Are we at a turning point?
The last two weeks have seen something that is almost unprecedented engulfing the US, with repercussions in Europe and other areas. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, on May 25, sparked a massive outcry not only in the US but in other parts of the world. The video which showed police officer Dereck Chauvin kneeling on George’s neck for about nine minutes while he cried out “I can’t breathe” really made all who saw it virtual witnesses to what was undoubtedly the murder of a 46-year-old African-American man. Around the same time was an incident where an African-American bird-watcher at Central Park, urged a white female nearby to leash her dog. Her response was to call the police saying a black man was threatening her.
These followed earlier incidents with fatal consequences, among them, the murder of St. Lucian-born Botham Jean who was killed in his apartment in 2019 while watching television and eating ice cream and Eric Garner in 2014 who also cried out that he could not breathe.
With George Floyd it was not the first time that video recordings have captured the death of a black man at the hands of the police. This however has sparked weeks of protests in over 700 cities and towns across the US and other parts of the world. Was there something different about this to have generated this kind of response? Did the callousness of officer Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck as though posing for a photo, make people conclude that enough was enough, that it was just too blatant? Did the fact that persons were locked down in their homes for such a long time force them out on the streets, even putting their lives at risk by ignoring the social distancing warnings?
What was spectacular about the protests were the numbers and diversity of people involved, black and white, young, and old, male, and female, members of the Christian community and some politicians. The racist behaviour of the police was a common theme, but it went beyond that, even though the destruction of monuments, including those of Christopher Columbus and slave owners led by whites were part of the anti-racism explosion if they could be so labelled. Did the Covid-19 pandemic expose more than ever the inequalities in society and point to the need for new directions? In the US, obviously, part was a reaction to Trump and his mishandling of the pandemic and inability to even try to provide healing to the nation. His Attorney General William Barr informed us that he had to be taken to the bunker in the White House, although he claimed that he had only gone there to inspect it. In the past the US was expected to take the lead in pulling together a global response to such matters. Not so with Trump. Rather at such a critical time he has begun the process of withdrawing from the WHO, which is leading the response to the pandemic. He is renewing his Cold War with China, blaming it for his shortcomings in leading the US response. At a time when the number of cases in the US has been rising in some areas, he is about a quick opening up so that he can deal with what is dearest to him, having his rallies and getting applauses from his loyal followers who appreciate his efforts to dismantle as much of the system as he is able to.
But are we at a turning point as the US sneezes? In August 1955, there was the kidnapping, beating, shooting and throwing in a river tied to a 75lb cotton gin fan, of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was alleged to have whistled a white woman. Rosa Parks who in December 1955 refused to surrender her seat in a bus to a white person, indicated that she was motivated to take her stand after the treatment of Till. The rest is history with the birth of the Civil Rights movement that saw the entrance shortly after by Martin Luther King who was also motivated by the memory of the 14-year-old. Will the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the brutal killing of George Floyd see the beginning of a new moment in history, which might only be possible in any event, by the removal of the presidential misfit that inhabits the White House?!
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian