The ten years I have spent in Minnesota were an enriching enterprise. After graduating high school, and college in Collegeville, a frosty little university town, I started my Masters in lively Minneapolis, where I lived for two years. All the while I built friendships and cherished relations with people I met in and out of school. I still have fond memories of the incredibly warm families who hosted my brother and me in their homes during school breaks. So much so that I treated Minnesota as my second home after Lahore.
George Floyd was murdered in the Powderhorn Park neighbourhood of Minneapolis. A place where I passed through frequently on my way to the University of Minnesota. I was in Lahore when the news of his murder surfaced. I was shocked and furious. It was unimaginable that the city which had offered love and care to strangers such as myself was suddenly in the international limelight for an act of extreme brutality. And it pained me to see so many suffer as a result.
Initially, I chose not to watch the video that captured George Floyd’s death, because the CNBC story I read on the incident gave graphic details. It was heart wrenching. What Floyd voiced as he lay there on the ground with a knee on his neck — “I can’t breathe” — later became a testimony, encompassing the plight of marginalised people across the globe. No wonder it became an international slogan overnight.
At the outset, the official narrative painted George Floyd as a criminal who supposedly resisted an arrest. As I finally watched the video of the policeman holding Floyd down, it was even more heartbreaking that there were a considerable number of spectators and other policemen who made no effort to intervene. And as the world knows now, Floyd did not resist arrest.
Could the red-hot sentiments from the George Floyd protests determine the future direction of US politics?
Campaign Zero, an NGO engaging with police reforms, and Fatal Force, a database maintained by The Washington Post, establish that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the policing in place. Black people are twice as likely to be shot and killed by law enforcement compared to White Americans.
To refocus, the issues of policing, include police brutality, excessive force, and lack of accountability, persist in contemporary America. From 2013 onwards there have been around 1,100 deaths every year. Why things have remained the same is a complex question involving several factors.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Joe Biden the Democrat front-runner proposed to bring legislation for establishing a National Police Oversight Commission, in order to reform policing and law enforcement. Yet, many people among the policymakers still deny the existence of disparities leading up to police violence. A compelling situation has emerged however, that demands conclusive action for police reforms.
As evidenced in this brutal killing, reforms are necessary. How the next few weeks play out will be crucial in not only the future of the protests and social fabric of the US, but also the fast-approaching presidential elections’ outcome.
Revolution, Reform or Cosmetic change?
Currently, the US stands at a precipice. The protests have put the very soul of America at stake. The greatness of the US is put to the test. The events following the Black Lives Matter protests are unfolding in a manner similar to the beginnings of the Suffrage movement in the 1920s and the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s both of which contributed to progress toward equality of rights in the US.
The reaction to the killing of George Floyd may not have the necessary ingredients for a revolution. Although the enormous energy and sacrifice of the protestors reflects their commitment to the cause, the organisation and leadership are not at par with the aforementioned movements.
Visibly, the wave of anger and glaring injustice has prepared ground for institutional reforms in the policing system. Racial inequality is likely to make a better part of political agendas in the near future, particularly, the presidential election in November 2020.
At the national level, the protests have faced opposition from the White House. The president of the US has ordered law enforcement and now the military to suppress the protests. This comes in contrast to his backing of the protests calling for lifting lockdowns due to Covid-19. Instead, Trump has declared the current wave of protests an affair of thugs and looters.
James Mattis, the former defence secretary accused Trump of dividing the nation and designated him the first president who does not try to unite the nation.
On the other hand, Trump made abundantly clear while brandishing a bible in front of St John’s Church minutes after protestors had been forcibly removed from the site, that his attention is on his conservative support.
It looks as if the die is cast, Hannibal has crossed the Alps and Trump is keen on solidifying his political base rather than making new friends. The rest of the world, including the once-hopeful citizens of Iran and Hong Kong, look on while Trump stands in open opposition to the right to free speech and the right to assembly.
Discounting the political impact of George Floyd’s killing, the event has also sensitised public opinion about the police’s attitude towards African-American lives in the US. A fresh crop of activists has joined the cause. The protests are likely to strengthen the demand for systemic changes and safeguards against police excesses. It will also raise awareness that the historical marginalisation of sections of society on the basis of identity or origin is not only a question of economic distribution, but a central question of politics. In addition to change that is already being sprung, already efforts on the part of local and state governments to enhance oversight over law enforcement are already underway.
Most probably, the complication and outfalls of the pandemic are likely to play against the incumbent administration but, during the five months before the elections, some steps can be expected from the US Congress, state governments and other institutions. Although Covid-19 might affect voter turnout on elections day (especially if mail-in voting is not allowed), the red-hot sentiments generated now will determine the future direction of US politics.
A cosmetic change is not likely to satisfy the public yearning for systemic change. The status quo is doomed. The protestors are consistent in their demands while braving Covid-19. And, it is a testament to their conviction against injustice and hate.
It is heartening to see that lots of police officers in the US have responded to the protests positively. Recognising the injustice at play, many have joined the protestors and been successful in keeping the marches peaceful.
A large number of Americans have come to regard racism as a grave injustice which is fundamentally un-American. It is seen as against the nature of progress as human beings, the idea of preservation and respect for life. Furthermore, it is now seen as against the very principles of personal freedom and liberty which the US claims to stand for. The American Constitution reads, “All men are created equal.” There is no asterisk, no conditions — rather, the period expresses totality and finality.
The author earned his Masters in Human Rights at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 14th, 2020