(Note: With the nation’s attention on Breonna Taylor, I thought it necessary to write about George Floyd. The title is not meant to imply that he has been forgotten. This is meant to keep his name, and the memory of what happened to him, in the public domain.)
“The shot heard round the world” refers to the Battle of Concord on 19th April, 1775, the opening battle of the American Revolutionary War. But before that, there were other “shots” that were heard across the 13 Colonies. On 5th March, 1770, a group of British soldiers who were being harassed by a protesting mob, opened fire and killed several people. This event is known as the Boston Massacre. Nine soldiers were arrested and charged with murder. Six were acquitted and two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences. The verdict was not well-received by the city’s residents, fanning the embers of discontent against British rule. Some 200-plus years later and the stage is set again for civil unrest – a senseless death, an oppressive system, and a citizenry that’s demanding justice.
Following the killing of George Floyd (25th May), protests have erupted in major cities across the United States. While the vast majority of them have been peaceful, there have been incidents of violence and looting. The president has called upon state governors and city majors to restore order, else he will exercise executive authority to deploy the military using the Insurrection Act of 1807. This draconian measure was last implemented on U.S. soil on three occasions: during the 1950s to enforce desegregation of public schools, during the 1960s to protect civil rights marchers, and in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of police officers charged with beating Rodney King. Coincidentally, these circumstances were all caused by race-related events.
The current wave of civil unrest isn’t only about the callous killing of George Floyd. It may have been the trigger, but he is the latest example of an unarmed black man who is arrested for a non-violent offence and ends up dying at the hands of police officers. Sadly, in the majority of these cases, no one is held accountable. This has been the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement, which views these tragic incidents as part of the system of institutionalised racism, prejudice, and violence that is perpetrated against African-Americans. Now, BLM isn’t proposing that “black lives” are more important than any other lives, only that African-Americans deserve equitable treatment from law enforcement, the judicial system, and, yes, even from white citizens.
Critics of the movement cite the statistic that more African-Americans are killed by other African-Americans in inner-city gang warfare. That’s true. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that, considering their percentage of the U.S. population (13%), they are disproportionally targeted (i.e. harassed) by law enforcement, whether it’s being stopped for suspicion or arrested for minor offences when compared to White-Americans. And, yes, that also includes being killed in officer-related shootings. The same applies to the judicial system; African-Americans are convicted and receive harsher prison sentences at higher rates than White-Americans for the same offences. These inequities exist, but is protesting the way in bringing about the necessary changes?
Let me be clear – there is no justification for the wanton destruction of public or private property. Citizens who are protesting shouldn’t be equated with those who are looting. And the minority committing the latter shouldn’t overshadow the majority who are just exercising their right to peacefully assemble. Just as there are some “bad apples” in law enforcement, there are going to be some bad actors in a crowd. President Trump, however, doesn’t make that distinction, and has falsely claimed that the radical “Antifa” (Anti-fascist) movement is organising and driving the protests. But he could also be blamed for inciting and condoning violence.
Instead of being the consoler-in-chief and calling for calm, President Trump has resorted to his characteristic “tough guy” rhetoric. On 29th May he posted a tweet that read, “…when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This was a phrase first used by Miami police chief Walter Headley in December, 1967, when describing his policy for policing the city’s black neighbourhoods. Whether intentional or not, President Trump not only used a phrase with racial connotations but seemed to endorse state-sanctioned brutally, which is one of the central issues that the protesters are trying to address. This won’t be the first time the president has flirted with racism. He made a similar faux pas with his comments regarding the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Ironically, he described some of those protesters – white supremacists – as “very fine people”.
America prides itself as a country of law and order. But it was also forged in the fires of insurrection – the ultimate form of protest. Since its independence, disadvantaged citizens have struggled for equal rights by engaging in civil unrest. From women’s suffrage to civil rights to the recognition of LGBT persons – these groups only achieved their goals after they petitioned, protested, and disrupted the status quo. It’s not easy, but such social causes are worth fighting for. The United States might be witnessing another revolutionary moment. The shot heard round the world has been replaced by the cry heard across the country; it was George Floyd’s last words – I can’t breathe.