Historical inflection points can give you insights into the current protests
As the media constantly reminds the public, the events that have happened in the United States and around the world since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 have been both unexpected and unprecedented. The triggering event was a blatant act of unnecessary police violence that was caught on video and shared by both traditional and online media. The consequences are still unfolding, but they could lead to fundamental changes in the relationship law enforcement authorities in the United States and in other countries have with their citizens.
Comparing George Floyd’s death to major civil rights events
In addition to reporting on public reaction to the murder of George Floyd and others, mainstream media also regularly compares the triggering event of George Floyd’s murder with events from the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s that led to changes in public perception and to public policy. Those events included the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, the violent police tactics used on peaceful protesters, including the use of dogs and fire hoses, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, and the “Bloody Sunday” event in 1965 where law enforcement broke up a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a march that was led in part by John Lewis, who was seriously injured by the police and who for over 30 years has represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives.
George Floyd as an inflection point
The phase that comes up repeatedly in mainstream media is “inflection point,” which mathematically represents the point where the rate of change of the trend of a line (the second derivative) changes from negative to positive or vice versa. Socially or politically, an inflection point can be thought of as a turning point after which a dramatic change, with either positive or negative results, can result.
This second definition clearly is appropriate for the current situation. The historical civil rights movement events mentioned earlier also fit that description. Intellectually the connection is clear, but for me, the emotional connections with the historical civil rights infection points is missing. While I was alive in the 1960s, I had no memories of most of the key events from that era and no direct or indirect involvement with them.
Who today might remember past civil rights inflection points?
Looking at information from the U.S. Census Bureau, most people alive in America today probably have no clear memories of that era. In 2018, only about 16% of the people living in the U.S. were age 65 or older, which means the youngest from this group would have only been only 15 in 1968, the year that Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. In 1968, the voting age was 21, which means that only those people who were 71 years old or older in 2018 (about 11% of the population in 2018) would have been eligible to vote in the presidential election that year.
Inflection points that I remember
I had no personal memories of the major social and cultural infection points of the 1960s, and for most of the past few weeks I was resigned to thinking that there was nothing comparable in my own life, specifically an event that attracted massive media and public attention and that led to a widespread demand for social, policy, or cultural changes where I also had a direct personal connection. That kind of connection, where I could look at an event not just as a news story but as something where I had a stake, would give me a much better foundation to understand the current demands for significant social changes.
There was a moment a few days ago where I was struck with the realization that there have been not one but two such events in my adult life that fit these criteria, both of which were in 1989. The first was the Tiananmen protests that took place in Beijing and other parts of China from April to June and the second was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
In both cases, these events were due to the actions of thousands of citizens and held the possibility of momentous social change. In the case of China, the change would have included more of the kinds of personal and political freedoms common in North America and western Europe. In the case of the Berlin Wall, it meant the possible end of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.
A tale of two inflection points
At the risk of oversimplifying two long and complicated stories, one of these infection points, the fall of the Berlin Wall, was followed by a cascade of significant changes, included the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact, as well as an opening up of trade and population movements in and out of many eastern European countries. While significant tensions still exist between Russia and other countries, the current reality is much less dangerous for the world than what existed between the end of WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
My personal connection to the Berlin Wall event
I grew up with the Cold War as an everyday reality, and I was directly involved in the Cold War as a USAF officer in the early 1980s. I left the service thinking that the Cold War might go on for several more decades. The day the news showed live pictures of average Germans tearing down the Wall and streaming across into West Berlin, I thought that the Cold War had ended. It has been over three decades, and there are still tensions and fleets of nuclear missiles stand ready to launch, but time has proven that this side of the inflection point is better than what happened before.
My personal connection to Tiananmen
Unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protests at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China did not fundamentally change the system, especially when it comes to the influence China has on its citizens at home and abroad.
I was a graduate student at MIT at the time of the protests, and that included protests involving at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of MIT students from China. During one of the protests in front of the student center, I took dozens of photographs to document what I thought was a very small part of a very important moment in history. I didn’t publish them or share them at the time because I was concerned that the authorities in China may have retaliated against anyone who participated in the demonstrations. My thought was that in the future, the domestic political situation would change and that there would be no blowback. I was wrong.
It has been over 30 years, and in my opinion, that future has not arrived. I still have those photos, and I have no intention of publishing them any time soon. I fear that even after all this time, anyone who was involved in those protests could face legal, political, or professional consequences for their peaceful actions. Those photos will remain under lock and key unless one of two things happens, either the government of China undergoes significant democratic reforms or everyone in my photos are between the ages of 75 and dead. I’m afraid the latter is more likely.
Which way for the current protests?
The current call for fundamental changes in policing and social policy, not just in the US but in many other countries, is still in the early stages. Whether the changes happen or not will depend on the work of not just those who are protesting in the streets, but also on the work of those who make decisions and take actions, however small, that lead to positive change. Either way, for many of those who are either actively involved or watching from the sidelines, there will be an emotional connection with this inflection point.