As if US authorities didn’t have enough to worry about in this age of Covid-19 which has led to economic devastation and massive unemployment, justifiable fury over the murder of yet another unarmed African American at the hands of police has erupted into widespread civil unrest not seen since the 1960s.
Night after night the downtown areas of almost every major city, including the capital, have been besieged by looters and arsonists causing governors to call out the National Guard.
Clearly black Americans have had enough. The killing of George Floyd, arrested over his possession of an allegedly forged $20 note, was hard to watch. Struggling to breathe with a knee pressing down on his throat he called for his mother. He was held on the ground by three uniformed officers for nine minutes.
African Americans along with decent people of all ethnicities are appalled by the culture of police brutality towards certain communities, a culture that has been tolerated as the norm since the Jim Crow apartheid era that established different laws for blacks and whites
In spite of several videos to the contrary, those responsible falsely claimed he was resisting arrest. To date, only one, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged.
The killing echoed that of another black man, Eric Garner, by New York City police officers who sat on his head ignoring his pleas “I can’t breathe”.
The list of Black Americans whose lives were cut short by police or white vigilantes, like the father and son who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging through a white neighbourhood in Georgia, is too long to reproduce here but suffice to say that the perpetrators are often given a mere smack on the wrist.
For sure, African Americans along with decent people of all ethnicities are appalled by the culture of police brutality towards certain communities, a culture that has been tolerated as the norm since the Jim Crow apartheid era that established different laws for blacks and whites.
Equal rights legislation — only on paper
The 1950s civil rights movement was successful in bringing about equal rights legislation at least on paper. But the facts tell a different story. Institutional racism is alive and well not only deep within the structure of policing but also the judicial system whereby black Americans receive longer custodial sentences than their white counterparts who commit the same crime.
Data shows that the Los Angeles police search four times as many black and Latino drivers than white. The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that stop-and-frisk measures have overwhelmingly targeted African Americans and Latinos.
Last year out of 13,459 stops in New York 59 per cent were black, 29 per cent Latino and just nine per cent were white. It is not surprising that black parents who fear for their sons warn them to avoid the police who more often than not act first and ask questions later.
Peaceful protesters and militants are chanting George Floyd’s name while regurgitating the mantra ‘Black Lives Matter’ but what they want besides justice and recompense for Floyd’s family is an overhaul of the system that relegates minorities to second class citizens.
It is no accident of fate that three times as many African Americans have fallen victim to Covid-19 than white people. The US Health Secretary says the black community has “greater risk profiles” in terms of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, with no mention of those factors — joblessness, poor housing, lack of health insurance and high levels of poverty — that contribute to ill health.
Right of African Americans
The right of African Americans to be hurt and angry is incontestable but how the federal government and the governors of states stricken by violence channels that rage is paramount to obtaining a peaceful outcome.
Will the grievances suffered by black communities be listened to and addressed or will there be crackdowns akin to throwing petrol on the flames?
The violence which has destroyed the livelihoods of small business owners, incinerated buildings and destroyed private vehicles cannot be allowed to continue and that requires the kind of leadership geared towards bringing people together.
Where are the influential voices capable of speaking up on behalf of black youth? CNN anchor Don Lemon literally pleaded with African American politicians and celebrities to lend their voices to the cause instead of worrying about the effects emotion could have on their “brand”. He called upon Oprah, Barack Obama, Beyonce and others to take to their airwaves to show their support.
Can President Trump be the glue that brings peace to his nation? Given his statements thus far, I am not hopeful. His unfortunate tweet “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” flagged by Twitter as glorifying violence was indicative of his mindset.
He has called protesters “thugs” and said if those gathered outside the White House had breached the fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons I have ever seen”. A ‘them-and-us’ scenario must be avoided at all costs to prevent a race war brewing.
— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.