‘I can’t breathe’
In broad daylight of Monday, May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, (U.S.) the world’s humanity was debased as we watched the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin with the full collaboration of three other police officers, namely, Tou Thau, Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane suffocate to death George Floyd, an African-American. This incident provoked a spontaneous reaction from Americans and the global community. Not even his pained and muffled pleading; “I can’t breathe” could induce a respite from the officers who wanted him dead. And George Floyd died. History is replete with acts of dehumanisation, and each enactment is never ennobling, rather it debases more and more our collective humanity.
This newspaper feels the pains of George Floyd’s family, of African-Americans, Americans across the racial divide and we are absorbed in the global outcry against our debased humanity.
It is ironical that the United States, which has prided itself as the champion of human rights is now in the dock of international censure. The United Nations Human Rights Commission through its chief, Michelle Bachelet had this to say, “This is the latest in a long line of killings of unarmed African-Americans by US police officers and members of the public…I am dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African-Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police — as well as people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, who were killed by armed members of the public.”
Indeed, the coldblooded murder of Floyd complements a long list of needless killings of African-American for no other reason but colour. We can recall the brutal murder of many African-Americans such as Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor murdered in the last three months alone. Others include Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Abner Louima, Trayvon Martin, Keith Childress, Tamir Rice, Kevin Mathews, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Delrawn Small, Sandra Bland, Ezell Ford, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Reason and Dominique Clayton, just to mention a few in the last three decades.
Floyd’s murder provides an auspicious moment to revisit the underlining causes of this trail of bloodletting against African-Americans. We do this with all sense of conviction that knowledge brings about understanding. First is what is known among African-Americans as the “original sin”. The fact that African-Americans are descendants of enslaved blacks serves for the White a pedestal of the assertion of a superior complex. As scholars of this “original sin” have affirmed, “The slave was the absolute property of the master who had the power of life and death over him/her.” They were mere chattels to be disposed of at the whims and caprices of the slave master.
As summarized in the Patrons of Poverty, “During the sixteenth century, about 13, 000 slaves were exported per annum to Europe and America. Subsequently, this rose to about 27, 000. In the course of the eighteenth century when the British became very active in the trade, an estimated 70,000 slaves were taken away to the ‘deep South’ in North America. In 1780 in the US alone, there were about 575, 000 black slaves and by 1863, they were about 4 million. Overall, the total number of slaves who landed in the Americas has been estimated at 15-20 million, while some studies put at 10 million those who made it alive to the Americas and the Atlantic islands”.
It should be noted that blacks were not born slaves. They were enslaved by the Europeans and Arabs just as ancient empires enslaved those they conquered like the Jews, the English, and Chinese among others were enslaved in history. These peoples are not carrying the badge of enslavement because man is born free and slavery was and is still a crime against humanity.
Second, the emancipation proclamation of 1863 as acknowledged by Martin Luther King Jr. is central to the predicament of the African-Americans. It was an act of freedom that denied the enslaved who ostensibly were then free from the material basis of existence. About the same time of the emancipation proclamation, White immigrants from Europe were given land to start life afresh and none was given to the blacks who toiled and tilled the fields of the United States of America. This was the material basis of the impoverishment of the Black population in America. When you deny any human the means of subsistence, how is he/she to survive? Even so, a tall order in a production relation based on capitalism. Third, apart from the historical prejudices that go with the above factors, is the institutionalisation of the discriminations against African-Americans in all levels of institutions of the state. This has hindered efforts by African-Americans to aspire to whatever level in the socio-economic ladder as their white counterparts. Despite these odds, it can still be boldly said that blacks made America.
In his preface to Negroes Who Helped Build America, (1955) Joseph Penn shed light on the three factors adumbrated above. In America, the phenomenon of the Negro being the main target for acts of injustice and discrimination may be accounted for in the fact of Negroes original slave status; his being America’s largest minority group; and outright ignorance about the Negro American, his struggles to overcome the handicap imposed by slavery, his patience and endurance, in the face of abuse, desire to be in the mainstream American life despite all odds, contributions to the development and progress of America. These have not been appreciated by many.
