Throughout human history, a social transformation has only been engendered when people have risen in a unified rebellion against prolonged abuse of authority. The United States is now witnessing a similar act of resistance after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The police officer brutally pinned him down by the neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while the other three officers prevented bystanders from intervening. Floyd could be repeatedly heard pleading for his life as he gasped for breath, and among his final words were “I can’t breathe”. This incident of police brutality against a black man sparked a nationwide protest against systemic racism in the US.
Despite there being frequent acts of racial injustice and subsequent uprisings before, the George Floyd case evoked such a powerful reaction due to a culmination of reasons. Firstly, the availability of spine-chilling graphic evidence and the pettiness of the motive behind the murder phenomenally helped to bring out the severity of the problem. This footage, when paired with the reach of social media not only spread awareness of the prevalent racism but also ignited rage and a thirst for justice and change within the public. In addition, the circumstances in which the atrocity occurred played a very crucial role. The Trump government’s calamitous failure in containing the COVID-19 pandemic has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country- with the numbers only rising. Unsurprisingly, statistics reveal that Black Americans are experiencing the highest overall mortality rates- almost 2.3 times that of their white counterparts. While the government blames this disparity on the higher incidence of underlying conditions in the blacks, there is sufficient evidence pointing to glaring limitations in their access to healthcare.
The US is now witnessing its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, with more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs. And the huge disparity between the races’ unemployment rates only highlights the deep-seated racism in the system.
With unemployment, poverty, and chaos besieging the public, an insurgence against the system had become all but inevitable. So when Floyd’s murder came into the spotlight, which proved to be the final straw in a string of heinous acts, agony and rage bubbled to the surface.
Anti-racism protests are taking place all over the United States, and in many other countries, under the slogan “Black Lives Matter”, a movement which had originated in 2013 after Trayvon Martin, a defenseless African-American teenager, was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a local community watcher. The protesters are not only seeking justice for Floyd and every black victim but are also demanding that the whole system be revamped.
Unjust policing and discrimination against marginalized populations have been around for decades. And the government’s lukewarm efforts, over the years, to solve police violence through liberal reforms- identify and prosecute police misconduct, educate the police force, etc.- has not borne any fruits. Therefore, protesters are demanding that the police should be ‘defunded’. They believe that these funds could be better used to bridge the socio-economic gap among the races by investing it in their education, housing, healthcare.
This movement draws unusual parallels to the ongoing Hong Kong protests against a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong’s extradition to mainland China. Although the intentions behind both the protests are quite distinct- one is a fight against antediluvian mentality and rampant police brutality while the other is a quest to maintain a country’s sovereignty, both movements are profoundly an act of rebellion against the establishment’s pursuit to establish dominion by systematically suppressing the powerless’ voice and freedom.
The protestors have been attacked by the police, exposed to tear gas, and hit by rubber bullets, but have persevered in their attempts to march shoulder to shoulder amid a deadly pandemic. While the non-violent protests are gaining momentum, and increasing in size by the day, there have been few instances of unlawful behavior in correlation with physical confrontations and property damage. Some people have taken unscrupulous advantage of the protests by breaking into and looting luxury stores, destroying police vehicles and setting property afire. These scant acts of anarchy have stolen coverage from the real issue and have dented its credibility.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected into office through a campaign fuelling white racial resentment against minority communities. Since then, his government has not only allowed racism to seep through American politics but has also not punished the perpetrators of crimes against black civilians. More than ever, institutional racism has grown rampant in the United States under his watch. For instance, despite being 13% of the population, more than 50% of homeless families are black.
In alignment with his views in 2016, President Trump has conveniently disregarded the protests, choosing instead to focus on the few unlawful occurrences. He has permitted states to use the armed forces to curb the peaceful protests and has also imposed curfews in many areas.
On account of this, Trump, who had unequivocally criticized China for their handling of the Hong Kong protests, has received stick from the likes of China and Russia for his hypocrisy in administering his own country’s protests. AS Trump is under immense pressure to do well in the upcoming presidential elections, he has turned to his most reliable vote bank-the white supremacists. These people generally belong to the lower classes of society and are easier to hoodwink compared to the rest of the population. From calling Coronavirus ‘Kung-Flu’ to restricting H1B visas, Trump is targeting every group that his voters think is a threat to their lifestyle. Trump’s government has managed to wreck the founding pillars of America, by first inducing a protest, and then threatening the right to do so.
In the past, protests against racism in the US were either quelled by brute force or dissipated when given hollow, superficial promises by the government, as seen in the Harlem and Watts protests. Hence the question arises: are these protests here to stay and make a meaningful difference to society or are they going to fizzle out and amount to naught? Unfortunately, movements of this scale and mobilization are often provoked by rage and not by reason- in this case, rage birthed from an innocent black man’s death in the backdrop of a failed administration and a crumbling society.
But if the death of George Floyd succeeds in bringing about radical changes in legislation, the justice system, policing, and the disparity between the races, there still may be hope for democracy to regain its role in the United States.
Systemic racism is not unique to the United States. While out-and-out racism like police brutality may have reduced, minority communities from Asian countries continue to be deprived of equal opportunities in all facets of life – be it education or politics. The American police have been shown to be far more serious about the complaints of white Americans, ruthlessly targeting colored people. Hence it’s a desideratum that people and governments all over the world acknowledge deep-rooted prejudices and consciously make efforts to be more inclusive.