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The ‘I can’t breathe’ protests target police brutality and injustice

Protesters rally in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed after being pinned down by a former police officer, in Minneapolis, US on 30 May 2020 [Tayfun Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]
Protesters rally in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed after being pinned down by a former police officer, in Minneapolis, US on 30 May 2020 [Tayfun Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]

The protests in the wake of the killing of black American citizen George Floyd by a white police officer have spread way beyond the city of Minneapolis where it happened. Protesters have taken to the streets in cities across the US.

Citizens burnt down the precinct police station in Minneapolis and it was announced that the four officers involved in the incident had been dismissed. It took some time, however, for the officer directly responsible for the murder to be charged.

This sort of thing has happened many times before, of course, and the police officer is usually the villain, and an ordinary citizen is the victim. The anger of the people must be able to distinguish between the rights of the state and the rights of the citizens. They determine who the terrorist is and who the victim is, and they wield people power in defence of their rights. The “I can’t breathe” protests — they were the words Floyd uttered to the police officer asphyxiating him with his knee— target police brutality and injustice.

The George Floyd protests are not only about this latest crime, though, but also racism institutionalised at state and federal level, especially the law enforcement agencies. Black citizens have obtained legal and civil rights in America only over the past half century or so, but discrimination persists. The spirit of Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King still flies over the demonstrators.

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This latest crime, which a bystander filmed on his mobile phone, reopened society’s wounds from the oppression and persecution that black citizens face at the hands of the police and state institutions. Racism may be illegal, but it still exists; you can’t legislate opinions.

Black US citizens have not reaped any fruits from the twentieth century revolutions. Despite intellectual and technical advancements, black people continue to suffer, especially in the southern states of America. They have served the country in numerous wars with dedication and sincerity, yet have not been spared racial discrimination at home, the so-called “land of the free, home of the brave”.

According to official statistics, the conditions of the 43 million black Americans of African descent do not tally with US propaganda about democracy and human rights. For example, they make up 12.7 per cent of the total population in the US, but there has only been one black President of the US out of 45; just 1 per cent of US Senators are black; just 9.5 per cent of members of the House of Representatives are black; and not a single Governor of any of the 50 states is black.

A portrait of George Floyd hangs on a street light pole as police officers stand guard at the Third Police Precinct during a face off with a group of protesters on May 27, 2020 [Stephen Maturen/Getty Images]

Economically, we can see that the income of black citizens is generally 48 per cent of white citizens’; 20.8 per cent of black Americans live under the poverty line compared with 8.1 per cent of white citizens. Moreover, black Americans account for 38 per cent of prisoners in US prisons (it holds 1.249 million people behind bars). FBI reports indicate that cases of racially-motivated violence based on race or religion have increased by 12 per cent since Trump became US President in 2017.

Based on such statistics, could we say that America is on the verge of a revolution against racism? There is no doubt that populism has increased since Trump arrived in the White House because he appeals to their racist discourse with, among other things, attacks on his predecessor Barack Obama, and calls for him to go “back” to Kenya, his father’s birthplace, and doubts cast on the veracity of his birth certificate.

Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Congresswomen of colour have exacerbated racial discrimination in a country which claims to be the leader of freedom and equality. The reality behind the rhetoric is very different; the US has an ugly racist face too, which has to be unacceptable in the 21st century. It is a country built upon the genocide of the indigenous people and slavery, and racism runs deep in the white American psyche. Despite this, the “great American dream” of propaganda fame is still advanced as the utopian ideal for society.

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All of this is important if we are trying to understand American society within which murders of innocent black men and women take place so frequently that they have almost become normal. A quick glance at history reveals that the racist European colonialism upon which the USA is built predates the so-called Enlightenment, which reinforced racist attitudes and enabled colonial atrocities across the so-called Third World.

The irony, of course, is that the USA is a country of immigrants; even the President and his family come from European stock. However, the crucial factor is race; he is white, so he is “acceptable” and accepted. Racism, it seems, comes from the very top of US society.

It is just 155 years since slavery was abolished in the USA, but the master-slave dynamic lingers. On social media this week, one child saw what had happened to George Floyd and asked his father, “Are we going to be slaves again?” Every single American should be ashamed that a child should even think, never mind ask, such a question, but it reflects the sorrowful state of US society and the level of racial discrimination that black people still face every day. Change is needed, and soon, if George Floyd’s death is to have any meaning at all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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