The current historical conjuncture, perhaps looks promising, a new generation that abhors the sins of their ancestors and truly believes in the tenets of the emancipation proclamation that, “all men are created equal” is emerging. This is evinced in the current nation-wide protest in America and the views of key members of political elites such as former presidents George Bush, Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo and Tim Walz, which must answer the question posed by former president Bush on how to end systemic racism in America.
The answer to Bush’s poser comes from the global outrage and embodied in the words of American elite who have denounced the patterns of discrimination against black Americans. As Bush noted, racial unity has always been the greatest challenge for America, it is divisive and has always split American society. The solution lies in abidance to the American dream of racial equality; that truth that all men are born equal and endowed by God and by certain inalienable rights. The challenge of principle is to perpetually translate it into opposition to injustices. But the heroes of the American civil rights movements have held up this principle for American unity and have revealed the blight its negation engenders for the American majority to scrutinise by seeing it through the prism of “the threatened, oppressed, and disenfranchised”. And for him, peace requires equal justice based on the rule of law that ensures “the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system”.
Former President Obama on his part read the problem as one of structural violence resulting from “a long history of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and institutionalized racism that too often have been the plague, the original sin of our society.” In concrete terms, he calls for the reform of the criminal justice system inclusive of law enforcement in America. While noting that change would require everybody’s participation, he mentioned the policy community in this respect, that is, “mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police units, and that determines police practices in local communities. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide typically whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all positions.
In some places, they’re police community review boards with the power to monitor police conduct. Those oftentimes may be elected as well”. Although Obama identifies a structural problem, his emphasis was more on the criminal justice system. He is however optimistic that the broad coalition and the crosscutting nature of the present outcry, led largely by the youth bodes well for the prospect of change in America. Joe Biden spoke along the line of reforms of the justice system and a system of accountability within the law enforcement process and ensuring good relations with the “the community they’re sworn to protect”. Also, he emphasised that it must lead to treating the underlying causes of discrimination and injustices in society that requires change.
Both New York and Minnesota governors were also unanimous on the way forward. Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor captured the kernel of the present moment by urging the use of the moment for empowerment and must be used for positive change and he says it is the goal that requires smartness to achieve. The embattled Minnesota Governor Tim Walz sees the problem as systemic racism and the lack of accountability, up and down our society, that led to a daytime murder of a black man on a street in Minneapolis. To overcome it, what is required is “a nation that fundamentally respects the human dignity of every person. That starts with justice for George Floyd”.
To be sure, systemic racism is entrenched in the institutions of the state, education, occupation, housing and cultural expression. It has to be rooted out from the state structure. Since America is a federal entity, federal character principle to give equal opportunity to both the black and white population will be invaluable. At the sub-national levels, an affirmative principle will be necessary to bridge the gaps. And in the black community, unity of purpose is required. They must stop being victims of a false flag operation of self-blame and halt black-on-black violence and forge ahead towards the path of mutual empowerment. One of the greatest heritages of blacks to the global community is the communal spirit. The blacks should exemplify this in America. Not to be taken for granted is the rude awakening of the younger generation of white Americans who are ready to atone for their ancestral sins against the blacks in America, and this solidarity must be built upon. Colour is not the issue per se it is the relation of domination arising from the material basis of society, which produces the haves and the have-nots.
This comment will not be complete without noting the pathology that afflicts the Nigerian State that the blacks both in the continent and the diaspora look up to. It has not only failed us, but it has also continued to be governed by a succession of the visionless, feudalistic, antidevelopment and self-serving elite who have wasted its resources and undermined its future and strength. As we mourn Floyd, a trail of blood is streaming across southern Kaduna in patterned ethnic cleansing perpetrated by those the victims have identified as Fulani herdsmen with the cold and curious complicity of the Nigerian State. This is not edifying. It only compounds the dilemma and indeed the tragedy of the black race. Nevertheless, as Floyd’s young daughter said, “My dad has changed the world”. Let his death truly mark the birth of an America that is free from racism.
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