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Coronavirus diary – Part 10

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Demonstrators hold placards at the Lincoln Memorial during a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. Demonstrations are being held across the US following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Olivier DOULIERY / AFP

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

This instalment is nuanced to pay tribute to one of our new ancestors, George Floyd, who was brutally murdered by racist white American police officers in Minneapolis, United States. Before going further, simply observe a minute silence for him and others cruelly murdered in Southern Kaduna in Nigeria under the cold complicity of those in government. As we chorus “Amen” for the repose of their souls, be informed that I shall focus mainly on the epidemiology of outrage concerning Floyd and the generational issue of racism. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined the latter as “the notion that the very being of a people is inferior.” Similarly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described it in Los Angeles Times “like a dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you ‘re choking on it—until you let the sun see it’s everywhere.”

As is well-known, Floyd’s death increases the long list of black martyrs, slaughtered cold-bloodedly in the hands of white racists in post-abolition America. Blacks did not elect to be slaves they were enslaved by those who think they were created differently by God from the rest of humanity, despite the self-evident truth that all men are created equal by our creator. To appreciate the scale of dehumanisation of the blacks, we need to come to grips with their history. Thousands of blacks died in the middle passage and those who made it to the Americas were treated as chattels which often changed hands in Black Friday bazaars. Although the white slave masters hated blacks, they had carnal knowledge of their women to satisfy their base sexual instincts, setting off a population of the mixed. Such belief and warped assumption about black’s humanity must have driven Friedrich Hegel, the German idealist philosopher to remark ex cathedra that the blacks had no soul and that their consciousness was the same with animals. The weight of this oppressive complex birthed what W.E.B Dubois called double consciousness in Souls of Black Folk. It inheres in a “world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only let him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”

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All over the Americas, blacks were dehumanised and exterminated when convenient. They were used as cannon-fodder in European wars of rivalry in the Americas and were front-liners in the American Revolution and Civil War. Madeline Stratton, author of Negroes Who Helped Build America, noted that, “At the very outset of the American Revolution the minutemen stood against the English Forces and routed them. One of those minutemen was Peter Salem, a former slave from Framingham, Massachusetts. At Bunker Hill, a British officer stood above his troops and shouted “The day is ours!” Peter Salem, who had anticipated that moment, fired with deadly aim, mortally wounding the British leader. Salem was thereafter recognized as one of the outstanding heroes of the battle of Bunker Hills.” In relation to the Civil War, she further noted that, “When the civil war began, [Fredrick] Douglass urged President Lincoln to recruit Negro soldiers.

Douglass urged every Negro ‘‘… to get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the Star Spangled Banner over his head.’’ He said, ‘‘who would be free themselves must strike the first blow.’’ Among the first Negro men to join the Northern army were Douglass’ two sons, Lewis and Charles. Thousands of other Negroes did, too.” These facts of history are hardly taught to succeeding generations of white folks, so they continue to look down on black folks who built America. This was what Joseph E. Penn meant in his preface to Stratton’s book of 1965. In his bid to unravel why blacks have remained the perpetual butt of injustices in America, he said, “Maybe it is because so little is known about the negro American…”

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As many have noted the killing of Floyd was one death too many. And as Shakespeare observed in Julius Caesar, “Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass, nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron, can be retentive to the strength of the spirit; But life being weary of those worldly bars, never lacks power to dismiss itself. If I know this, know all the world besides, that part of tyranny, that I do bear, I can shake off at pleasure.” Such is the nature of the human spirit that it overrode COVID-19 in the universal outcry against the killing of Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin and his collaborators, namely, Tou Thau, Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane.

Floyd trumped the COVID-19 isolation. As Intervention, Nigerian analytical online medium has noted, “As complicated as the concept of indeterminacy, it applies to George Floyd catalysing interruption of the coronavirus imprisonment of humanity for nearly half a year. The outpouring of Americans sent a signal to the rest of the world that COVID-19 is not such a successful jailer; that the world would dare it if and when the need arises. Whatever the COVID consequences of the revolt, the myth of an unchallengeable virus is broken…”

On the contrary, Anthony Dimaggio, an Associate Professor with Lehigh University has discountenanced “the haphazard way that protesters have thrown caution to the wind by failing to make good-faith efforts to practice social distancing, in order to prevent the rapid transmission of COVID-19. It should be too obvious a point to remind people who have been told repeatedly for the last three months that it’s a really bad idea to be out in large groups in public without remaining six feet apart.” As a member of the progressive movement that condemned the ‘‘reopen America’’ protests, he saw a moral burden in failing to observe all the safety niceties of COVID-19 because “viruses, after all, don’t distinguish between worthy and unworthy political goals.” Perhaps, Dimaggio needs to listen to Abdul-Jabbar’s counter to his line of thought: “So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirt or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19”.

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Nonetheless, there is politics in COVID-19. Intriguingly, it is somewhat implicated in the death of Floyd. He had tested positive for COVID-19 in April; but not exactly the cause of death. This is a distraction from racism and systemic crimes. An earlier preliminary autopsy report had “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” Eventually, the Hennepin County medical examiner stated that the cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” while the private autopsy report affirmed “mechanical asphyxia.” Whatever happens, justice must be done.

The American elite have spoken about the need to dismantle the structural violence of the American system. The need for change is dawning: from former President George W. Bush to President Obama and from Governor Andrew Cuomo to Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota. They want the system of criminal justice to be overhauled. It should go beyond that to reset the American dream of equality and re-configure the American state structure for equality of all races that make up America. The protagonists of change must cash in on the present cross-cutting racial solidarity of the present outrage, especially the younger generation of whites, to make change happen.

However, it would be recalled that in Apartheid South Africa, Chief Albert Luthuli, as president of the African National Congress had to convince the white folks that a multiracial South Africa based on black majority rule was no threat to their interest. It seems for a moment that the younger generation of whites has come to that realisation that equality is the future in a world that is inclined towards multiculturalism, hence their broad solidarity for the present moment. For now, we can’t breathe, but we shall overcome someday.

Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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