Black Lives Movement

 

Photo source: Time
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

It was in May 2020 when a forty six year old black American called George Floyd was suspected of buying cigarettes with fake $20 dollar bills outside Cup Foods, on Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Avenue South, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three squad cars had converged to confront him as he sat in the driver’s seat of a blue Mercedes SUV.

A white police officer named Derek Chauvin, involved in three civilian deaths and seventeen conduct complaints, had kneeled upon his neck, while three other stood guard, until the victim gave anguished gasps before dying. His last words were: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Another of the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest, Tou Thao, was the subject of at least six complaints, five of which resulted in no discipline. Their records exaggerated the cruelty in Floyd’s death. He was even shot on the video. It reflected how racial injustice was a recurring feature of modern American life.

Floyd, however, was also a convict. In 2009, Floyd pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, and was incarcerated for the next four years at the Diboll Unit, a private state prison in East Texas. He eventually moved to Minneapolis, and became a security guard at a club and restaurant called Conga Latin Bistro, where he was known to be friendly and hard-working.

His killing triggered protests which were not seen before ever since the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. Donald Trump, then president of the United States, had been escorted to a bunker in White House, while protestors raged outside. At one point, the lights of the presidential residence went dark. When he finally spoke, he threatened to deploy ‘thousands and thousands’ of heavily armed military personnel to quash the protests. As he kept speaking, officers fired rubber bullets and sprayed chemicals to disperse demonstrators outside the White House gates.

For two and a half months, the streets of America were eerily empty. When protesters had taken to the streets, they had burned a police precinct in Minneapolis, torched cop cars in Los Angeles and Atlanta, and dodged plumes of tear gas from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Madison, Wisconsin. By June, the National Guard had been activated in at least twenty eight states, and dozens of cities had imposed curfews to quell looting, arson and spasms of violence. Police surged cruisers into crowds, fired rubber bullets at reporters and beat citizens peacefully exercising First Amendment rights.

There were many who argued that Floyd’s killing was triggered by regressing racial, ethnic and cultural divisions that were embodied even before his death. Trump’s character as a white supremacist can be noted, by his long standing support to white supremacists rallies. He has even went on war with NFL players protesting police brutality, has called African nations as ‘sh*t hole countries’, and told black American Congresswomen to go back where they came from, when in power. By unwinding some of the key criminal-justice reform measures that President Obama had implemented, his stances on race relations became even clearer. For example, Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, also reinstated a program that allowed the Pentagon to send state and local police forces surplus military equipment like armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonets and battering rams. Going by the stats, roughly two-thirds of Americans told Pew Research Center in 2019 that expressions of racism had grown more common during Trump’s term.

As the Floyd protests spread, Trump called demonstrators ‘thugs,’ threatened them with ‘vicious dogs’ and borrowed a phrase popularised by the Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in 1967: ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’  His attitude reflected how he pivoted and campaigned liked George Wallace and Richard Nixon in 1968, on ‘law and order’.

As per an Oped by Alex Altman in Time: ‘Black Lives Matter began as a protest cry and bloomed into a political force: activists won convictions and shaped federal policy, seeding their message across college campuses and popular culture, in legislation and presidential platforms.

Trump’s ascension as president had been white America’s response to a movement that had already been brewing for long. Jessica Byrd of the Movement for Black Lives once commented: ‘Trump was our punishment. If so, he was an effective one. The president pokes sore spots in the body politic so incessantly that no single cause can sustain the nation’s attention.’

This movement was largely born during the tail end of the Obama administration, and shaped itself into broader ‘anti-Trump resistance’, which found space with other greater problems America had such as Muslim bans, children in cages, gender and class tensions. Thus, it articulated a language of subjugation, and threw systemic injustice out in the open, by showing how killing of black people by police officers hasn’t stopped. Although, many people have argued that Obama was unable to exert anything like a decisive influence on issues of racism and police abuse, and that with Trump, things just got worse, as he relied on autocratic impulses, with his rhetoric that was deliberately divisive.

Back in 2018, hate-crime violence had reached a sixteen year high, when Trump was in office. From 2015 to 2019, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police shot and killed 962 to 1,004 Americans each year. But Black Americans were nearly three times as likely as white people to be killed by police, according to the database Mapping Police Violence. When it comes to Minneapolis, federal officials, for over two decades, repeatedly recommended reforms to increase accountability, curb use-of-force violations and build up community trust, according to more than half a dozen government reports. But Minneapolis lagged behind most other metro police departments in implementing them. The department even allows unconscious neck restraint which can be used if the subject is ‘exhibiting active aggression’ or ‘active resistance.’

That’s why, the results have been evident on its streets. Since 2015, Minneapolis police have rendered people unconscious with neck restraints like the one Chauvin applied to Floyd at least 44 times, according to an NBC News analysis. At the same time, police brutality has also made Minneapolis a locus of racial-justice activism.

In America’s history, police have been the face of oppression in many ways. Even before the Civil War, law enforcement was pivotal in sustaining captivity. It was the police who were tasked with tracking down fugitive slaves from 1850 onwards in the north. After emancipation, it was the law enforcement that allowed black communities to be terrorised and victimised, by allowing people to be lynched by white mobs, sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn with impunity. The police of the old America were even directly guilty for it. When courageous black people began to advocate for civil rights in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, the older, nonviolent black Americans would literally be on their knees, praying, they were battered and bloodied by uniformed police officers one day. That kind of courage is something that can’t be ignored, as the present black lives movement draws a lot of inspirations from these chapters of history.


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