"The polls show a massive change of view about the protests," David Sylvan, Graduate Institute Geneva

Thousands of people break lockdown rules during a Black Lives Matter protest at Parliament Square in London. (Credit: Keystone)

Huge protests have taken place accross the United States and around the globe against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd. “At an unprecedented scale”, according to David Sylvan, political science professor at The Graduate Institute.

The protests don’t seem to be fading, what’s different?

According to a Monmouth poll, 76% of Americans including 71% of white people called racism and discrimination a big problem in the United States. That’s gone up by half since 2015. 78% of the population say that they see some kind of justification [for the protests]. In another Monmouth poll, 57% said police officers – half of them white- were more likely to treat black people unfairly. That’s unheard of.

Don’t you think it’s just a short-term effect?

On these kind of questions, structural trends are not usually affected very much by events. But in the last ten years, we have seen public opinion shift drastically in a short period of time with gay marriage and now with racial discrimination. First, we have an unprecedented change. Second, the protests are occurring all over the place, in 430 cities and towns in the United States with a huge number of white people joining, and groups like Mennonites, which nobody would imagine protesting. Yesterday, [the Republican] Mitt Romney was marching with evangelicals, whose signs said "Black Lives Matter" and also had quotations from the Bible.

What does and will it trigger?

First, Trump is forced to give in, as there is huge pushback from the military and all kinds of Republicans. Second, there is a possibility of cutting off budgets for the police. Even one week ago nobody would have dared talk about this. These events point at the huge structural problems of the US that everyone is well aware - racism, police brutality and militarization of the police - but also a genuine change and much greater understanding than ever before.

What’s different in the perception people have?

People are protesting against racism, prejudice and discrimination that can manifest itself in lots of ways, from the higher unemployment rate among black people to the much higher probability of being arrested or killed by the police if you are black. But what’s interesting is that until now, people were in denial about that sort of thing, especially whites. They are beginning to understand that this has much to do with the way the system is organized to a large degree.

The police feel less entitled than before?

The police could do things, and politicians would always support them. That’s beginning to crumble. In parts because there have been a huge number of videos released showing what is happening. Even a few weeks ago, I would have said that protests would be doomed to failure, and the law-and-order reflex would kick in, but that’s not what’s happening.

How do you explain that?

The cumulative effect is really significant. The evidence is so graphic that people are not able to deny it. The protests are acting lie a memory net. The public usually don’t like protests. In 1968, all the protests against the Vietnam war helped Richard Nixon to be elected. In this case, the protests have the effect of politicizing people who don’t usually think about these things.

Who is going to take advantage from this?

In terms of policy, there will be lots of efforts in states in cities across the US to change the laws. There will be some cuts in [police] budgets. The use of military-grade equipment by police will decline. In terms of the election, it will benefit Joe Biden and the Democrats more generally. The Republicans’ main problem is that they are tied to Trump who is going down in the polls. They will be in this impossible situation whereby if they support him, they sink with him. If they break with him, he will mobilize his supporters to fight against them.