No Black No White
The outrage in the US is not a first. The nation has a long lineage of tumult. But each time, the country has got up, dusted itself off and learnt to walk again. Will this time be any different?
Innocent brothers and sisters,
it's time to wake up, wake up, wake up;
Brothers and sisters, it's time to say
something, do something, make 'em;
Mmm, I wonder, how many Blacks lives,
how many heartbeats turned into flatlines.
– "How Many" by Miguel
IIt took the killing of one African American, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis to get a massive part of the United States out into the streets across the country, with protests breaking out in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles Silicon Valley, Minneapolis and St Louis. The protests began as a peaceful march but radically escalated into civil unrest, with rioting and looting ripping across as many as 40 of the 50 states in the United States. Still in the deadly grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US was surely burning. So much so that curfew had to be imposed across several US states, including New York and Washington, with the US President himself being moved to the bunker beneath the White House as the protests all but reached his residence.
But what made the whole world sit up, take notice and get involved in the matter was the statement issued on national television by Houston police chief Art Acevedo, who asked US President Donald Trump to "keep your (his) mouth shut", reacting to the latter's directive to law-enforcement agencies to use force and all means necessary to quell the protests. As Trump warned of military deployment to stop the rioting, Acevedo told CNN: "Let me just say this to the President of the United States, on behalf of the police chiefs of this country. Please, if you don't have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut."
Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck as he gasped for breath.
The outrage being witnessed in the United States is nothing new, with the nation having a long and colourful lineage of tumultuous circumstances (but more on that later). Each time though, the country has got back to its feet, dusted itself off and learnt to walk again. Will this time be any different?
Historically, racial discrimination has always been part of American society, but it has been largely confined to the bigger cities. Today though, the situation is different, with COVID-19 ravaging the United States, infecting nearly 2 million, killing over 1,00,000 and leaving over 40 million unemployed. As millions learnt to cower down in their homes or scurry around in masks on the streets, the killing of an African American by a white police officer was a tailor-made catalyst to get swarms of people out on the streets. Paradoxically, in the United States, COVID-19 has been disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Thus, the brutal killing of one of them saw millions of them marching in protest, with the white Americans also joining them.
Earlier, there was the senseless shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American who was out for a run in Georgia. Then came the incident where a white woman in Central Park, New York, called the police after an African American asked her to leash her dog. George Floyd's killing by the white police officer was, thus, the third such case in recent times. All three incidents involved the spectre of an African American person being perceived as a threat, and all had a common thread running through them. That of white folk being suspicious of African Americans and either taking action themselves (as in the case of Arbery), immediately calling the police for intervention (the white woman with the dog), and a law-enforcement officer using excessive force to restrain and punish an African American suspected of some wrongdoing (Floyd).
'Police brutality' describes situations in which law enforcement officers bring to bear excessive force on suspects. This could be in the form of either employing a physical restraining force, as with George Floyd in Minneapolis most recently, and with Eric Garner in New York in 2014… Or shooting at them if sensing even the slightest threat, as in the case of one Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, and hundreds of others over the years.
The August 2014 Michael Brown incident, close on the heels of the July 2014 killing of Eric Garner, set off massive protests in Ferguson (Missouri), which later spread throughout the United States. The state of Missouri had to employ additional military forces to bring the violence under control. Though a lot of soul-searching and analysis resulted from the manifestation of public anger in Ferguson — from trying to understand the socio-economic divides to thinking of the issues with police biases and training — it did not do much to slam the brakes on racist police behaviour in the US, even in the same year.
In November 2014, police in Cleveland, Ohio shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing in a public park. He was reported by someone in a call to the police as carrying a weapon,
"probably fake". Indeed, it turned out that Rice had a toy gun in his hands. Rice was, however, shot within seconds of the police arriving at the scene.
Earlier, in 2013, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American boy was shot by a local security officer on suspicion of being an interloper in the neighbourhood he was in. When the security officer was later acquitted by the courts, the 'Black Lives Matters' movement was born, as a platform to rally around. The movement gained strength following the 2014 incidents of police killings.
Protests by the African-American community over police action, such as in Ferguson or in Minneapolis currently, have a long history in the United States. These have included the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, the Newark riots of 1967 and the protests following Rodney King's murder in Los Angeles in 1992. Other more recent protests were triggered by Tim Thomas' murder in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2001, Oscar Grant's shooting in Oakland in 2009 and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 in Baltimore.
