THE death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, in the hands of a team of four white police officers has yet again left dark clouds around the issues of racial equality and justice on the one hand, and concerns about racially charged police brutality and justice in the United States and the world, on the other. In a video that went viral from May 20, Floyd is seen to have been accosted by the police officers, who dragged him from a building walkway to the back of a police SUV. He was pulled down by the officers, handcuffed with his hands behind him, and made to lie flat on his belly on the hot surface of the road. Thereafter, Derek Chauvin, one of the policemen, hands tucked in his pocket, sat upon Floyd’s neck with his knees for almost nine minutes. Floyd, arrested for a suspected forged bill, struggled for life under the weight of Chauvin’s knees and begged for his life, crying “I can’t breathe.” He died afterwards in police custody.
The response to this viral video was anger from all social and racial divides and instantaneous protests in the major cities of the United States. The tumultuous hoopla extended to Washington DC, the nation’s capital and home of the controversial president, Donald Trump, who preferred to see the situation from a darker perspective and therefore placing the blame for the breakdown of law and order on mayors, governors and his political rivals, particularly the Democrats, whom he and his supporters tried to accuse of sponsoring or stealthily energizing the protesters.
President Trump had not immediately responded in either tweets or press interviews, contrary to his characteristic spontaneous way, to either condemn the killing or chastise the racist policemen. His reluctance to condemn the racially charged murder of Floyd and quickness to condemn the protesters, the majority of whom were Black Lives Matter activists, and his description of them as “thugs” sparked off a new wave of riots, in which looting and destruction of lives and property resulted. The president eventually responded, but with a nebulous approach: while finally condemning the killing of Floyd, he invoked a dated 1807 (slavery-era)Insurrection Act and called for the deployment of soldiers from the National Guards to the streets, to stop the riots. Peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square, located around the White House, were dispersed with teargas and rubber bullets by the police and prison officers, to make way for the president to march on to the old church on the avenue for a photo op.
The cruel and unprofessional acts of law enforcement officer in recent times were adequate triggers for the persistent riots. But the clear show of lack of empathy and deployment of troops for civil matters assaulted the sensibilities of the families of those that had suffered racial injustice and indeed projected the president as a racist himself, particularly because of his consistent rhetoric that tends to energise white supremacy.
The incidents in the past three weeks have thrown up the old issues of racism dogging the American society. If there had not been protests, the officers would not have been charged, as evident in the developments before the arrest of Chauvin and his three accomplices. For a country that is called Capital of the Free World, which also defied racial odds to produce a black president that ruled for eight years, nothing short of racial and social inclusion as well as maturity and peaceful co-habitation are expected. After centuries and decades of ups and downs on race matters, America is expected by now to live above petty issues as colour of the skin.
We believe that if America, which others emulate, does not get it right, the world may not get it right. There is a need for deep internal conversations on matters of race in the country to overcome this big mess that refuses to go away. As for the protests, healing by sensible and empathic rhetoric is what matters, not political grandstanding and militarization of the icon of democracy. In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, these protests flout the social distancing rules and the consequences may be fatal. Leadership is what America needs now to avoid more health fatalities, not division and mass protests that will lead to a spike in community spread of the coronavirus.
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