Three months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police spurred national unrest and widespread reforms, America’s racial reckoning exploded when Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a White officer.
Floyd was handcuffed and unarmed in late May when he died, after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Last Sunday, Blake was left paralyzed from the waist down in coastal Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Midwest cities are about six hours apart by car. Disturbing eyewitness video captured both incidents and led to bursts of sometimes violent protests.
But the lingering national anguish over racism and police brutality seems palpably different in the chaotic week since Blake was shot seven times. He was stepping away from officers with guns drawn and leaning into an SUV carrying his three young sons, ages 3, 5 and 8.
“It’s just the compounded grief, the compounded trauma of these horrific murders, these lynchings,” said Alexis Hoag, lecturer and associate research scholar at Columbia Law School. “What’s so striking about Kenosha is that it put this racial inequality in sharp relief.”
Black people assigned a ‘presumption of dangerousness’
Blake, 29, was shot at the height of the tumultuous summer of 2020, with the United States nearing 200,000 deaths from a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color and far-flung demonstrations over the killing of African Americans by police.
Nearly a week after the shooting, the police union said Blake fought officers and refused to drop a knife he was carrying. Blake’s family, his lawyer and the man who recorded a video that captured part of the encounter refuted that account. Jacob Blake Sr. said his son only retreated to remove his children from harm’s way.
“Sometimes you get a little angry,” the eldest Blake told CNN, noting that his paralyzed son had been shackled to a hospital bed until Friday.
“Sometimes more than a little angry because we have been going through this so long. So long. And it’s only the brown faces … the brown-toned people that get treated in this way.”
Two police officers have been placed on administrative leave. The shooting is being investigated by the Kenosha County district attorney’s office and the Wisconsin Justice Department’s division of criminal investigation.
The US Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation that a White House official said came at the urging of the President.
The police union claimed officers knew Blake had an arrest warrant in connection an incident earlier this year in which he allegedly entered a home unlawfully and committed felony sexual assault.
The Kenosha Professional Police Association and state investigators said two officers fired Tasers that did not incapacitate Blake before the gunfire.
But Hoag said Blake’s shooting was another disheartening reminder of pervasive and entrenched racial violence in America, even after Floyd’s death led to a slew of police reforms and legislation across the country along with a groundswell for change.
“What is left unaddressed is this presumption of dangerousness and criminality that society – it’s bigger than law enforcement – assigns to Black people,” Hoag said. “That is a direct descendant of the racial hierarchy that formed during slavery. As a country we have not reckoned with that.”
Emotional declarations and dramatic boycotts
Athletes across the country alluded to that reckoning during a week of bold and unprecedented protests against the racial inequality and police violence.
Led by players from the National Basketball Association, members of the WNBA, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and other pro sports made emotional declarations and staged boycotts of playoff and regular season games and practices.
Their activism had to extend beyond jerseys emblazoned with social justice messages and kneeling or sitting out the national anthem, some athletes said.
The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens demanded that officers who killed Blake and other African Americans be brought to justice as a way to “accept accountability and acknowledge the ramifications of slavery and racial injustice.”
“It is imperative that all people – regardless of race, religion, creed or belief – come together to say, ‘Enough is enough!” the team said in a statement.
“This is bigger than sports. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our nation’s foundation and is a blemish on our country’s history. If we are to change course and make our world a better place, we must face this problem head-on and act now to enact positive change.”
Fighting back tears, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the National Basketball Players Association president, on Monday described the pride and strain of the players.
“Guys are tired,” he said. “I mean tired. When I say tired, we are not physically tired. We are just tired of seeing the same thing over and over again… Everybody expects us to be OK just because we get paid great money. You know, we’re human.”
Before NBA players decided to return to the court on Saturday, Paul phoned Barack Obama, a person familiar with the call told CNN. He asked the former President for counsel on behalf of a group of players. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was also on the call, the source confirmed.
Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, whose father was a police officer, was emotional as he talked about law enforcement violence against Black people.
“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” said Rivers, referring to speeches at last week’s Republican National Convention in Washington.
“We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones who were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
He added, “It’s amazing to me … why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
Cop wannabe was Trump supporter
Days after Blake was left fighting for his life in a hospital, a criminal complaint says, a 17-year-old cop wannabe armed with an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle killed two people and wounded a third at a demonstration in Kenosha.
As police rushed to the scene Tuesday night, the armed suspect is seen on social media video walking past officers. Days after Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with multiple homicide counts, his lawyer said the teen acted in self-defense.
Social media accounts believed to belong to the young White man portrayed him as a supporter of “Blue Lives Matter” and President Donald Trump. He once was part of a youth police cadet program and had an affinity for weapons, according to police and online profiles. He posted a TikTok video from a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa. The President does not appear in the video.
Rittenhouse left the shooting scene still armed. He walked toward officers with his hands up and got away, according to Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis and video posted to social media.
There were many people with weapons at the protests, Miskinis said Friday. “And unfortunately, a lot of gunfights.”
