In 2021, the United States—and the world—continued to confront the consequences of the momentous events of 2020, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in which former Vice President Joe Biden defeated the incumbent President Donald Trump.
COVID-19’s Continued Toll
As the year began, the nation was still firmly in the grip of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that first emerged in late December 2019 and spread around the world in 2020, prompting lockdowns, a global recession and upheaval on an unprecedented scale. The first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were administered in the United States by the end of 2020; a third vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, was authorized in February. By year’s end, more than 200 million Americans would be fully vaccinated, as use of the vaccines was expanded to cover first adolescents and later children aged five and over.
Amid loosening mandates for mask-wearing and social distancing measures, the arrival of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus dampened hopes for a return to pre-pandemic life. Vaccine hesitancy among many Americans proved a factor in the steady growth of the COVID-19 death toll in the United States, which surpassed 800,000 by mid-December, with global deaths topping 5 million. With the emergence of yet another highly contagious variant, Omicron, toward the end of the year, the U.S. government authorized and endorsed boosters of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for all adults.
U.S. Election Fallout
January 6 Insurrection
On January 6, a mob of pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop lawmakers from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Five people died in the chaos either shortly before, during or following the event, including a Capitol police officer. Lawmakers from both political parties, including Vice President Mike Pence, were forced to flee the congressional chamber for safety. Accused of inciting his supporters to riot, Trump became the first president to be impeached (and acquitted) twice. More than 600 people were later charged for their role in the insurrection, and the House established an independent committee to investigate this attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
Biden and Harris Inaugurated
Amid increased security and continuing pandemic-related precautions, Biden was inaugurated on January 20 as the 46th president of the United States. Kamala Harris became the nation’s first female, Black and South Asian vice president. Shortly after taking office, Biden spoke at a candle-lighting ceremony to mark 500,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19. In March, he signed into law a $1.9 trillion economic relief package, the American Rescue Plan, designed to support workers, families, small businesses and schools struggling to recover from the pandemic’s impact.
Battle Over Voting Rights
Amid Trump’s continued claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, numerous states with Republican-led legislatures passed laws in 2021 that introduced new voting limits. Critics accused such efforts as unfairly targeting people of color, and Democrats in Congress fought for passage of comprehensive voting rights legislation named for the late Georgia congressman John Lewis which would restore key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and protect voting rights in states with a history of racial discrimination.
U.S. Rejoins Paris Climate Accord and WHO
In his first hours as president, Biden signed a letter signaling the return of the United States to the global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, adopted by nearly 200 nations in Paris in 2015. The nation had officially withdrawn from the Paris accord in late 2020, after Trump began the process soon after taking office. Biden also renewed U.S. support for the World Health Organization (WHO), a leader in efforts to combat COVID-19 worldwide.
U.S. Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan
In April, President Biden announced a plan for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the withdrawal proceeded, the Muslim fundamentalist group the Taliban took advantage of a crumbling Afghan government to seize control of much of the country. After a chaotic final stretch in which some 120,000 people were evacuated to safety, the last U.S. military forces left Afghanistan on August 30, ending the nearly 20-year-long conflict that resulted in the deaths of 2,500 U.S. service members and more than 100,000 Afghans, including many civilians.
Notable Foreign Leaders Out of Power
The year saw a number of important transfers of power around the globe, beginning with the military coup in Myanmar that toppled the popularly elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and imprisoned the former Nobel Prize winner on corruption and other charges. In April, Raul Castro stepped down as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, ending an era of leadership that began with his brother Fidel Castro’s victory in the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Rivals of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, formed a loose coalition to oust him from power in June. Finally, Germany’s Angela Merkel left office after 16 years at the helm, becoming the first chancellor in the nation’s history to leave power on her own terms.
Repression of Political Opposition in Russia
Alexey Navalny, an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin who had been recovering in Germany after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, returned to Russia in January and was immediately detained by police. A Moscow court handed down a hefty prison sentence in February for violating probation in an earlier case, sparking mass protests in Russia and widespread condemnation from the United States and other foreign governments. By year’s end, further tensions were mounting over threats by Putin’s Kremlin to mount a major offensive against neighboring Ukraine.
Upheaval in Haiti
In July, gunmen masquerading as U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents burst into the home of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti, killing him and seriously wounding his wife. Barely a month later, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit southwestern Haiti, followed by flash floods, leaving more than 2,200 people dead and injuring or displacing thousands more in a nation already suffering from widespread poverty and hunger. In September, after tens of thousands of Haitian refugees gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. government drew criticism for its response, including border agents rounding migrants up on horseback and mass deportations back to Haiti.
Juneteenth Becomes a Federal Holiday
In June, President Biden signed legislation officially establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The new holiday marks the anniversary of the date in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, under the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Olympics in Tokyo
After being postponed in 2020, the Summer Olympics were held in Tokyo, Japan, though no spectators were allowed after Japan declared a new state of emergency due to COVID-19. Multiple gold medal-winning U.S. gymnast Simone Biles emerged as the biggest story of the games when she withdrew from the individual all-around competition, fueling a growing conversation about the importance of athletes’ mental health.
Disasters & Violence
Mass Shootings in Atlanta and Boulder
Two mass shootings within a week of each other in March—at three spas in the Atlanta area on March 16 and a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado on March 22—proved a devastating reminder of the ongoing scourge of gun violence in the United States. Of the eight people killed in Atlanta, six were Asian women, fueling outrage and fear over the increase in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic.
