Soyez réalistes — demandez l’impossible!” “Be realistic — demand the impossible!” was the slogan scrawled on the sides of walls and houses across Paris in May 1968. (1) The youth of France in that year rose up in defense of their future, and the people of France stood behind them. A lot of comparisons have been made between the riots of 1968 in the United States and the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd two weeks ago. I fear that keeping an americentric view on historical comparisons limits today’s movement’s ability to learn from the past.

Photo: Géard Aimé. “Mai 68, Les Murs Ont La Parole”.

Emboldened by anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiments, the youth of Paris grew tired of the rigid classism and the political bureaucracy they felt defined their tenure at university. Their uprising threw the societal order of France into chaos. The ensuing social revolution caused then-president Charles de Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and call for snap elections to remake the French government. However, as a result of the May 68 events, the conservative Gaullist government actually gained the first absolute parliamentary majority in the history of the French Republic. But where the May 68 events failed in France, the Black Lives Matter protests do not have to.

Where the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy sent the United States into collective mourning, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department threw the nation into collective uprising. Much like the youth of Paris in 1968, America’s youth has reached a tipping point of nihilism at their own future. With two major economic recessions under their belts, 21million people unemployed, and a botched COVID-19 response, the murder of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of the police mobilized both the African American community and America’s youth.

In the week following the first — and most violent — days of protest, mayors and governors across the country implemented curfews to stamp out potential for looting or rioting. Ironically, the curfew might be the strongest case for Black Lives Matter and the success of the movement; by implementing curfews at the height of tensions, governors have effectively told the police to treat all people (white people) breaking curfew the same way they are being accused of treating black people. It takes a case that was formerly relying on white empathy to black suffering and made it a case of white sympathy, strengthening the resolve of the white protestors on behalf of their black counterparts. Black Lives Matter has the nation’s attention, and as of yesterday morning the Minneapolis City Council has vowed to dismantle the city’s police department, saying “…the city’s current policing system could not be reformed”. (2) Calls have been made on other cities nationwide to follow in suit, making “defund the police” the first policy-oriented call to action of the protests to date.

While spontaneous revolution coming directly from the people may seem more authentic, a lack of formal structure can prove to be a movement’s undoing, even in its success. Even if seizing power is realized, there must be a plan in place to implement the desires of the public, otherwise a power vacuum is created, which usually reverts to conservative rule as a response to the instability caused by revolution. In the United States, Richard Nixon seized on the upheaval caused in the wake of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy’s assassinations, promising a return to law and order. In France, this took the form of the abandonment of the students by the public and leftist political groups. In his essay titled “Re-politizing ’68” Jacques Rancière states “…the institutional left said that there were many steps to get over between the revolutionary aspirations of the students and the reality of their situation…” (p.40) (3) Much like the students in France, the African American community and youth of the nation have the ear of the streets but defiance from Washington and their statehouses. The Minneapolis City Council’s reaction is shocking given the apathy to the consistency of these murders in the past. While the House of Representatives introduced a bill this morning to reign in bias and excessive force in policing, it is all but guaranteed to die in the Senate. (4) That being said, the willingness of the city council to listen to the demands of their constituents shows both promise for the future and proof that the protests are working.

Up until now, the protests have been largely spontaneous and reactionary to the murder of George Floyd. Calls to “end systemic racism” and “fire racist cops” are understandable, but sadly very abstract and nearly impossible to enact. Defunding the police force has tangible actions attached to it, making the legislators accountable to the people. Systemic problems, such as racial police bias and use of excessive force, can be solved with even seemingly “radical” systemic solutions, such as defunding police departments and reinvesting in social programs. The movement has momentum, and if the momentum continues, systemic change may be possible. We are only two weeks removed from George Floyd’s murder. The May 68 events lasted for nearly two months.

  1. ’68 NOW. (2019). The Kyiv International. p.25
  2. George Floyd Protests. (2020, June 7). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/protests-today-george-floyd-video.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-512cff3a
  3. ’68 NOW. (2019). The Kyiv International. p.40
  4. Democrats in Congress unveil a bill to rein in bias and excessive force in policing. (2020, June 8). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/us/george-floyd-protests.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-17c889e8