CityLab University: A Timeline of U.S. Police Protests

When a white police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck during an arrest on May 25, eventually killing him, the incident followed a longstanding pattern of unchecked police brutality toward African Americans. The civil unrest that has erupted in city after city is not unlike the protests that came after other high-profile police killings of African Americans such as Tamir Rice and Michael Brown in 2014, Freddie Gray in 2015, and Philando Castile in 2016 — as well as the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991. The following year, 1992, marked a turning point in calls for police reform, triggered by violent riots that came after the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen responsible for severely injuring King.  

In the years since, however, change has been incremental. And as with the most recent demonstrations that began on May 26 in Minneapolis, past peaceful protests often gave rise to violence as police responded with brute force.

“What protests have been effective in doing is raising the public consciousness about the level of public violence that communities experience,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of African American history at Georgetown University​​​​​​. “They have also exposed the amount of money that has been spent on police forces and weapons, and have helped expose the level of brutality.”

The 1960s marked the beginning of an increased militarization of police forces, according to Chatelain. The U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign was also used as a justification for increased policing, as was terrorism after the attacks of 9/11, she said. But the widespread use of mobile-phone cameras and social media now allows the public to witness more abuses firsthand.  

The following is a timeline of major protests in response to police brutality, especially instances where officers remained in their jobs or weren’t held accountable for violent or fatal arrests. These demonstrations are part of a broader movement against systemic racism in America, and don’t include the killings of people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin by fellow civilians. Arbery was chased and shot in February by an armed white resident in Atlanta, and Martin was shot by neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida back in 2012.

This list also doesn’t encompass many others who were killed by police or while in police custody, such as Sandra Bland, whose death in jail was ruled a suicide after she was pulled over by an officer in Texas, in 2015. That officer was later put on leave, but never charged, prompting renewed calls for her case to be reopened amid the protests for Floyd.

Los Angeles, California

Rodney King (25 years old — died 20 years later) — March 3, 1991

Rodney King in Los Angeles, California, in April 2012, in front of the Eso Won bookstore, where he was signing his new memoir. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Events: Rodney King was driving away from police officers who were trying to arrest him (King was allegedly under the influence). When they finally did get him in handcuffs, the officers proceeded to beat him with their batons more than 50 times, leaving him with permanent brain damage, among other health problems. The beating was filmed by a bystander. The four officers involved were acquitted in 1992. King survived and died in 2012, at the age of 47 years old.

Protests: The footage of the beating sparked protests in Los Angeles, but after the officers were acquitted , they turned more violent. Over the six days of riots, more than 50 people were killed, 6,000 arrested, and thousands wounded. The violence of the protests fed upon the deep racial inequalities entrenched in the city, and the National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps were summoned.

Aftermath: Two of the policemen who bludgeoned King were later jailed after federal prosecutors filed their own charges. President George Bush, who had called the actions of the officers “sickening,” opposed the riots that unfolded and called the actions of the protesters “revolting.”

In the wake of the beating, the Christopher Commission (also known as the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department), was created to examine the methods of the LAPD, including recruitment, training and the use of force. However, the impacts of the commission on LAPD operations were limited. Its most important achievement was perhaps that it ended lifetime terms for police chiefs — and Daryl Gates, the police chief during that period, resigned.

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New York, New York

Amadou Diallo (23 years old) — Feb. 4, 1999

Kadiatou and Saikou Diallo, parents of Amadou Diallo, address the press after the officers were found not guilty on all charges. (Will Waldron/Getty Images)

Events: Four plain-clothes officers shot Amadou Diallo near his home. They fired 41 shots, thinking he had a gun. It was his wallet. They were acquitted of second-degree murder.

Protests: Thousands marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after the officers were acquitted, and protests were mostly peaceful, even though hundreds of police officers wearing helmets met the protesters in the streets.  

Aftermath: The Street Crimes Unit of the NYPD, of which the four officers were members, was disbanded in April 2002. The unit had been heavily criticized for stopping black Americans and Hispanics in high numbers, and was the target of a civil rights action. It was only years later that the city released hard data that showed the degree of racial disparities in police stops and frisks.