The much-celebrated and emulated Black Panther Movement in the late 60s and early 70s also took off after constant run-ins with the local police in Oakland, California. It was the Hunter's Point riots that followed the killing of an unarmed African American man, Matthew Johnson, which saw the emergence of the Black Panthers, who took it upon themselves to monitor the police, openly carrying arms themselves.
There have been constant struggles and investigations in different areas to address the issues of the socio-economic disadvantages of African-Americans, from biases in allocation of state resources for basic social goods to the mass incarceration of black people to instil fear in the community and remove its working adults to prison. But trotting alongside, the confrontation with law enforcement has been a constant. Terms like 'Driving While Black (DWB)', which point to the high incidences of African American folk being pulled over while driving without adequate reason, has long been in the mainstream parlance. In many such cases, a simple instance of being pulled over can turn fatal, as in the case of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015. She protested over being stopped for what seemed like a minor infraction and the exchange with the police officer escalated to such an extent that he had her arrested and sent to prison. Three days later, she was found hanging in her cell.
While the African American community has had a fraught and fatal relationship with the police over the years, the white community has largely trusted the police. According to a Pew Centre report, "A survey conducted in mid-2017 asked Americans to rate police officers and other groups of people on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 to 100, where 0 represents the coldest, most negative rating and 100 represents the warmest and most positive. African American adults gave police officers a mean rating of 47, while the white (folk) gave officers a mean rating of 72."
A discriminatory regime of laws promulgated after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1865), called the Jim Crow laws, put into practice legalised racial segregation in the United States. It was the police who were often called in to enforce the specifics of the laws, further entrenching the biases against the African American population. In any society, the police are not separate from the larger beliefs and attitudes. A historical stance of African Americans as second-class citizens, as dictated by the politics of disposability, dominates common attitudes and public policy: "It is a politics in which the unproductive (the poor, weak and racially marginalised) are considered useless and therefore expendable... in which entire populations are considered disposable, unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and are consigned to fend for themselves."
To such deeper and older accounts of systematic neglect and marginalisation of African-Americans — and their targeting by law enforcement — is joined the more recent story of America's notorious 'war on drugs'. As Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of the book, The New Jim Crow, explained in an interview, "After the drug war was declared, crack hit the streets and really began to ravage inner-city communities, and a wave of punitive-ness washed over the United States. The drug war was a literal war. It has been, and continues to be, a literal war waged in poor communities of colour, complete with SWAT teams and military-style equipment and tactics."
This greater police presence in African Americans communities has increased the chances of violent encounters and in many cases, resulted in the latter being swept up into the mass incarceration system, as Alexander explains. What is abundantly clear is that the police have always been the frontline of an apathetic and skittish administration, which has deliberately under-invested in the uplift of African Americans. The police, especially the white officers, do their superior's bidding, besides imbibing all the common prejudices against African Americans.
While the story of the economic disadvantages that African Americans suffer from cannot be ignored, it is a two-way street. The police force itself also has a large number of African Americans, and there have been many an instance of white Americans claiming excesses being committed by the former. Admittedly, the fact remains that there are far more cases of African Americans being at the receiving end of police excesses than the other way around. While police brutality is a real and existential issue for African Americans, it is the ongoing calamity of the Coronavirus that has laid bare their vulnerabilities in a stark and undeniable manner.
The protests and reform movements, of course, rightfully seek changes to law enforcement operating procedures, greater conversation on issues of race and solutions like community-control over the police. Many organisations seek a minimum of accountability to prosecute guilty police officers and the reopening of old cases to bring about a sense of justice.
Sure, the anger and outrage being witnessed on US' streets is understandable. Also, protests against any institutionalised racism in the police force is required, and one only hopes that these protests are a wake-up call, both for the United States and the rest of the world, to usher in far-reaching changes and bring about sanity and humanity in the deft art of policing millions and millions of people.
As mentioned, the George Floyd incident in the United States has spilt across borders, with protests being held in Amsterdam, London, Marseille and Paris. Last week, nearly 20,000 protestors gathered outside Paris' main courthouse to protest the killing of Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in a suburb of the French Capital in July 2016. While the Paris protest was not the first against police excesses and Traoré's death, it had not widely resounded before outside of activist circles.
Clearly, the George Floyd incident is finding a strong echo in France and around the world, and it is high time that the United States takes strong note and makes course corrections. Diverting the issue with military might and other means will not work, for the times are dire. Pretence and impotence will not be tolerated or forgiven — swift corrective action is the only way forward.