on the flimsiest evidence of wrongdoing or evidence of flimsy wrongdoing - certainly not enough to justify any death. This after slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Change has been too slow and we are still in need of it.
If Floyd’s death does not lead to real change in American society and institutions, he has died in vain. This is the same for Eric Garner, who died in a similar way to Floyd, and the other black individuals who have died at the hands of police brutality. Of course, this should be the case for individuals of any colour. But it seems to have a racial element, blacks the regular mouthpieces because of America’s history, that has helped result in the high proportion of blacks in high-crime and deprived areas like Harlem.
Regardless of these protests, Floyd’s death will have little historical significance if it does not lead to change. However, if it proves to be the match in the powder barrel of the racial and police tensions of this generation in America, it can move us forward to the next, weaker one. An historical fact. We will all do well to realise this potential. Many of us will do well to refrain from using these protests to forge a flimsy identity or virtue signal. Some of us will do well to be told that these protests should not be an excuse to loot. And President Trump will do well to not dismiss them and care for his tone.
Carr, E.H. What is History? G.M. Trevelyan Lectures, Cambridge