Deadly Condominium Collapse in Florida
In the early morning hours of July 8, the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed. Ninety-eight people were killed in the incident, which was attributed to structural damage in the concrete building that had first been reported several years earlier.
Winter Storms and Power Failures in Texas
In February, storms bringing snow, sleet and freezing rain combined with frigid temperatures to wreak havoc in Texas, causing road closures, widespread power outages and loss of heat, electricity and water for millions of people. The death toll from the winter storms was later tallied at more than 200 people, and experts predicted it could become the costliest weather-related disaster in the state’s history.
Historic Heat in the West
In late June, the U.S. Pacific Northwest experienced the most extreme heat wave in its recorded history, with temperatures reaching highs of 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon and 108 degrees in Seattle, Washington. The excruciating heat, which extended into British Columbia in Canada, was due to a heat dome, a massive high-pressure zone hovering on the U.S.-Canada border. Historically expected to occur only once every several thousand years on average, experts say such rare weather events have become far more probable due to climate change.
Making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds on August 29, Hurricane Ida claimed the lives of more than 30 people in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, becoming the most damaging storm to hit the region after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. After weakening to a tropical depression, Ida wreaked unexpected havoc in the Northeast, killing at least 60 people in six states and causing widespread flooding of streets, neighborhoods, houses and even the New York City subway system.
In the Courts
Verdicts in Three Prominent Murder Trials
In April, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, which sparked protests against systemic racism and police violence in more than 2,000 U.S. cities and 60 countries around the globe in 2020. In another trial related to Black Lives Matter protests, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after claiming self-defense in the killing of two people and wounding of another during the unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Finally, a jury in Georgia convicted three white defendants of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man whom they confronted while he was jogging through their neighborhood. As with Floyd and Blake, Arbery’s killing—and the slowness of local law enforcement to make arrests—had fueled anger and outrage among protesters condemning racial injustice and demanding change.
Two Men Exonerated of Malcolm X killing
In November, a New York judge granted the motion to vacate the convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and the late Khalil Islam for the 1965 assassination of Black nationalist and religious leader Malcolm X. The two men’s exoneration more than 50 years after they were convicted came after an investigation found that crucial evidence pointing to their innocence, including FBI and New York Police Department documents, had been withheld at the time of their trial.
Verdicts in ‘Me Too’ cases
After decades of allegations of sexual abuse of women and underage girls, R&B singer R. Kelly was convicted by a jury in New York of federal racketeering and sex trafficking charges in September; he faces a possible life sentence. Meanwhile, in a blow to supporters of sexual assault victims and the Me Too movement, a Pennsylvania court threw out the conviction of Bill Cosby and released him from prison after ruling that his due process rights had been violated.
Britney Spears Gains Her Freedom
In November, fans and activists in the #FreeBritney movement celebrated the decision of a Los Angeles judge to end the 13-year conservatorship controlling the personal and professional life of pop star Britney Spears. Begun in 2008 when the singer was struggling with mental health issues and a custody battle over her children, the conservatorship had been controlled for much of that time by her father. At a court hearing over the summer, Spears spoke publicly about the conservatorship for the first time, and called for it to be terminated.
Space & Tech
NASA Rover Lands on Mars
Launched in late July 2020, the NASA rover Perseverance spent months traveling through space, covering some 292.5 million miles before touching down on Mars on February 18. As the space agency’s most sophisticated rover yet, Perseverance spent the rest of the year exploring Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake, collecting rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth and probing for evidence of whether life ever existed on the planet.
SpaceX and Jeff Bezos Make Civilian Space Travel a Reality
After sending U.S. astronauts into orbit for the first time in nearly a decade in 2020, space exploration company SpaceX, founded by the eccentric billionaire Elon Musk, went into overdrive in 2021. In addition to launching two more operational missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the company’s spacecraft ferried four non-astronauts on a three-day extraterrestrial voyage in September, in the first-ever flight into Earth’s orbit by civilian space tourists. Less than a month later, the rocket company Blue Origin, owned by ex-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, launched Star Trek actor William Shatner and three others just beyond the boundary marking outer space, making the 90-year-old Shatner the oldest space traveler in history.
Bumpy Year for Facebook
Amid ongoing concerns about its struggles to adequately protect data and limit hate speech, misinformation and other disreputable content, the world’s largest social network confronted a flood of issues this year, beginning with the Capitol insurrection and its subsequent decision to indefinitely suspend then-President Trump. Troves of documents later leaked by former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed more damaging information about the impact of the company’s platforms on young users’ mental health. Finally, Facebook announced that it was rebranding itself as Meta to reflect a focus on the metaverse, a virtual reality space where users interact with each other amid a computer-generated environment.
Among the notable people we lost in 2021 was Colin Powell, the celebrated military leader who became the nation’s first Black secretary of state, who died in October of complications from COVID-19 while suffering from multiple myeloma, a blood cell cancer that suppresses the immune system, as well as Parkinson’s disease.
Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 and whose own record of 755 home runs stood until 2007, died in January; so did the trailblazing stage and screen star Cicely Tyson. Prince Philip, who as husband to Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-serving royal consort in British history, died in April at the age of 99.
The year also saw the loss of the beloved authors Beverly Cleary and Anne Rice, as well as former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. Longtime TV and radio host Larry King and the talk radio star and conservative media hero Rush Limbaugh also passed away this year, while the entertainment world mourned the loss of Oscar-winning actors Christopher Plummer and Olympia Dukakis and musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim.
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