Even as network television keeps showing us images of looting and burning of American cities – some of which occurring within walking distance of where I live – the words that keep coming back to me are: “I can’t breathe.” We saw those words on the placards during protest marches and rallies everywhere. But this won’t be the first time we would be hearing these words. We all heard in in 2014. In fact, a good eleven times on a side-walk in New York as Eric Garner cried for his life, even as it was being snuffed out from him by the chokehold of a policeman, in broad daylight and in full view of the camera.
In 2020, it was George Floyd who was the victim. Derek Chauvin, a police officer with the Minnesota Police, in a most unconcerned and arrogant manner, asphyxiated a handcuffed Floyd to death – again in broad daylight and in full view of the camera. Over eight agonisingly long minutes, Chauvin pressed his knee down on the neck of the victim, who was lying face down on the concrete, all the while his hands tucked casually in his trouser-pocket. In slow-motion, as it were, a life was squeezed out, despite no resistance or threat from the victim, despite repeated cries of “I can’t breathe”, and despite warnings and pleadings by several passers-by. All the while, three other police officers watched the charade with equal disdain for human life. Neither did they try to stop their partner, nor resuscitate the victim, nor heed to cries for help. Even after George Floyd had died, the police officer did not move his knee away.
Despite clear-cut evidence, neither officer Chauvin nor his partners were arrested immediately. Not even the fact that there were already 18 previous complaints against him made a difference. It is only the outrage on the streets that forced the authorities to eventually arrest him, although Chauvin was charged with a lesser crime of third degree murder. His partners are yet to be arrested.
No police officer was ever charged in the prohibited chokehold death of Eric Garner in 2014. In fact, only last year, the final decision of not prosecuting the offending police officer was taken. It was a decision that came from the highest level of law and order machinery – the head of the US Justice system, attorney general William Barr. This act assumes new significance in light of the fact that currently, several media outlets and President Donald Trump himself are trying to pass the death of George Floyd off as a case of a “few bad apples”.
But are the deaths of George Lloyd or Eric Garner isolated incidents? The current incident comes close on the heels of the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Talyor in Kentucky. The former was shot while jogging by an ex-cop, and the latter by police in her own home. The Arbery case exhibited yet another case of blatant police bias, where the police initially refused to arrest the perpetrators and called the victim a burglar.
The police has been at odds with Black America ever since its inception. The justice system is heavily skewed against the community. As Paul Butler writes in The Guardian:
“The police kill, wound, pepper spray, beat up, detain, frisk, handcuff, and use dogs against Blacks in circumstances in which they do not do the same to white people.”
In fact, death at the hands of police remains a leading cause of death for young men in the US. According to one study, almost one in thousand black men are killed in an encounter with the police – almost three times the rate of white men. There were only 27 days in 2019 when police did not kill someone in the US. It is no wonder that only 14% of blacks have any significant confidence in police.
The long history of police brutality
With cameras having become near ubiquitous in the last couple of decades, it’s no longer easy for cases of police misconduct to remain in obscurity. Multiple instances of lethal use of force by police against the unarmed have come to light. What the black community knew anecdotally for themselves, has now become part of a broader popular consciousness. As a result, the names like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, Tony Robinson, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Antwon Rose II, Anthony Hill – are no longer unknown. The list is truly endless. Yet justice has remained stubbornly elusive. Between 2013-19, an overwhelming 99% of police killings have led to no criminal proceedings against the police. And even when a police officer is charged with a crime, the conviction rate remains abysmally low.
But police brutality is not the only issue. The black community suffers every day from a thousand cuts. The recent case of a false accusation by a white woman against an African-American bird-watcher in a liberal city like New York shows the pitfalls of “living-while-black” in America. So pervasive is the prejudice that there is often an unstated presumption of a black man being inherently violent. As Joy-Ann Reid writes: “To be White in America is to assume ownership of public spaces. To be Black is to live under constant threat of removal”.
The other face of this everyday humiliation is the economic disparity. Black workers get paid less, have worse jobs, suffer more unemployment and the racial wealth gap continues to grow. Black communities have far less access to social services, including access to health and education. Even the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the racial divide: blacks died at a rate almost three times higher than the whites.
Against this backdrop of simmering discontent came the ghastly and despicable death of George Floyd. The rage and outrage spilled out on the streets like fire. The place where Floyd met his death became hallowed ground. The third police precinct of Minnesota, which the four perpetrators belonged to, was set on fire. Authorities declared curfew, but on the first night, it is the protesters that remained on the streets, while the police retreated.
Street protests spread all over the US, spanning over 140 cities – from peaceful marches and rallies to the destruction of police vehicles and statues, as well as arson and looting. While the latter has gained more television traction, a far greater number of people – of all hues and views – participated in these marches. In many places, protesters took the knee – a pose made controversially popular by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the singing of National Anthem to protest police brutality. In other places, people lay face down on the ground, mimicking the position in which George Floyd lost his life, chanting “I can’t breathe.”
The demands of these rallies remained uniform across cities and gatherings – justice for George Floyd, arrest of the police officers and punishment, halt to illegal police actions, diverting funds from law enforcement to social programs. A common refrain has been no justice no peace. Not since 1968 have we witnessed this widespread an expression of rage and fury on American streets.
Justice and order
Without doubt, the general chaos has provided ample opportunities to vandalise and loot stores and businesses. While it is easy to blame the poor and vulnerable for these acts, one certainly does not rule out possible involvements of agent provocateurs (something that is nothing new). But, in this case, apart from the usual suspects, even white supremacists and the police appear to have had a hand in the arson and vandalism. At any rate, no matter how we view these acts, it is difficult to overlook the dictum of celebrated 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim: when society normalises injustice, criminality is the response. The chaos that we are witnessing today is a grim reminder of what happens when those who are supposed to defend the rights of people, violate precisely those rights with impunity and contempt. This is a feature, not just of the US, but of many countries in the world.
Even before President Trump condoled George Floyd’s family, he had called the protesters “thugs” and had tweeted “when the looting begins, the shooting begins”. Apart from its association with a segregationist police chief from the 1960s and police brutality, this phrase also highlights the bankruptcy of our times. What does it say of a society whose overwhelming concern remains one of protection of property, when a man has been so savagely murdered, that too by an organisation whose motto is to “protect and serve”? Property can be replaced. Human life cannot.
Incidentally, the dispute that led to the death of George Floyd was over a supposedly fake 20 dollar bill.
And, in the middle of the devastation caused by COVID-19, while most Americans struggled to access healthcare and food, and over 40 million workers filed for unemployment (some 25% of the workforce), the wealth of US billionaires went up by over $400 billion. Looting is indeed a word full of irony.
There is, of course, no defending vandalism and looting, but such spirited defence of property rights on one end, and utter devaluation of human life on the other – as is evidenced by George Floyd’s death or the woes of COVID-19 – is perhaps at the centre of what ails today’s world.
One week after George Floyd’s murder, President Trump is desperately trying to characterise the groundswell of unrest as a “law and order” problem, while he skirts around the question of justice and police brutality. But, no matter which group he blames for the law and order problems, or how much he tries to portray himself as a strongman or how much he threatens military action, the issue remains one of justice and police brutality. Justice has long eluded the black community, and not just the black community but the society as a whole. Indeed, as long as justice is denied, neither peace nor order shall prevail. It will continue to haunt society.
Bedabrata Pain is the director of Chittagong and a scientist who shuttles between Los Angeles and Mumbai.