There’s a moment in the video that Los Angeles police officials released of the January 3 encounter with Keenan Anderson where a bystander can be heard telling him, “We’re all watching. You’re okay.” Anderson, a 31-year-old Black man visiting from Washington, D.C., where he taught English at a charter school, was involved in a car collision less than two miles from the Venice Beach boardwalk. Body-camera footage picks up with an officer riding his motorcycle and coming across Anderson in an agitated state, trotting across the busy intersection and asking for help. The cop asks Anderson to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk, where Anderson explains in paranoid-sounding sentence fragments that people are trying to kill him and plant contraband in his BMW.
“Have a seat against the wall,” the cop says when Anderson rises and says he needs water, and at this point his incoherence gives way to a sudden and chilling clarity. “I want people to see me,” Anderson replies, maneuvering out of the storefront shadows and into the light. Everyone in sight knows what could come next, which makes the bystander’s reassurance — “You’re okay” — sound less like a promise than a prayer. “They’re trying to George Floyd me!” would be some of his last words.
About four and a half hours later, Anderson became the third person to die in LAPD custody this year. He panicked and fled, then got captured and detained by more cops, one of whom shocked him with a Taser for 30 uninterrupted seconds. He was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where police say he suffered cardiac arrest. He died there at around 8:15 p.m., 20 minutes after 35-year-old Oscar Sanchez, who was holding a broken scooter stem when police cornered him in an abandoned housing unit, succumbed to cop-inflicted gunshot wounds about 16 miles to the east.
Anderson’s cousin is Patrisse Cullors, the controversial activist credited with co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement, but his death has caused only a muted uproar — nothing like the mass mobilizations we’ve grown accustomed to since Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. From roughly the winter before President Obama’s reelection to the ouster of President Trump, police violence against Black people was one of the most galvanizing issues in American public life, capable of marshaling thousands of protesters into the streets and immobilizing whole highways and downtowns. But since its apotheosis with the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, this issue has seen a dramatic fade from prominence as protests slowed to a trickle, the Black Lives Matter organization drew suspicion for its murky finances, and policing-reform bills disintegrated in Congress.
This didn’t happen because police violence has declined — quite the contrary, 2022 set new records. But it does suggest that the energy behind that decadelong outcry was contingent on a variety of factors that are tangential to the integrity of Black lives, putting our understanding of the BLM era in a new and unflattering light.
The Floyd protests happened at an unusually combustible moment. Backlash to police violence had been building for years owing to a mix of grassroots organizing and social-media amplification. Trump was president, which surfaced too much latent bigotry to ignore. The COVID-19 pandemic put people out of work and frayed their trust in elected officials. Some polls hinted that white Americans were especially susceptible to these influences: According to the AP, the percentage of white respondents who said police violence was a “very serious problem” more than doubled from 2015 rates, while the portion of respondents who said police are treated too leniently by the criminal-justice system jumped by 94 percent. This atmosphere seems to have granted them social permission to act up, resulting in the biggest, most multiracial protest coalition in American history.
Part of what distinguished this surge in activism from its predecessors in L.A. in 1992 and New York City in 1999 was official affirmation: Obama drew a direct connection between himself and Trayvon Martin (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) and in doing so transformed into a potential ally for activists and a political target for Republicans. The GOP quickly understood the protests as a wedge issue they could leverage against the president, whose election had entrenched the notion that Democrats are irredeemably beholden to Black interests. Democrats, by contrast, saw their Black support and Black standard-bearer as signs of racial enlightenment. The policy response was negligibly different between the two parties, but in terms of rhetoric, Obama’s party started to project broad sympathy toward the protests while Republicans were nakedly antagonistic.
This partisan coding persisted through the next presidential race. Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement became a litmus test for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, while assaulting protesters became a pastime at Trump rallies. After Trump won the GOP primary, he delivered a Nixonian speech meant to conjure images of mayhem wrought by unrest in big cities. Floyd’s murder brought talk of bipartisan reform, but once it became clear that appeasing the movement would not endear him to enough Black voters to secure his reelection, Trump went back to promising disciplinary violence against them.
It created an easy binary that Democrats could exploit as the 2020 race intensified: the racist reactionary Trump versus Biden and his kente-clad cavalry. Reform talks stalled. When Republicans tanked Democrats’ reform efforts ahead of the November election, reining in the police started to resemble a partisan hobbyhorse and, increasingly, a political liability amid a spike in murders. By the time Biden took office, the prevailing wisdom was that calling for too many changes to law enforcement was a strategic blunder that cost Democrats votes. This granted party leaders permission not just to abandon modest reforms but to reclaim “tough on crime” politics from a GOP that had abetted a scofflaw president and his ill-fated coup attempt.
As federal cash poured into local law-enforcement agencies anew and exhausted activists realized they had failed to translate their demands into substantive policy gains, you’d be forgiven for questioning whether the George Floyd uprising had even happened. For most of the Black Lives Matter era, the rate of police killings had averaged almost 1,090 people a year; in 2020 the number topped 1,100, according to the Mapping Police Violence project, and by 2022 it was up to 1,186. Names that might have been on everyone’s lips a couple years prior were lost to history, martyrs to Biden’s promise to restore normality after four years of Trump and an unspoken consensus that he’d satisfactorily done so. With the GOP radicalizing more ferociously than ever against democracy and civil rights, dissident energy is being yanked elsewhere. The most visible legacy of that summer may very well be the DEI commitments emblazoned on various brand websites.
What hope did Keenan Anderson have against such forces? People are dying in droves, pressure to do anything about it has abated, and any revival of the last decade’s energy is dependent on conditions that are hard to replicate — including a Republican president who is easy to demonize on the issue of race. We’re left in the meantime with mere impressions of who Anderson was, articulated most lucidly by his fiancée, Domonique Hamilton, to whom he’d confessed one of his greatest fears: “Being killed by the police.” He may not have escaped that fate, but perhaps his death will help the rest of us fulfill the bystander’s promise until it becomes a collective pact: “We’re all watching.”