The dramatic images rocked the nation – hundreds of thousands of people from all races taking to the streets across the United States, demanding an end to excessive police force against people of color.
What began as local outrage in response to George Floyd’s death following an encounter with Minneapolis police officers soon spread throughout the country.
From coast to coast, demonstrators chanting “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” united in hundreds of mostly peaceful protests, some risking their own safety. They found themselves tear gassed near the White House, allegedly assaulted by police in New York City, and shoved to the pavement by tactical teams in Buffalo.
Despite the personal risk, their voices were heard by fellow citizens and politicians alike, as demonstrators sparked a protest movement unlike anything the country has seen since the 1960s.
But it all may have been for nothing.
Partisan politics appears to have derailed any meaningful near-term reform.
Failure at the epicenter
In Minnesota, Floyd’s death – caught on camera by a bystander as a White police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he lost consciousness – sparked a reform movement. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz responded by calling a special session of the state’s legislature to address emergency policing reform measures.
Walz said reform measures would be aimed at police violence, grants for rebuilding local infrastructure, accountability and transparency.
But legislators had little to show for their efforts. Partisan entrenchment ruled the day, as the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-led House clashed over nearly two-dozen policing reform measures.
House Democratic efforts to end warrior-type training for officers, instill residency requirements for police officers, ban choke holds and institute voting rights for felons grinded to a halt as Senate Republicans responded with more narrow reforms.
Despite widespread calls for reform, the special legislative session came up empty handed.
“The people of Minnesota should certainly be deeply disappointed,” Walz said, visibly upset. “This is a failure to move things, a failure to engage. It seems like there’s a tendency in legislative bodies to place blame on everyone else.”
In Minneapolis, where the city council continues to address policing reform, grand visions for change appear devoid of specifics and are far from being enacted anytime soon.
“We’re committed to dismantling police as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community, a new model of public safety that actually keeps our communities safe,” Lisa Bender, the city council president, told me earlier this month on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
On Friday the city council voted unanimously to replace the Minneapolis police department with a new entity focused on “community safety and violence prevention.” The measure, however, still requires additional input from other city leaders and, ultimately, voters in November.
A federal failure
Minnesota lawmakers were not alone in their failure to overcome partisan politics and pass immediate, meaningful legislation.
In the US Senate last week, the chamber’s Democratic minority successfully blocked GOP policing reform legislation they deemed inadequate. Democrats sought provisions banning the use of choke holds by police departments, which some cities around the country have unilaterally adopted. They also wanted provisions overhauling qualified immunity, a legal mechanism that largely shields police officers from civil law suits.
“(The GOP) bill is a half-assed bill that doesn’t do what we should be doing, which is doing honest police reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat.
In the House, Democrats passed their own version of sweeping police reform on Thursday. The measure calls for limiting qualified immunity for police officers, prohibiting racial profiling and banning choke holds.
Despite the bill’s passage on a largely party-line vote, the Senate is not expected to consider it, and President Donald Trump isn’t likely to throw his support behind Democratic legislation championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
’Encouragement’ over ‘enforcement’
For its part, the White House attempted to exert a leadership role in the national policing debate, but an executive order signed by Trump earlier this month has been criticized by his opponents, such as Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as window dressing that encourages reforms but comes with no apparent enforcement mechanisms.
The President’s executive order calls for the banning of choke holds by law enforcement officers, for example, but makes an exception for “those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law.”
Advocates who want to eliminate the technique outright seized on this loophole, which would allow an officer to use a choke hold if they fear their life is in danger.
“All police that use choke holds claim their lives were threatened,” wrote Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, after Trump announced his executive order.
The issue of banning choke holds will remain controversial. Some policing experts contend that, in a deadly situation where an officer is fighting for his or her life, anything goes.
While Trump’s order purportedly takes aim at officers who “misuse” their authority, the President himself has called for the use of excessive force against those in custody.
Upon taking office, Trump praised the aggressive tactics of immigration officers and suggested that police shouldn’t protect the heads of handcuffed suspects being put in the back of a car.
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You see them thrown in rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said to applause as he addressed a crowd of police officers in New York state.
His comments were met with scorn by various law enforcement agencies.
’If we don’t get it now, we’ll never get it’
Despite calls by criminal justice reform activists for immediate changes to policing in America, there are some groups who appear content with buying time.
Last Monday, Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, told me he had not read all of the bills working their way through the state legislature. But he cautioned against rushing through police reforms.
In comments that appeared tone-deaf to Floyd’s pleas to the officer choking him, Kroll said of efforts to rush through policing reform: “Everybody’s got to take a breath.”
While the Minneapolis police union calls for more time, criminal justice advocates say lives remain in danger every day that passes without new constraints on officers.
At a recent rally outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion, Del Shea Perry, the mother of Hardel Sherrel, told me her son had died in 2018 under suspicious circumstances while in jail after being arrested for domestic violence.
Perry said she and other families have been trying desperately to get the attention of elected leaders and have them take concrete steps to root out bad cops. Perry said she will continue their efforts until they are successful.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” Perry said. “I’m an evangelist, not an activist. But I’ve been pushed into an activism role.”
Asked how long she will continue to be a public face for policing reform, Perry said, “Until we get justice.” Seizing on this moment of unprecedented national protest against police violence, she added: “If we don’t get it now, we’ll never get it.”
CNN’s Aaron Cooper, Steve Almasy, Ray Sanchez, Clare Foran, Manu Raju, Lauren Fox, Ted Barrett, and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.