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New York, New York

Sean Bell (23 years old) — Nov. 25, 2006

A protester is arrested at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in May 2008 following the acquittal of three police officers in the Sean Bell shooting trial. (Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

Events: A group of five police officers opened fire on Sean Bell and two of his friends in Queens, New York, a few hours before Bell’s wedding. The officers fired a total of 51 shots, killing Bell and wounding Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were with him. The two survivors were shackled to their hospital beds, which drew massive outrage. Charges were pressed against three out of the five officers, but they were found not guilty.

Protests: The acquittal of the officers involved in the case sparked peaceful protest. Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton addressed the press during the demonstrations, saying: “Some in the media seemed disappointed, they wanted us to play into the hoodlum, thug stereotypes. We can be angry without being mad.”

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St. Louis, Missouri

Anthony Lamar Smith (24 years old) — December 20, 2011

The third day of protests in St. Louis, Missouri, in September 2012, after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, who shot Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011. // Scott Olson/Getty Images

Events: Anthony Lamar Smith was shot dead by police officer Jason Stockley, after Smith tried to run away from him — Stockley suspected him of dealing drugs. Stockley wasn’t charged until 2016 after a recording of him surfaced saying he was “going to kill this motherf—er.” He was acquitted of first degree murder in September 2017. Stockley said he saw a gun before he opened fire, which in the eyes of the law, was enough to justify the shooting.

Protests: The decision to acquit Stockley sparked days-long protest in St. Louis, with police forces responding in riot gear after “agitators” started “throwing rocks and breaking windows,” according to the police forces on the ground. Demonstrators marched toward the house of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and were stopped by police in riot gear. The officers used rubber bullets on the crowd, and made hundreds of arrests.

Aftermath: Though Stockley never faced jail time, the St. Louis police settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 with Lamar Smith’s family for $900,000. In 2018, a judged allowed the family’s lawyer to reopen discovery in the civil case after learning the defendants had withheld DNA evidence that indicated Stockley had planted a gun in Lamar Smith’s car. A year later, the family was awarded an additional $500,000.

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New York, New York

Eric Garner (43 years old) — July 17, 2014

Demonstrators hold a “die-in” in Grand Central Terminal protesting the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Undercover police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a prohibited chokehold — quite similar to Floyd’s death —  after accusing him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Protests: Peaceful protests erupted after after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo. They lasted several nights, with thousands congregating in Times Square, carrying fake coffins and chanting “I can’t breathe.” Protesters also held “die-ins” in public spaces, often moved by police forces wearing riot gear. Some demonstrators flooded highways and bridges, effectively shutting down traffic. Protests were also held in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Aftermath: Pantaleo was fired five years later, in 2019, after a trial that was started by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). This trial was the first opportunity for public testimony in the case, after both a Staten Island Grand Jury and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. On June 8, 2020, the New York Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill named after Garner that criminalizes the police use of chokeholds — more than five years after the first version of the bill was drafted in response to Garner’s death.

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Ferguson, Missouri

Michael Brown (18 years old) — August 9, 2014

Police officers in riot gear and National Guard troops in Ferguson on November 28, 2014, during protests after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Events: Police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he was leaving a convenience store, in which a security camera had recorded him stealing small cigars. He was unarmed. Wilson fired 12 times, and was never charged for Brown’s murder. A grand jury decided not to indict him, citing the lack of a probable cause.

Protests: A wave of violent protests erupted after Brown’s death, and after the grand jury decision. The police used particularly violent methods to repress protesters, from tear gas to an extended arsenal of military weapons received through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, created to give surplus military weapons to local law enforcement agencies.

The protests over Brown’s killing gave rise to a new generation of young black political activists and to the cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” They also led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had initially begun as only a hashtag on social media following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

Aftermath: In March 2015, legal reforms were started in Ferguson, after the Department of Justice started an inquiry. And as the police use of military weapons increasingly came under scrutiny, President Barack Obama canceled the 1033 program, ending the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments, in a move to demilitarize the police. (President Donald Trump fully restored the program in 2017 through an executive order.)

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists launched “Campaign Zero,” a platform detailing policy proposals to limit the police use of force.

Not long after Brown’s murder, two Cleveland policemen approached Tamir Rice in a park, where one of the officers shot and killed him under the belief that the 12-year-old was wielding a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and when Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced in December 2015 that both officers would not be charged, he called the incident “a perfect storm of human error.” That didn’t sit well with the community, which led a peaceful protest of more than 100 people to McGinty’s home demanding his resignation. He didn’t resign, but in the 2016 elections, Cleveland residents voted him out.

