America is in turmoil. Cities and towns have been burning, stores have been looted and vandalised, buildings and cars have been set ablaze, the National Guard has been deployed, and peaceful protestors are being subjected to horrific violence by law enforcement authorities. Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the nation’s streets to voice their anger over the recent death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The video of the police officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd, suffocating and killing him went viral. As the life went out of Floyd, he was heard pleading with the white officer, saying that he couldn’t breathe, echoing the very last words of another black man, Eric Garner, who also died in similar circumstances at the hands of New York policemen in 2014. Floyd’s murder by a white police officer happened exactly three months after two white men in Georgia shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was out jogging.
There is also the case of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, who was killed in March in Louisville, Kentucky, when police mistakenly burst into her apartment to serve a search warrant and ended up shooting her as she was sleeping in her bedroom. To make a critically important point that blacks are never safe anywhere in the United States from the police or racist whites, Ben Crump, the attorney for both Arbery and Floyd, recently said in a press conference, “You can’t walk while black. With Arbery, you can’t jog while black. But Breonna Taylor was sleeping while black in the sanctity of her own home.”
Blacks in the United States are so frequently the victims of unprovoked and unjustified police violence that it would be naïve to think that this kind of deeply rooted racist behaviour will end any time soon. The massive protests in so many cities in the United States are not only because Floyd was murdered by a white police officer but also because Floyd’s murder is just one of many such dehumanising and tragic episodes in American life.
The murder serves as a cruel reminder to all blacks in the United States that their lives are cheap and can be snuffed out any time and anywhere by an armed police officer. The following quote from Chad Sanders’ oped in The New York Times (5 May) ~ “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends” poignantly captures the existential threat of death that blacks experience every day at the hands of the police: “As a black man, what I actually feel ~ constantly ~ is the fear of death; the fear that when I go for my morning stroll through Central Park or to 7-Eleven for an Ari- Zona Iced Tea, I won’t make it back home. I fear I won’t get to celebrate my parents’ 40th anniversary …. I won’t get to take my partner out dancing in her favourite Bed-Stuy bars.”
Experts on police violence against blacks point out that it is a consequence of systemic racism in the United States, which is a legacy of slavery. Angela Davis, celebrated academic, activist, feminist, and revolutionary says, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan.”
This is why it’s important to remember that slavery in many respects was responsible for forging a tight link between the social class structure and racial hierarchy in the United States. It created a bottom rung of people comprising blacks who were racially stigmatised and were situated in extreme economic disadvantage and poverty. The race-based hierarchy was never really dismantled. At present, many layers of complexity have been added to the race-based hierarchy, where black communities suffer from both over-policing and underpolicing.
Over-policing happens when police run roughshod over the lives and civil liberties of blacks, subjecting them to the most arbitrary arrests and unwarranted shootings, which either end in wounding or killing them. In contrast, under-policing happens when someone is not getting a police response to violence and crime committed within the black community and certainly not getting an adequate response in cases where blacks are victims of white perpetrators. In some respects, police brutality and the killing of blacks serve as the catalyst for the nationwide protests that we are witnessing now, but they are not the only causes.
There are issues of economic inequities, unequal treatment in healthcare and education, lack of job opportunities, political marginalization, and disproportionate incarceration of blacks in prisons, among others, which are inextricably linked to systemic racism that blacks face in their daily lives. Let’s look at some statistics, which will help explain how the American system is marked by inequities for blacks.
In Minneapolis, for example, where the current protests started, the median income for black households is less than half of white households ~ $ 38,000 compared to $ 85,000. In Washington, DC, the percentage of out-of-work black residents outpaces white residents at a rate of 6 to 1. All major research findings indicate that black households struggle economically more than the median household nationwide. Furthermore, black workers with the same résumés as whites are paid less and are given worse benefits. The protests that have erupted all over the country are not just about blacks fighting for justice.
We see Americans of all colours and backgrounds taking to the streets alongside black demonstrators to fight against institutional racism and white supremacy. The protests represent the anger and deep anguish for the continued oppression and inhuman suffering of the black community as well as highlighting the intense existential angst and hopelessness of blacks for being historically degraded and dehumanised. What started as a peaceful protest in Minneapolis and in other American cities soon became sites of wanton violence in the form of looting, arson, and vandalism.
Authorities believe most of the thefts and vandalism came from people not directly connected with the protests who used the teeming crowds as cover to steal merchandise. It is, however, important to remember that even though the protests became violent, most of the reported attacks were directed against property and not people. Sadly, the media and the political leaders chose to focus only on the violence and not on the peaceful protests that were also going on everywhere.
When Americans saw the images of looting, arson and vandalism on television and social media, many were aghast. They expressed their profound shock and horror for the destruction of businesses, stores and homes on social media, bemoaning the fact that America was destroyed forever by the “looters.” Certainly the police atrocities don’t justify the rampages that have erupted all over the United States, but to feel sorry for the damage due to looting and vandalism and not for the black lives that have been lost at the hands of police shows a distinct lack of compassion.
More importantly, looting is totally unproductive in solving this crisis. Although rioting and looting are found to be unproductive in protest movements, they are often the manifestation of seething anger over feeling oppressed, unheard, and dehumanised every day. This is summed up so well by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he says, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” As America continues to be embroiled in one of the worst conflicts in its history, President Trump has done nothing to heal the nation.
In fact, he has done just the opposite. He has threatened the peaceful protestors at the White House with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.” Later, in a broadcast to the nation, he declared himself as the “president of law and order” and threatened to end protests with military intervention. His threatening words only added more fuel to the fire, dividing a nation that is under siege.
It is during these dark and dismal times the message of Cornel West, the renowned philosopher, political activist, and public intellectual, holds special meaning and significance: “We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation ~ and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humour, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.” (Race Matters, 1993)
(The writer is emeritus professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)