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By Morak Babajide-Alabi
There are many questions the protesters on the streets of the United States of America (USA) are demanding answers to. They are disappointed and angry at their county’s system that promotes a different set of rules for the races that inhabit the land. They are enraged at the system that treats one race as superior to the other. The fact disillusions them that in 2020, policing in the most powerful country in the world is defined along racial lines.
There is no disputing the fact that violence is not the solution to societal issues. We may argue that fights for social justices are never won on the streets, but we need to understand that the process for the change could start there. If we put ourselves in the shoes of these protesters, we would relate to their pains and why they vented the anger on the streets. There was frustration on the part of these protesters who expected much more than what the society offers them currently.
These protesters have recognized so many injustices and momentarily threw caution to the winds. Some of them probably were part of similar protests in the past. They had seen fellow citizens congregated to denounce police brutalities towards the black population. But what they have not witnessed is a change in the approach of the police. Despite the history of protests demanding an overhaul of the system to treat all citizens the same, these protesters are frustrated there has been no change. It is one law for the black folks and another for the other race.
They realise the heaviness of their actions, but they equally know that without a scream, their protests would not achieve anything. As they gathered in Minneapolis, Georgia and other cities, they recalled the extensive list of citizens of black origin that have been wasted by the system. The names of the victims killed by officers who were supposed to protect them laid heavily on their minds. They cannot blur these out of their consciousness because they see themselves in the images of the murdered compatriots.
As they gathered in protest to the latest death of in the hands of the police department, they ask, how long shall these continue? For how much longer can a black man walk the streets without fear of a police bullet in his back? Or when will the heartfelt cry of “I can’t breathe” be a thing of the past? These protesters see themselves in George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man whose life was snuffled last week Monday by the officers of the Minneapolis police force. Three policemen had gripped Floyd down, with Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck, while the fourth man kept “intruders” at bay.
The video clip of the process leading to the death of the defenceless Floyd has been watched and shared millions of times on social media. The protesters know this is not a pleasant way to die. They imagined themselves as Floyd as he gasped for air pleading with his captors that “I can’t breathe.” In their minds, they replayed the clip of Floyd fighting for his life in the hands of these policemen. One can understand the anger of the protesters.
They wondered what part of “I can’t breathe,” the policemen did not quite understand? This inhuman behaviour of the four policemen is not out of character. The landscape of policing in the US is littered with pieces of evidence of how white police officers treat black people with iron fists. Floyd was, unfortunately, a victim of this high-handedness. But to Hal Marx, a Mississippi Mayor, it was no big deal. He tweeted: “If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing. Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack…” It is in the same line with President Donald Trump’s tweet of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Comments such as these are what get the protesters fired up. In situations such as the present, you would expect utmost caution in the choice of words from both sides. The commander in chief decided to reach into his history book to tweet a quote from the sixties. It has been ascribed to a Miami’s former police chief, Walter E. Headley, condemned by civil rights groups for his racist inclination. But this is the new America as defined by nationalism and alt-right movements with no regards to race relations.
It is a little comfort that Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The protesters still have their reservation on whether the same system could be trusted to serve justice. They are sceptical because history abounds of officers being let off the hook after incidents such as this. The Rodney King beating by LAPD officers on March 3, 1991, and the subsequent trial and discharge of the officers are still fresh in our minds. Just a few weeks ago the world was discussing the needless killing of Ahmaud Arbery. He was shot at a close range by Gregory and Travis McMichael a father and son who claimed they mistook him for a burglar. His death brought about a round of condemnation as the killers almost got off without, even a slap on the wrist.
Only God knows what went on in the minds of Chauvin and his colleagues as Floyd screamed: “I can’t breathe.” If only we could see through their minds as Chauvin bring to bear more pressure on the neck of Floyd. Could it be that Chauvin’s hatred for the being of the man underneath him deafened him to the pleas? Did the officer blank out and did not realise he was kneeling on the neck of a human being? His demeanour did not indicate a man who cared if the black man lived or died. While this lasted, Chauvin had his left hand in his pocket. Do you wonder as I do what he could be fondling in his pocket?
That is a mystery that has to be solved. He looked intent at physically wounding the man. It is also worrying none of the other officers could caution him to relax his “grip” on the neck. If these officers studied police history, they would realise the cry of “I can’t breathe” is not a particularly good one. Regrettably, none of them seemed to have heard about Eric Garner and what their colleagues did to the young man. A cry of “I can’t breathe” represents a desperate call for release.
On May 29, 2016, I wrote a piece titled “Policing A Hard To Reach Black Men.” Although this article was mainly on the relationship between the black and minority ethnic groups and the police in the United Kingdom, I slightly delved into what was happening in the US. I had written: “The disparity in the treatment of black young men and women by the police in the United States of America came under intense scrutiny in recent times when some overzealous white officers went out of their ways to target unarmed black young males. These officers, who overstep their bounds on many occasions particularly, picked on black folks for no obvious reasons.”
Things are not looking good in race relations right now in the US. You are right on the money if you wonder when race relations have been any good in the country. Unfortunately, a country that is supposed to be a model as a multi-racial society had continued to fall the hands of everyone in the world. Racism seems to have become a familiar issue in a country where nationalism has taken a wrong turn. It surprises no one any longer.
As written for the Diaspora Matters column, Sunday Vanguard, May 30, 2020.