How Watching the US Protests Brought up Memories – and Questions

One of the reasons I decided to come back to India was to live on the top of the pile as a privileged person rather than as a second-class person of colour in the US.

For the last few days, I have been watching the news on American TV channels for many hours a day.

This has really surprised me because for the last 40 years, we hardly ever sat in front of a TV set to watch the news. For 30-odd years, we did not own a set and over the last few years, we have used the technology mainly to watch movies. So why this sudden interest?

The only way I can explain this is that current events and protests in the US have rekindled memories of my time in the US in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In those days I participated in the protests that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

I also remember the day I was denied a haircut, the day I was refused service in a bar, and also remember being spread eagle against my car with a gun in my back for a minor traffic offence. One of the reasons I decided to return my green card and come back to India was that it was probably better to live on the top of the pile as a privileged person in India than as a second-class person of colour in the US.

Also read: Public Protests Are Vital to Disrupt the Status Quo That Led to George Floyd’s Death

Not only have I been watching the news but I have also been noting down what various commentators have had to say after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Before you read some of those comments, it would be worthwhile to remember what the first amendment of the US constitutions says.:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I reproduce some of the responses below.

Former US presidents:

  • “People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say “no more” to a racially discriminatory police and justice system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks, and government actions that undermine our unified democracy” – Jimmy Carter
  • “The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place” – George W. Bush
  • “To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable” – Barack Obama

TV anchors, researchers, writers, activists:

  • “The moment you can think, even unconsciously, that one race is superior to another, that is the beginning of murder. It is the beginning of genocide.” – Ben Okri, Nigerian novelist
  • “The story of activist violence is often used to justify police violence, but damage to property is not a justification for wholesale violence against children, passersby, journalists, protesters, or anyone at all.” – Rebecca Solnit, columnist
  • “I just have to say thank you to them (the protesters) for bringing about this movement” – a TV anchor
  • “Racism in America is like dust in the air. You can choke on it but it remains invisible” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • “I am tired of police tyranny. I am tired of corporate leaders and the one percent of the one percent keeping quiet. It’s clear that black lives do not matter to them. And I’m tired of the President’s tyranny” – a basketball player.
  • “Here is the Sheriff of the city marching with the protestors to calm the situation” – another TV anchor.
  • “We shouldn’t be where we are. It’s sad, it’s disgusting. Whatever the training, it’s not working. America has to explain this. We make excuses for these police officers, why not for these protestors?” – an author
  • “The President cannot use military power to evict peaceful protestors by excessive force. People have a constitutional right to protest in front of the White House” – a TV anchor
  • “He (the president) actually adds fuel to the flames and shows how fundamentally intellectually disconnected he is from what is happening and also how ill-prepared he is as a leader to respond to that” –  LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
  • “When George Floyd said I can’t breathe he was talking of the four hundred years of our history” – Bishop James Dixon.
  • “We need lawyers for civil rights, not civil settlements. We are fighting wickedness in high places. Our President challenges China on human rights. What about the human rights of George Floyd?” – Reverend Al Sharpton

Also Read: Justice Before Order: What the Outpouring Rage After George Floyd’s Death Tells Us

Public officials:

  • “Let me say this to the President. Please, if you don’t have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut” – Art Acevedo, Houston police chief
  • “We have to change the police culture. No batons, no rubber bullets and transparency in police officer investigations”  Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley
  • “It was shocking and disturbing to see how two of my officers dealt with the two students. They have been fired” – Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields
  • “We know for real the history of this nation. The question is how long are we going to tolerate this state of affairs?” – Mayor
  • “The military should not have boots on the ground in America. Militarisation is not going to solve the problem of violence on the streets. It’s going to make it worse” – Mayor
  • “I am proud of the protestors assembling peacefully in front of the townhall to express their grievances” – Mayor
  • “This president is the worst since Woodrow Wilson. This president is using his power unjustly. But this country must heal itself and it can” – House Majority Whip Representative James Clyburn
  • “Police officers should not be treated any differently from anyone else in the community if they do something wrong” – City police chief
  • “This country was not built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs. It was built by workers and workers’ unions. The President today is a part of the problem not the solution” – Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Also read: Race Is at the Heart of the Militarisation of the US Police Force

Business corporations:

  • “The choice of not doing anything about Donald Tump’s tweet is just purely and absolutely wrong. I completely identify with the protests and support them. CEOs have a moral imperative to do the right thing” – Oren Frank, CEO Talkspace
  • “Hundreds of Facebook employees, protested executives’ decision not to do anything about inflammatory posts that President Trump had placed on the giant social media platform over the past week” – The New York Times news report
  • “A number of YouTube executives, including the company’s chief business officer and its global head of music, told their teams they could take Tuesday off to participate in the protests” – News report
  • “In New York, traders at the stock exchange paused for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to mark the length of time the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd, impervious to the man’s pleas for breath and mercy.” – News report
  • “IBM will no longer sell “general purpose” facial-recognition technology, chief executive Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to US Congress. The letter addressed the need for reforms and policy proposals to address racial disparities, and mentioned that the company opposes using technology for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of human rights. Krishna wrote that “vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularly when used in law enforcement” – News report

This is a small sample of the outrage. The question is, should we be breathing comfortably here? I am no fan of the political economy of the US and its murderous adventures overseas. But this outpouring of anger has forced me to rethink many of the issues confronting us. It has also forced me to ask the question, can my main reason for returning to India be justified morally?

Dinesh Mohan does research on road safety.