“‘I can’t breathe’ goes beyond saying that you are depriving me of freedom, of humanity, of respect. It says: ‘You are depriving me of the right to air itself’.” — Ben Okri
THE last words of George Floyd, who suffocated to death at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis has galvanised the struggle against all kinds of injustices across the globe. A black man brutalised and killed by a white policeman has triggered violent protests in America in the past, but the fury witnessed in the latest case of visible racism has much wider political implications. Such outrage over the death of an unarmed person by a militarised police force has not been seen for a long time.
There have been massive and sustained protests across America, moving black and white people alike against racism and injustice. The movement has now spread to other countries. Hundreds of thousands of people shedding their fear of the deadly coronavirus joined the protests not only in European capitals but also in other continents.
The wave of protest across the world is part of a democratic struggle to defend human rights.
The horrific incident has become a catalyst for change. ‘I can’t breathe’ has now a wider connotation, ie stifling the right to live and free expression. Its uncanny connection with the condition linked to the coronavirus has made the phrase a more powerful expression, one that defines oppression and the deprivation of basic human and democratic rights. It has now become a worldwide outcry against authoritarianism and ethnic and cultural discrimination.
‘Black lives matter’ may be a rallying cry but the protesters have also been moved by other manifestations of the violation of human and democratic rights and growing inequalities. It has also been a reaction to the rise of white supremacist power in America under the Trump administration that has seen growing incidents of violence not only targeting blacks but also political opponents.
President Donald Trump’s policy of ‘us vs them’ has polarised America far more than at any other time in the country’s history. His statements calling for the use of brute force to suppress the protests has fuelled anger. It has now gone beyond the demand for police reform: it has become a struggle against racism and inequalities so deeply entrenched in the American society. Covid-19 that has taken a much larger toll among black and minority ethnic groups in America has further exposed the economic and social inequality in the world’s richest and most powerful country.
Indeed, white supremacist ideology is the basis of Trump’s power. But the growing racial divide has also exposed America to the criticism of having double standards. Not surprisingly, the global protests against the murder of Floyd have ignited fury against Trump’s America.
Most protests have taken place in front of American embassies around the world as pent-up anger has exploded against the current US administration. It reflects a broader global despair about Trump’s America and what it means for the rest of the world and its own struggle for human rights. As one analyst points out, the killing of an unarmed black man is a reflection on race, values, leadership, and common decency in the US. Floyd’s death is denounced as ‘death from discrimination’.
The incident may have put the US on the defensive, but it has had little effect on Trump who has vowed to crush the protests. His fascistic politics presents the most serious threat to all those values that America claims to have stood for. It, however, remains to be seen how the growing anger in America over his policies will affect his bid for a second term in office with just a few months left for the presidential poll.
The global protest is a reaction not only to racism in the US, but also to the rise of ultra nationalism in parts of the world where many espouse hate-based politics that dehumanises segments of the population. Such fascistic politics justifies inhumane treatment and the marginalisation of minority religious and ethnic groups, including repression of freedom, mass imprisonment and expulsion.
These ultra nationalist leaders with their rabid ideology justify their actions by creating a mythical past. They promote anti-intellectualism and attack anyone challenging their retrogressive and oppressive ideology that aims to divide the population on the basis of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Donald Trump may be the most ardent proponent of this ideology, but there are many others of his ilk who threaten liberal democratic values.
People want to live in a society where they enjoy freedom of thought and action. Unfortunately, in the past few years, majoritarianism — which seeks to assert racist, political and cultural hegemony — has reared its ugly face. Punitive actions against minority groups are a means of suppressing pluralism in society and imposing a particular narrative.
More worrisome, however, is that even under a democratically elected government there is now a move to stifle freedom of expression and plurality of views. The rise of right-wing populism has undermined basic freedoms in multiple countries.
The latest wave of global protest against racism is part of a democratic struggle defending human rights. The phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ has now become a powerful expression in the global battle against racism, oppression and the attempt to suppress freedom of expression.
As Nigerian writer Ben Okri writer noted, this phrase should become the “mantra of oppression”. These last words of a man being suffocated to death have now become a powerful tool of resistance. These three words go beyond saying that one is deprived of the freedom to live.
The massive protests in America and the rest of the world, not seen for decades, have given a new momentum to the struggle for racial justice and freedom from oppression. That one incident has unleashed pent-up anger against injustice and discrimination and shaken not only America but also other countries. With growing support, this movement is becoming stronger and will have far-reaching political implications; in fact, it can provide impetus to rights movements across the globe.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2020