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OP-ED: #BlackLivesMatter beyond the hashtag

  • Published at 12:23 pm June 4th, 2020
US-protest-George Floyd

Injustice against one person is a threat to justice everywhere

Tremendous ironies abound in the global outpouring of anger, solidarity, and opportunistic virtue signaling after the pitiless murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis 10 days ago. 

Besides the US, protests erupted in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Montreal, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lagos, Tel Aviv, and many other cities.

The main reason is sincere revulsion. The world loves African-American culture. From Muhammad Ali to Michael Jackson, Beyoncé to Barack Obama, this community of just 40 million generates an astonishingly disproportionate number of our most cherished icons (for context, that many people would rank only 12th amongst Indian states, between Odisha and Telangana).

Another factor is the appalling figurehead of Donald Trump. Since the 1970s reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, no world leader has been more universally reviled or ridiculed. His tone-deaf bungling of this crisis has shocked and dismayed almost everyone, including people in his own administration. 

But in the worldwide stampede to condemnation, there’s also shamelessness, score-settling, and hypocritical posturing. 

Earlier this week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared: “Black lives matter, the US government [should] protect and safeguard the legitimate interests of racial minorities.” 

This is obvious retaliation for last month’s US Congress placing sanctions on China’s crackdown on (mainly Muslim) Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, with at least one million detained in Xinjiang “re-education camps.” 

Meanwhile, the swift corporate co-opting of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag produced a parade of absurdities, like its use by the American football team Washington Redskins, which uses an overtly racist name and overtly racist logos. 

Even worse was the social media paean from New York City’s storied Metropolitan Opera that “there is no place for racism in the arts. [We stand] with those raising their voices in support of justice and equality.” Actually, in its 137 years, the Met has never performed any black composer’s work.

This is the crux of the matter, which is structural inequality and racism. While the record of the US is certainly disgraceful, it’s even worse in other countries which profiteered in the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Portugal, Spain, France, Netherlands, and the UK. But these populations remain in conspicuous denial that #BlackLivesMatter amongst them too.

South Asia has a complicated and tangential relationship to anti-black racism. There were a few episodes of “chattel slavery,” with one exception being my home state of Goa, where markets for African captives persisted for centuries under Portugal. More prevalent was bonded servitude of labourers, soldiers, and administrators, which sometimes resulted in elites like the 15th century “Habshi Sultans” of Bengal. 

It should be noted that early migrants from the sub-continent to the West were categorized as black. MIT scholar Vivek Bald’s outstanding Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asia recalls: “Bengali Muslims quietly became part of some of America’s most iconic neighborhoods of colour, from Tremé in New Orleans to Detroit’s Black Bottom, from West Baltimore to Harlem.”

There’s a strong possibility one of these pioneers remade himself into Wallace Fard Muhammad, and founded the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X was its most famous spokesman.)

More to the point, a couple of days ago, the great musician-activist-author (and Magsaysay Award winner) TM Krishna posted on Twitter: “#BlackLivesMatter,‬ #MuslimLivesMatter, #DalitLivesMatter, #WomensLivesMatter, #MinorityLivesMatter, #AdivasiLivesMatter.” 

Pressed to add#AllLivesMatter he refused (that exchange has since been deleted) saying the elision would have obviated the message.

Of course all lives matter, but that’s irrelevant to systemic discrimination -- Krishna is entirely correct that South Asian societies feature multiple bigotries. Our liberation struggles inspired the world -- including America’s civil rights movement -- but left oppressive colonial police state frameworks intact and functioning.

Thus, the glaring dissonance when Indians complain about American racism, while remaining silent about the humanitarian catastrophe amongst distressed workers, atrocities against protestors, and military clampdown in Kashmir which includes the longest ever communications blackout ever imposed in democracy.

Yet, we should also note that changes of heart rarely occur in tsunami waves, while performative symbolism is inherently suspect. This is why American leaders lining up to “take a knee” -- after condemning the immensely dignified Colin Kaepernick for doing the same thing -- are transparently ridiculous, and Narendra Modi’s showy televised “apology” to his fellow Indians for subjecting them to an ill-conceived draconian lockdown, while changing nothing about the situation, comes across so mealy-mouthed.

No one can deny that it is in fact distinctly possible this extraordinary moment for humanity will result in an improved, and less unequal world. 

We already know this: The Covid-19 pandemic’s realities have enforced the core message of Martin Luther King, exactly as written from lockdown in a Birmingham (Alabama) jail in 1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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