Will George Floyd’s death finally bring some change to America’s race issues?
The police custodial death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis yet again has sparked nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests. Like some of the past occasions, the protests have turned violent, with clashes with police and arson and destruction of public and private properties. As usual, Donald Trump’s erratic comments are damaging the cooling down process.
The late action of Minnesota state govt and Minneapolis Police in suspending the white officer and arresting him have fueled the deterioration. That officer was kneeling on the neck of Floyd for nine long minutes, putting one of his hands in his pocket. Floyd had already surrendered to the police, both physically and mentally, and was begging for his life with repeated words: “I can’t breathe.”
The whole thing was recorded in front of the eyes of the police officer and he showed no interest whatsoever to change. Floyd had to be rushed to the hospital because of this and soon after he died. It was quite a graphic scene, especially in a country where police brutality against black people is a much discussed and debated matter and it’s a subject that receives huge media and public attention across the world.
The quick suspension and arrest of the officer would have prevented the situation getting out of hand. Now, Minnesota and few other states where a high degree of violent protests are taking place had to fully mobilize the National Guard for the first time after World War II to control the situation.
Police brutality against the Black Americans isn’t something new or uncommon in the US. There were several well-publicized cases in the last few years. All these resulted in liberal outcry in the US and criticism abroad. These incidents are also an extension, in some sense, of broader black-white relationship dynamics in the US.
The whole matter is more complex than it apparently looks. Crime rate among the black population is excessively high. Their socio-economic conditions have improved quite a bit over the past decades, yet it seems there is something cultural that requires correction.
The history of race relations in America is also long and divisive. The question of continuation of abolition of slavery of African-Americans was the prime reason for American civil war in the middle of the 19th century. 13 Southern states were adamant on preserving slavery, whereas the North didn’t. A bloody civil war of four torturous years ensued, ending in the decisive victory of the North.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, there were big civil rights movements to amend many racist US laws and render legal equality to the blacks in American public life. But the cultural variation and the past wounds still survive, and even manifest in political expressions. The South generally supports the conservative Republican Party and the North the liberal Democratic Party. Black Americans almost entirely back the Democrats, while a bigger chunk of the white population goes for the Republicans.
Whenever there is a police repression against the black population, the Democrats tend to support the black causes whereas the Republicans side more with the white policemen or the city or state authority. This pattern keeps playing out in most cases.
Then there also are the white supremacists, who believe that the European immigrants are the superior ones and have primarily built the American civilization, and African-Americans are lucky that their ancestors were brought to America by the Europeans and are way better off in America than their ancestral Africa. They think they are arrogant, lazy, violent, and crime-prone by nature, and also support the strong and often disproportionate amount of police action against them.
On the other hand , African-Americans think they are being discriminated against all the time. They also maintain that, historically, the unpaid work of their slave ancestors have made a huge contribution in the making of America; they are a traditionally repressed and persecuted community, and they now deserve much better.
While there is a good reason for the outrage due to police brutality against the black population, rioting, setting properties ablaze, and looting during protests have already angered a large section of Americans. Even many liberal and moderate politicians are condemning the violence. Trump from the beginning has expectedly sided with the police. But Joe Biden has also strongly condemned the violence despite expressing solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” cause. Violent protests take away a lot of shine from a good cause.
The US is a strange nation in many ways. It’s already a country with the most gun violence and resultant homicide in the world. Most Americans carry guns of various types and it’s allowed by their constitution. Race-related discrimination and violence, both institutional and social, is another American reality.
It’s hard to see the mutual historical mistrust between black and white Americans go away soon. Incidents such as the death of George Floyd stir it up in regular intervals. The race issue within the US is a deep-rooted one, and it persists. Moreover, with the US being a federal state with residual power lying with the state, it’s difficult to do something like a uniform police procedure reform across the nation.
But George Floyd’s recorded death, the shock wave it sent out, and the resultant widespread protests should be able to achieve some change. The world will wait and watch what those changes are and how great America really is.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.