Editor’s note: This article is part of a week-long series examining race relations in Grant County through the lenses of history, the judicial system, religion, activism and law enforcement.
The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, shocked many Americans.
The 46-year-old Black man died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe.”
Video footage of his death quickly circulated, sparking protests against police brutality and systemic racism in Marion and across the globe.
While the event shocked many, local historians said they were not surprised.
“It was something that we could see coming,” said Marion High School social studies teacher and Black History Club sponsor Bobbie Owensby. “Things haven’t changed. This started when the first Africans were brought to this country.”
According to Professor of Humanities and History at Indiana Wesleyan University Rusty Hawkins, George Floyd’s death is not an exceptional story when looking at it in the context of American history.
“Even the day before George Floyd and the days since George Floyd, we’ve had stories of black men and women in this country who were unarmed and have been killed by police officers,” he said. “You almost have to be trying to avoid seeing this pattern at this point. I don’t understand how any of this should come as a surprise to Americans.”
The dehumanization and killing of Black Americans, according to Hawkins, is riddled throughout history.
“Even after you do away with slavery, we enter this period of lynching over 4,000 Black Americans in the South,” he said. “The killing of Black Americans, this is not a new story.”
Not included in the 4,000 lynchings Hawkins referenced is the 1930 lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith on the Grant County Courthouse square.
“The (Marion) lynching was extremely traumatic. How could it not be? And that sort of shaped racial relations for a long time. It was terrorism,” said Grant County historian Bill Munn. “I think we’ve moved ahead. I think there are still some big problems.”
Hawkins said an association with Black Americans and criminality has existed since the enslavement of Black people and has since taken on new forms.
“You move into a period of history when you have the Great Migration out of the South,” he said. “They’re still separated and segregated and over-policed with the assumption that they are criminal.”
According to Hawkins, an association with criminality due to race, among other negative associations, is something white people do not experience.
“If you’re white in this country, you don’t have the stigma of being assumed to be a criminal, and that’s a privilege,” Hawkins said.
The term “white privilege” often elicits a negative response from white people, Hawkins said.
“White privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t had to work hard to have what you have. White privilege only means that you don’t have to work harder because of your race,” he said. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to think about your race.”
Due to the long history of the dehumanization and killing of Black Americans and current events, Hawkins said he echoes the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
“To say ‘Black lives matter’ is not to negate the fact that all lives matter, it’s to say that as a nation, throughout our history we have not acted as if Black lives matter,” he said.
Hawkins said responding, “All lives matter” to “Black lives matter” is the equivalent of saying “All cancer matters” at a breast cancer 5K race for the cure.
“If you understand the history of the United States, you would understand why it’s important to say Black lives matter, and not all lives matter,” Hawkins said. “Sure, all lives matter, but not all lives were enslaved. All lives matter, but not all lives were lynched. All lives matter, but not all lives were made to sit in the back of the bus. All lives matter, but not all lives were redlined. All lives matter, but not all lives were told they’re worth three-fifths of a human being. All lives matter, but not all lives are being disproportionately imprisoned. Not all lives are three times more likely to be killed by police officers. All lives matter, but we don’t live in a society that acts like all lives matter.”
Many Americans have “selective memory” when it comes to U.S. history, Hawkins said.
When returning to school in August, Owensby said she knows her history lessons are going to look different due to current events.
“It’s going to be a different lesson. We’re going to have a discussion,” she said. “I just don’t know at this point what that is going to look like.”
Two recent Marion High School graduates started the protests in Marion.
“Young people want to see change take place,” Owensby said. “The peaceful protests have been a way to get the attention of the entire world to say that we need to treat people fairly.”
Owensby said she is encouraged by the racial diversity present in the local and national protests.
“I think it woke up America. I think the community is doing a good job of being active,” she said. “We just hope we can stop it, so there aren’t any new chapters added to this book. We want the work to continue, so we don’t have to have another George Floyd.”