The George Floyd Protests: A Global Rallying Cry for Democracy

The United States has emerged in 2020 as the global epicenter of mass political protests. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, public outcry over police brutality and systemic racism ignited popular protests across the United States. Despite the concurrent Covid-19 pandemic, these protests grew rapidly across all 50 states, becoming the topic of conversation in every home and business in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has gone global too, inspiring activists from Europe to Africa, Asia to Oceania. Remarkably, international attention has shifted from the pandemic to U.S. protests.

How the United States responds to popular demands for police accountability and addresses broader systemic racism is a test for American democracy at a time of intensifying strategic competition with China, Russia, Iran, and authoritarian regimes worldwide. How the United States chooses to act on protesters’ legitimate grievances can demonstrate the resilience and responsiveness of democratic governance despite recent gains by authoritarianism across the globe. Freedom House’s most recent “Freedom in the World” report found that for the 14th consecutive year, democracy has declined. It concludes, “The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance.”

It is not coincidental that last week, as protests increased across the United States, Beijing cracked down on freedom of assembly and speech in Hong Kong. That response follows a year in which protests and activism by the city’s residents presented the most direct challenge in decades to the most powerful authoritarian government in the world. Authoritarian governments universally see protests as an existential threat, and so they have endeavored to crush popular unrest at home while helping allied autocracies to suppress their own people.

Political protests occurred in 114 countries last year, with activist groups increasingly taking inspiration and tactics of resistance from each other. Citizens see the power of protests reflected in the media and in notable changes, such as the resignation of leaders. Inspired, would-be protesters undertake their own movements seeking change. Though local circumstances were different in each case, protesters over the past decade have called out broadly for one thing: reform of broken and outdated modes of governance that perpetuate inequality—racial, socioeconomic or otherwise. In the current information environment, where grievances and inspiration move rapidly through the internet, the spread of politically activating ideas has increased in speed and scale. We released a study in March that found significant growth in the number and scale of protests over the past decade. We forecast that growth would continue for the foreseeable future, writing in early April that with much of the world in lockdown, Covid-19 “will exacerbate existing tensions and create new ones . . . rewriting our history and challenging the relationship between citizens and their governments.”

The United States should meet the protester demands by seriously addressing pervasive systemic racism and brutality against African Americans as both a moral imperative and as vital to global democracy. Recent polls find that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the protesters’ grievances as legitimate. In recognizing as legitimate its citizens calls for change expressed through their right to peaceful assembly and protest, U.S. government at the federal, state, and local levels can demonstrate the power of democracy to strengthen and repair societies at moments of crisis. That tens of thousands of sympathetic people around the world in the midst of a pandemic have marched in solidarity underlines the power of this moment in the global imagination. Respond well, and the United States reaffirms global democracy; respond poorly, and the United States’ moral authority as a global champion of democracy is further eroded. All eyes are on the United States.

Throughout 2019, as during the events of the Arab Spring earlier in the decade, U.S. policymakers grappled with how they should respond to foreign mass protests. They worried about the greater disorder and instability that embrace of protesters could cause. They wondered whether U.S. direct support or even endorsement of protesters could ultimately do more harm than good. They pondered how to articulate values in a way that supported democratic rights but preserved relationships with existing regimes. They also asked whether protests even mattered, aware that the political outcomes of recent protests have been highly variable, with many producing few changes and some eliciting brutal regime response. In most cases, they watched and did little to meaningfully affect events.

The Trump administration has responded to domestic protests in ways that undermine its interests at home and abroad. The White House has yet to articulate a concrete set of actions to address the issues at hand. On the contrary, the president himself last week attempted to recast the narrative around the protests by painting them as violent and illegitimate. He and his advisers have also taken actions to intimidate protesters, ranging from communications inviting violence to the large-scale deployment of military and police forces in Washington, D.C. This response has created a strategic advantage for authoritarian regimes that seek to displace U.S. influence in the world. For example, Chinese and Russian state media have taken particular pleasure in broadcasting the social division between U.S. protesters, police forces, and elected leaders. On the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, U.S. criticism of Beijing’s denial of Hong Kongers’ right to assemble in peaceful protest rang hollow, as Chinese officials pointed to the administration’s response as evidence of a double standard in human rights.

The United States of America began as an experiment in governance that transformed the world. Its power to learn, grow, adapt, and address injustice is what will ensure that experiment continues at home and abroad. Government at all levels must be willing to fundamentally renegotiate its social compact. Calls to defund the police, to channel resources instead into community programs, and to reconceptualize standards of community safety should not be dismissed. From an international perspective, disbanding and reorganizing security and police forces is not unusual, with the largest-scale examples occurring across former Soviet republics in the 1990s.

In the span of just two weeks, the George Floyd protests have already demonstrated the possibilities for change when a broad, multigenerational, multiethnic coalition of citizens vigorously organize across the whole nation and demand reform. The House of Representatives, state and local governments, and organizations and businesses across the country are enacting fundamental change. U.S. cities and states, such as New York, New Jersey, D.C., Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere, have announced steps to reform, defund, or dismantle police departments. Calls to eliminate symbols of the Confederacy are being heard across multiple cities, within the U.S. military (especially the Marine Corps and Navy), and even by NASCAR. And the House of Representatives has introduced police reform legislation that restricts the transfer of military-style equipment to law enforcement entities, among other provisions.

Government leaders should listen to the demands of citizens and commit at every level of government to the principles of decency and democracy. Doing so would both be a signal that the American experiment continues almost 244 years later. Such an undertaking would reinforce the United States’ international commitment to representative democracy and unequivocally display its rejection of the tools of authoritarian states.

Samuel Brannen leads the Risk and Foresight Group and is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christian Stirling Haig is a research assistant with the CSIS Risk and Foresight Group. Habiba Ahmed and Henry Newton are interns with the CSIS Risk and Foresight Group.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Habiba Ahmed

Intern, Risk and Foresight Group

Henry Newton

Intern, Risk and Foresight Group

Christian Stirling Haig

Samuel Brannen