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Baltimore, Maryland

Freddie Gray (25 years old) — April 12, 2015

Protesters marching in Baltimore, on April 30, 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers for the illegal possession of a “switchblade” — though his attorney said he had a legal-sized pocket knife — and thrown into the back of a van. Police then subjected him to a police practice known as a “rough ride”: Cuffed at the hands and feet but not put in a seatbelt, Gray slammed into the walls of the van when drivers suddenly braked. He died a week later from a severe spinal cord injury.

Protests: The Department of Justice opened a civil rights case into Gray’s death, and protesters led a peaceful march in Baltimore. Those demonstrations turned more violent after his funeral, on April 27. The police started using pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, and policemen in riot gear were deployed. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and the Maryland National Guard was deployed. The police arrested more than 200 people. Protests eased as local authorities brought charges against the six policemen involved — ranging from second degree murder to reckless endangerment — but three officers were eventually acquitted while the other three had their charges dropped. When the DOJ refused to bring civil rights charges against the officers in July 2017, it lead to more protests, though they were mostly peaceful.

Aftermath: According to Samuel Sinyangwe from Campaign Zero, police brutality has decreased slightly in Baltimore, but progress has been slow. The police department followed some of the recommendations from the DOJ, after an investigation into the police department’s methods. President Barack Obama said after Gray’s death that “it isn’t new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired, and Rawlings-Blake abandoned her re-election campaign as criticism mounted over her handling of the protests. The unrest after Gray’s death also gave rise to Baltimore’s social activist community comprised of young black leaders who have largely kept the current protests over Floyd’s death peaceful.

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Alton Sterling (37 years old) — July 5, 2016

Protesters in front of the Louisiana Capitol, after Alton Sterling  was shot to death by officers from the Baton Rouge police department, in July 2009. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Events: Two white officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department pinned Alton Sterling to the ground after an anonymous caller reported Sterling for selling CDs outside a convenience store. After shouting that Sterling had a gun, one of the officers shot him dead. The officers claimed that they felt threatened by what they believe was Sterling reaching for his gun, but videos of the shooting showed Sterling seemingly immobile before the killing.

Protests: The weekend after the shooting, non-violent protests erupted in Baton Rouge, where multiple protesters were arrested. They confronted heavily militarized police. The protests led to one of the most iconic photos of anti-police protest: the arrest of a lone woman, with her calm demeanor and flowing dress juxtaposed against the line of officers in riot gear in front of her.

Aftermath: The DOJ opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting. The officers were not charged in the killings. But Blane Salamoni, who shot Sterling, was fired from the police department. Barack Obama spoke out about the shooting and Philando Castile’s (Castile was shot dead the day after.)

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St. Paul, Minnesota

Philando Castile (32 years old) — July 6, 2016

Protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 16, 2017, carrying a banner commemorating Philando Castile, after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Castile in July 2016. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: Philando Castile, a school nutritionist, was driving in the St. Anthony suburb of St. Paul with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter when police officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled the car over and asked him for his license and registration. In complying, Castile alerted the officer that there was a gun — one that he was licensed to carry — in the glove compartment where his documents were also placed. As Castile reached over, Yanez shot him multiple times. Reynolds live-streamed a video of the aftermath on Facebook but it wasn’t enough to convict Yanez of manslaughter. In 2017, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Protests: The first round of protests started soon after the shooting, bringing out teachers and children, and spreading across the U.S. They escalated in the Twin Cities as demonstrations spilled onto the highway and blocked traffic, with projectiles thrown, police injured and multiple arrests. Castile’s family and members of the Black Lives Matter movement denounced the violence. A year later, protests resumed after Yanez was found not guilty. Once again, they started in St. Paul, spreading to Minneapolis, New York, and across the country.

Aftermath: The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was starting a review of the police department of St. Anthony in December 2016. According to the police department, all officers went through additional training starting January 2017, and put together additional plans for increased data transparency, body cams for all officers, and banned a controversial police training that encouraged officers to shoot if they felt threatened. However, even though the Justice Department drafted objectives for the police department in March 2017, “it never followed through with recommendations on ways to improve the police force,” according to the Star-Tribune.

