On December 10, TIME Magazine will announce its choice for 2020’s Person of the Year. If history is any guide—as it often is—there is reason to believe the “winner” will be a toss-up between Joe Biden and COVID first responders. On the one hand, since 1972, TIME has devoted its year-end issue to all but three winners of the U.S. presidential election; on the other hand, in recent years it has paid special heed to those in the public service sector, from journalists to whistleblowers to those who battled Ebola in 2014.
As must be said every year—and which our outgoing president famously does not understand—TIME’s pick for Person of the Year is not an honor, per se. By the magazine’s own reckoning, the selection represents “the person or group of people who had the greatest influence on the events of the year—for better or worse.” TIME has carried on this tradition since 1927, and while the majority of its choices have been highly honorable folk, the list has also included the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Donald J. Trump.
Such is the nature of history: One need not be virtuous to profoundly shape and alter the lives of millions. Indeed, the opposite is all-too-often the case.
In any event, this annual exercise is nothing if not a parlor game, and I would be remiss not to proffer my own view on this mildly important matter in this most tumultuous of years.
For my money—and without further ado—the most influential person in 2020 was Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who videotaped the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
The argument is as follows: Until Memorial Day, the coronavirus pandemic was the only news story of 2020. From the moment in late February when it became clear that the mysterious pathogen that had rattled China in late 2019 would soon become an American problem, the United States was operating in a continued state of emergency, with most commercial activity ground to a halt and residents of countless cities and towns advised to shelter inside their homes until further notice, venturing out only for essential goods and services like food and medicine.
While the suspension of any semblance of normal life was not necessarily the relaxing vacation it felt like at the start—particularly for those whose only source of income had dried up as a direct consequence of the outbreak—by late spring we had more or less gotten the hang of it, grudgingly obeying the pleas of local and state officials to keep away from each other and wear face coverings as a means of keeping the infection and death rates as low as humanly possible—even at the cost of no longer seeing family and friends, going to the movies or even attending funerals.
And then Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and the whole country changed the subject.
In an ordinary year, news that a white Minneapolis police officer had fatally pinned a black man to the ground for 7 minutes and 46 seconds for the crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store would be treated merely as a horrific, racially-biased miscarriage of justice. In the late spring of 2020, the killing of George Floyd proved cataclysmic, for several key reasons.
First and most obviously, the murder was filmed from beginning to end and broadcast almost immediately, thereby preventing the Minneapolis Police Department from downplaying and/or whitewashing the incident before it became something of a big deal. What’s more, the sheer, sadistic brutality of an unarmed man being suffocated to death by the police in broad daylight while he cried out for his (dead) mother proved so indefensible that not even the president of the United States deigned to defend it. In a notable break from tradition, all four officers involved were fired within 48 hours of Floyd’s death and charged with murder by the end of the week.
Of course, none of this quasi-accountability prevented the international outrage that followed, which saw millions of people take to the streets in protest, marching, demonstrating and demanding rectification, with the occasional looting and arson tossed in for good measure.
The effects of these “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations were manifold. First, they got people out of the house for the first time in more than two months. In principle, this was in direct violation of every advisory that had been issued by the nation’s health experts since the pandemic began. However, because the protests occurred in the name of racial justice—ostensibly a noble and urgent cause—those same experts were forced to tie themselves in logistical knots, arguing that even though they had spent some 10 weeks explicitly condemning large gatherings as potential “superspreader” events, the BLM gatherings somehow didn’t count because…well, fighting racism is more important than fighting COVID, I guess.
The howling inconsistency of this messaging was not lost on those who had been forced to forego such foundational rituals as churchgoing and Memorial Day parades only to be suddenly told that massive get-togethers were OK after all, just so long as they were held for the right reasons.
So much for following the science.
In retrospect, the moment our political and public health leaders decided that loudly condemning police brutality was a worthy exception to the COVID-era rules was also the moment the coronavirus irreversibly became a political issue. It was the inflection point when a large chunk of the populace stopped trusting that the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci knew what they were talking about and had our best interests at heart, and began to wonder if this whole shutdown business was just one big unnecessary charade.
From there, you can trace the increased hostility toward any and all manner of controlling the virus, which correlated ever-so-neatly with fidelity to Donald Trump, while support for aggressive measures such as school closings and mask mandates came to stand in for opposition to same.
While one can’t prove a counterfactual, it is entirely plausible that, absent a gargantuan, coast-to-coast civil rights uprising that happened to commence on the unofficial first weekend of summer, there would not have been such a contentious, painful and ultimately ruinous ideological civil war between those who recognized COVID-19 as a once-in-a-century epidemiological menace and those who considered it a hoax, a conspiracy or simply not that big a deal.
The BLM protests also had a surprising—and somewhat ironic—secondary effect: They showed that the coronavirus does not spread outdoors at the rate that it spreads indoors. Against all our preconceived assumptions, the demonstrations were not the “superspreader” events we initially feared they would be. Whether due to their open-air setting or to widespread mask-wearing among their participants—presumably it was some combination of the two—the marches did not collectively cause a meaningful spike in COVID infections, hospitalizations or deaths.
In a weird way, the revelation that safe-ish outdoor congregating was, in fact, possible may well have shaped our future collective behavior more drastically than any other single factor—for better and for worse. On the one hand, it provided a blueprint for the responsible resumption of such activities as weddings, outdoor dining and the like. On the other hand, it lent real (if misguided) credence to the argument that the initial lockdowns were a hysterical overreaction and their associated restrictions on freedom of movement a gross abuse of government power over its citizens. Someday, with enough data, we’ll know for sure whether that view was correct.
Here’s what we know now: The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—with its inevitable excesses—provided Donald Trump with his most potent and lasting distraction from his own disgraceful mismanagement of COVID from Day 1, allowing him to stay competitive in his re-election campaign against Joe Biden and, in turn, ensure the continued viability of Trumpism beyond his own tenure, which will end on January 20.
Absent Trump’s “law and order” schtick throughout the summer, the 2020 election may well have been the Biden blowout we had been promised all along, complete with a Democratic Senate and all the legislative spoils that would follow.
Absent the BLM movement, that campaign strategy would not have gained its potency. Absent the murder of George Floyd, the BLM movement would not have re-materialized when it did, if at all. And absent the video footage of that murder, the name George Floyd would be completely unknown or, at most, a mere footnote alongside Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and the many other victims of apparent racist policing in 2020 whose stories, while outrageous and tragic, would not necessarily send millions into the streets all by themselves.
Long story short (too late?), the ultimate trajectory of 2020 would be unrecognizable had Darnella Frazier not been standing at the corner of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on May 25, with her cell phone camera at the ready. Her uninterrupted recording of the final moments of George Floyd’s life—a video that, to this day, I haven’t quite brought myself to watch—altered the course of human events in ways big and small, and stands as the pivot point of the most chaotic and consequential period in the life of the United States in a generation.
For that reason—at least according to the metrics of TIME Magazine—she is 2020’s Person of the Year. Although we should note that, by the same definition, the Non-Person of the Year was most likely a bat.