The pandemic added its own accelerant to the mix. For roughly three months before Mr. Floyd’s death, Americans were living in a state of hypervigilance and anxiety, coping with feelings of uncertainty, fear and vulnerability — things many black Americans experience on a regular basis. Information about how to avoid the virus was distressingly sparse and confusing as local and federal officials sparred about the severity of the pandemic and how best to contain it.
Meanwhile, a clearer — and bleaker — picture of the country began to emerge. The spoils of privilege among some was in stark contrast to the lack of it among others. While some Americans fled cities to second homes, millions of others filed for unemployment and formed lines at food banks. Empathy for the plight of essential workers, a category in which black people are overrepresented, swelled tremendously. Data revealed that black and Latinx communities were being disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic.
At the same time, social distancing meant much of daily life — school, work, meetings, parties, weddings, birthday celebrations — was migrating to screens. It seems we’d just created newfound trust and intimacy with our phones and computers when the gruesome parade of deaths began a procession across them. Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed in Glynn County, Ga., on Feb. 23. Breonna Taylor was in bed when the police entered her apartment and sprayed her with bullets in Louisville, Ky., on March 13. Nina Pop was found stabbed to death in Sikeston, Mo., on May 3. Tony McDade was gunned down by the police in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27.
By the time outrage and despair over Mr. Floyd’s death filled our feeds, the tinderbox was ready to explode.
If the country had been open per usual, some organizers told me, the distractions of pre-pandemic life might have kept people from tuning into the dialogues online. Several said this is the most diverse demonstration of support for Black Lives Matters that they can recall in the movement’s seven-year history. On May 28, Twitter told me, more than eight million tweets tagged with #BlackLivesMatter were posted on the platform. By comparison, on Dec. 4, 2014, nearly five months after Eric Garner died at the hands of a police officer on Staten Island, the number of tweets tagged with #BlackLivesMatter peaked at 146,000.
Finally, there’s the sheer volume of video documentation of the police atrocities at the protests themselves, which has only served to reaffirm critiques of unbridled uses of force and underscore the cognitive dissonances.
Our social feeds have become like security camera grids, each with images of a dystopia: in a park in the nation’s capital, peaceful protesters dispersed with chemical irritants and smoke canisters, clearing a path for the president, who then posed for a photograph nearby. In Philadelphia, police officers pelting demonstrators trapped on the side of a highway with canisters of tear gas. In New York, two police vehicles accelerating into a crowd. In Atlanta, police officers breaking into a car and tasering two black college students. Every day, people with cameras have offered a raw and terrifying supplement to television and newspaper coverage.