Officers were arriving to the scene after “a shots fired complaint, not a shooting, not a person down complaint,” he said.
Demonstrators at times clashed with armed civilians.
“We are against the violence and burning and looting, but it was started by seven shots,” Blake Sr. told CNN Friday.
“We didn’t breathe life into the violence. We didn’t cause the violence. So for it to seem like it’s our community and all we do is violence, well, you have to go back to the cause – the seven shots.”
Rittenhouse faces two felony counts of homicide for the deaths of Anthony M. Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and a felony attempted homicide charge for wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, according to a criminal complaint. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of possession of a dangerous weapon while under the age of 18.
He is represented by John Pierce, a noted conservative lawyer whose clients include Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney.
“The racial hierarchy that was created during slavery – that you have this subordinate group of people based on race – that’s what survives, that’s what persists,” Hoag said. “That’s what we see playing out on these videos with Blake being shot and Rittenhouse strolling away after murdering two people. And in the non-responsiveness of the institutions that are there to offer protection and redress.”
President for days refused to answer questions on shooting
Blake was shot and wounded on the eve of the Republican National Convention, where Mark and Patricia McCloskey, in a prerecorded speech, on Monday night falsely accused Democrats of trying to “abolish the suburbs.”
The St. Louis homeowners drew national attention in late June after they were seen in a viral video brandishing guns outside their mansion. They took aim at Black Lives Matter protesters walking on a private street to the residence of the city mayor. The couple was charged in July with unlawful use of a weapon, a class E felony.
In the days leading up to Trump’s speech formally accepting the Republican nomination, the President refused to answer questions about Blake’s shooting.
In the speech on the South Lawn of the White House Thursday night, Trump mentioned Kenosha in passing. He argued that the city is among others where protests have devolved into violence that endangers American families.
“When there is police misconduct, the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable, and it will,” he said. “But what we can never have in America – and must never allow – is mob rule. In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago and New York.”
At the convention earlier that night, Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, offered condolences to Blake’s relatives. “Our hearts go out to the Blake family” and others affected by the violence in Kenosha, he said.
“What feels different is that there is far greater awareness of police racism and yet the presidential election is distorting the meaning of the movement,” said Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and author of the book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.”
“Some people don’t know how to respond to the law-and-order reactionary calls for state and vigilante violence emanating from the White House.”
‘We cannot continue on this way’
Hours after President Trump watched fireworks from the South Lawn to close the convention, thousands of people poured into the Lincoln Memorial on Friday. It was the 57th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington.
“We will not be your docile slave,” Blake’s sister, Letetra Wideman, told the crowd nearly a week after her brother was shot. “We will not be your footstool to oppression… Black America, I hold you accountable. You must stand. You must fight, but not with violence and chaos. With self love.”
A procession of speakers, including King’s son, Martin Luther King III, delivered impassioned calls for police and justice reform, and voter action in an event that evoked the historic 1963 march for civil rights and economic opportunity.
The Rev. Al Sharpton announced the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” when he delivered Floyd’s eulogy in June.
“My brother cannot be a voice today. We have to be the voice. We have to be the change,” Floyd’s sister, Bridget Floyd, told the crowds.
Referring to what many historians consider the most tumultuous year in modern US history, Muhammad said: “What is clear is that this summer was a historic one, akin to 1968, that will reverberate for many years to come, especially in the immediate context of the next presidency.”
At a campaign rally in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Trump late Friday condemned “thugs” who he said harassed guests leaving the White House after his renomination speech. The President called the protesters “bad people” and “trouble makers” who surrounded Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and his wife the previous night. They would have killed the couple if police had not intervened, Trump said.
For the first time, Trump spoke of Blake’s shooting, saying he was examining the matter “very strongly.” He was silent about the actions of Rittenhouse.
“I’ll be getting reports and I’ll certainly let you know pretty soon,” Trump told WMUR in New Hampshire, referring to the police shooting. “It was not a good sight. I didn’t like the sight of it, certainly, and I think most people would agree with that.”
On Saturday night, the White House announced the President will travel to Kenosha on Tuesday. He will meet with law enforcement and survey damage from the protests.
Asked if Trump planned to meet the Blake family, White House spokesman Judd Deere said the itinerary was still being worked out.
Hoag, the Columbia Law School lecturer, said she hoped the past week portends significant change.
“I see the demands are louder, the calls for transformational change are more urgent,” she said. “We cannot continue on this way as a nation without some sort of reckoning and reconciliation about racial hierarchy.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Letetra Wideman's last name.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Kate Sullivan, Nicole Chavez, Dakin Andone, Christina Maxouris, Paul P. Murphy, Faith Karimi, Ben Morse, Jill Martin, Jeff Zeleny, Dan Merica, Paul LeBlanc, Maeve Reston, Leah Asmelash, David Close, Jason Hanna, Harmeet Kaur, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Madeline Holcombe and Amir Vera contributed to this report.