Conflict Alerts # 101, 3 June 2020
In the news
On 25 May, Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was restrained on the ground, in handcuffs, as a police officer pinned his knee against Floyd's neck for 8 minutes. Shortly after, Floyd was reported to be dead. Lawmakers, media, and residents have deemed this to be another act of police brutality against African American men, and in the days following his death, protests calling for the justice of Georg Floyd, occurred in most major cities across the United States. The officer who had placed his knee on Floyd's neck was arrested and charged with third-degree murder. Additionally, the three other officers involved in the situation were fired from the department.
However, public unrest persists, and on the day this journal is being written, there have been seven straight days of protests in most major cities including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, as well as Minneapolis, where the incident occurred. In addition to instances of peaceful protests, there have also been several accounts of arson and looting, which has drawn a very divided response from many residents.
Issues at large
First, the protests have a multitude of messages, beyond the justice of George Floyd. This situation has been treated as a catalyst in the response to the treatment of African American people through a sociological and systemic lens. In other words, protests have called for an end to racist oppression both in the society that people live their daily life, as well as a system that has allowed police brutality to destroy black lives. Furthermore, this issue concerns far more than just the death of George Floyd, but a release of pent-up anger toward the oppression of African American people.
Second, the violence across the US is not in response only to the death of Floyd, but what has been happening within the US during the recent period. During the past decade, there has been a continuous domino of black lives that have been unjustly affected by police brutality. They all have led to this moment. Each step of the way, there has been a different form of protest that has been taken. Whether it be kneeling during the national anthem or holding a peaceful march in honour of a fallen victim, many residents have been active in addressing the issue of racial inequality. However, the death of George Floyd is taken, in the form of evidence to many people, that the message has not been received by the political system. Decades and centuries of continued oppression and ignored messages have led to this moment. People are angry because George Floyd was publicly lynched hundreds of years after slavery was abolished.
Third is the response from the American President. In addition to this incredibly troubling situation that is incredibly apparent in the lives of black men and women, the added division in the American political atmosphere, fueled by President Trump's rhetoric, as well as left-wing media's constant attention to the presidency's action, has created an ever more divided political conversation. This division was heightened by the death of George Floyd, resulting in an incredibly angry response starting with peaceful protest, and eventually leading to some of the violent responses occurring in cities around the world.
To many people of the international community looking at this distressful time in American history, the solution seems simple. The question of "Why can't we all get along," seems quite trivial. People look to South Africa as an example where the history of racial injustice and oppression was, arguably more intense, but has resulted in a much more relaxed political and social atmosphere today. This begs the question of why is it different in America? Unfortunately, this question is incredibly complex and cannot be answered in such a short narrative.
The more important issue is what will happen in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. How will this issue affect next year's election, as the political atmosphere seems more divided than ever? Vice President Biden has recently gained public attention through his increased level of participation immediately following the protest, while President Trump has continued the ignition of his base with his Twitter account. How will COVID-19 factor into the situation both economically and medically? And most relevant to the issue: Will race relations ever be fixed? While we'll know the answers to some of these questions sooner than others, it is important to understand that these are questions being asked in many residents' minds. And this presence in people's mind, evidenced in social media post, actions are taken to protest, as well as donations made, show that there is a definite change in attitude. Only time will tell what specifically will happen.
Finally, Circling back to the root of the issue: the protests. Some of the controversy and the critiques that they face include statements such as "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," as well as, "This response is not the answer." The latter is a very familiar critique of political disobedience. It's the same critique that Gandhi heard when he started the Salt Satyagraha. The same response that followed Dr King as he marched through Alabama. Protest cannot be considered "right" because, by definition, it challenges the notion of "right" and "wrong" set by the very system it is 'protesting.'
Rahul Arockiaraj is with the Brandeis University, Boston, Massachusetts.