President Barack Obama gave a speech after the shooting, sending his condolences to Castile’s family and calling the police violence an “American” issue. “These are not isolated incidents,” he said. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

George Floyd (46 years old) — May 25, 2020

A portrait of George Floyd on a streetlight pole, in front of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a protest on May 27. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: When convenience store employees called the police on George Floyd for using a counterfeit $20 bill, Derek Chauvin and three other now-former officers quickly escalated the situation in trying to arrest him. The full eight minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground with a knee to his neck played out in several videos recorded by bystanders watching in horror. Before he died, Floyd repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and when Chauvin and his team did not relent, he pleaded for his late mother.

An independent autopsy would later show he died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Though a separate report from Hennepin County Medical Examiner attributed his death to underlying heart disease, it concluded his death was a homicide. All four officers were fired.

Protests: The protests came swiftly, spreading from Minneapolis to dozens of cities across the U.S. as the public called for the officers to be arrested. But as demonstrations continue, they have evolved into a national uprising over police violence and the lack of police accountability. They’ve also included a cry for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot after forcibly entering her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March. Protesters have taken to cities, to major highways, and even out in the suburbs, shouting, “No Justice, no peace.”

The protests began peacefully, with several demonstrators urging police to take a knee in support of the movement. But some intensified as cities enacted curfews and officers enforced them through the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and — in an escalation of events in the nation’s capital — a heavy military presence. Meanwhile, some people began looting and rioting, injecting confusion and disorder into the early days of the demonstrations.

Protests have spread to all 50 American states, bringing out people of all backgrounds. They’ve even reached global cities like London, Sydney and Paris. The demonstrations have been multi-racial in a way we haven’t seen before, according to Louis Hyman, a historian of work at business at Cornell University. “White people are starting to get that their experience is so different from black people’s experience,” he said. “Whether you’re a wealthy African American or a poor African American, you’re still black in the eyes of the police.”

Aftermath: These protests come at an unprecedented time, when the U.S. is in the midst of a highly charged election year and an active pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities. The ongoing threat of coronavirus has complicated the voting process as election dates are pushed back and as states consider the use of mail-in ballots. But on the local level, officials have started promising some changes. In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to cut as much as $150 million from the local police department’s budget and invest it into programs that benefit black communities. And in the city where the protests began, the majority of the Minneapolis city council has pledged to disband the police department. Meanwhile, all four former officers involved in Floyd’s death have been arrested and charged; Chauvin with second-degree murder and the other three with aiding and abetting murder.

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Now What?

The unfolding of the George Floyd protest feels familiar to those that precede it. And while it’s not uncommon for these events to spread across multiple major cities, it is worth noting that the scale of the current demonstrations is unprecedented. By the third week, they had spread to more than 650 cities across all 50 states — including small, majority-white towns, according to the Washington Post.

That’s an optimistic progression for protesters who are not only demanding justice for Floyd, and police reform in Minneapolis, but a complete overhaul of America’s justice system. They want the police to be disbanded, and for their funding — which often takes up the bulk of cities’ total budget — to be diverted into black communities. They want to replace President Donald Trump and his administration, which has flatly denied the existence of systemic racism in the U.S.

The similar timing to this year’s presidential election, as well as the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression due to Covid-19, hold some promise that the demonstrations could have far-reaching effects in U.S. policy. At the same time, racial attitudes have shifted over the last four years, reports the New York Times: According to a new study from Monmouth University, 57% of Americans believe that police are using excessive force against African Americans, compared to just 34% of registered voters in 2016 after the police shooting of Alton Sterling.

And while killings of African American men have sparked the most protest, it’s important to note women haven’t been spared from police violence either — most people know the stories of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, but there are many more, including Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis and Shelly Frey. The hashtag #SayHerName has been sprouting up across social media to draw attention to these women and make sure their deaths don’t go unnoticed and unpunished. That said, men of any color are far more likely to be killed by police, with black men, American Indians and Latinos the most at risk, according to research released last year.

It is perhaps too early to say for sure what happens next. Deep-rooted racism requires policy changes across the board, from housing to transportation to food security, which some advocates argue is still low on America’s priorities. But the current momentum offers hope that maybe this time really will be different.

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