It’s been one week since African-American George Floyd died in the community of Minneapolis, Minnesota under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, protests have spread to nearly every state in the US and many have been calling to end the killing of unarmed black men and police violence.
Protesters around US demand justice for George Floyd
The New York Times reported that Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was arrested on May 25 after a delicatessen employee called 911, accusing him of using a counterfeit $20 bill when he purchased cigarettes. The squad car soon arrived at the scene and Floyd was pinned beneath three police officers. The arrest soon became fatal, suffocating Floyd to death. The independent autopsy found the black man died from “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Footage taken by a bystander showed Floyd groaning for help and repeatedly saying, “please, I can’t breathe.”
While Chauvin, who is white, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, protesters believe that the penalty is not enough. They are also demanding that the other police officers be held criminally liable.
The latest death led to the resurgence of the movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) which was founded in 2013. BLM’s mission, as published in its website, is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” The international human rights movement was founded after the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot 17-year-old African American high school student Trayvon Martin.
Rooted in decades of frustrations
According to Deakin University’s Associate Professor Clare Corbould, whose areas of expertise are US social, cultural, and political history in the twentieth century, the protest that engulfed the US cities are rooted in the long history of frustrations. She explained that racist policing, the vicious stereotyping, extra-legal and legal discrimination, and exclusions from major avenues of wealth creation have long histories in America that people endure even up to today.
African Americans had been protesting against these injustices even in the 1870s, during the post-Civil War days. Also, throughout the 20th century, there were uprisings in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, in Los Angeles, Detroit, and in Chicago.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is a landmark civil rights and labor law in the US, helped outlaw the discrimination but did not fully bring equality. There is still racial injustice happening at the hands of police officers. This is why protesters in the US today are taking to the streets in over 150 cities, leading to violent clashes between the white police forces and black residents.
The trigger of unrest
Meanwhile, there are white moderates who condemn the armed rebellions. Corbould, whose research areas focus on North American History and the history of African American culture and politics, cited the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a former American Christian minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement until his assassination. Martin Luther King, Jr. previously said that riots “do not develop out of thin air.”
Almost always, the trigger of unrest for African-American uprisings were acts done by police forces, like the recent case of Floyd, Corbould added. Unrest sometimes begins when the police refuse to act on behalf of the black people. In 1919, for instance, a policeman did nothing to stop the white man throwing rocks at the African-American teenager who drifted into Lake Michigan.
In 1865, slavery ended in the country but white Americans were able to find new ways to exploit the labor of black people. This kept the African Americans poor. These ways include implementing legislation on work contracts as well as mobility and racist stereotyping. These customs and laws form the basis of violence. History also shows that from the late 1800s to 1950, over 4,000 African Americans were victims of a premeditated extrajudicial killing called lynchings. The practice had become so acceptable that they were advertised in the press.
Some Black Americans sought better lives in the northern cities but they too experienced racism there. There was a captive market established by white landlords. African Americans were usually kept out of nicer neighborhoods in the cities either through acts done by the police officers themselves or perpetrated by the white residents. Places where middle-class black Americans lived were often bombed, leading to the area being called “Dynamite Hill.”
Years passed and there were black officers in the police forces but their presence did not alter the racist operations of the police forces, opined Corbould.
In the 1960s, protests were driven not just by police brutality but also the exclusion of African Americans from full civic engagement or activities that are of public concern. Despite accumulating the capital needed to acquire a mortgage, African Americans were prevented by a system of laws from purchasing the property. In turn, it thwarted black families from accumulating wealth in the same manner as white families in America do. This led African Americans to live in poorer neighborhoods. These places had no green spaces, poorly resourced schools, stores with high prices, and worse sanitation.
Opinions about race relations in the US
Nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center shares that 58% or six in ten Americans say race relations in the US are bad. About 49% of whites and 73% of black people believe that President Donald Trump has made race relations worse. Only 15% of US adults think that the president improved race relations and another 13% said he tried to improve but failed to make progress on the issue.
In the US, Americans also see disadvantages for blacks and Hispanics. Fifty-nine percent say being white helps people’s ability to get ahead in their country.
The United States Human Rights Score in 2017 was 0.24, according to scientific online publication Our World in Data. The Human Rights Score indicates the degree to which governments protect and respect human rights. The value ranges from around -3.8 to 5.4, wherein the higher the score, the better.
UNESCO has referred to racism as the “social cancer of our time.” It slowly gnaws away at society until it invades the whole organism, erupting in violence. We can all be active bystanders to combat racism. This means that when we see unacceptable behavior and conflict, we can take steps to make a difference appropriately and safely.