Civil RightsprotestRacism

“I Can’t Breathe.”

I was glad to hear President Trump had rescheduled his June 19th Tulsa rally – Juneteenth – Freedom Day, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.

Sounds like the president is breathing, listening? He more than tweets. He speaks.

The racial discord that has long dictated the nature of the American social fabric is in transition following the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Hopefully, so is the president.

“Daddy changed the world,” said Floyd’s six-year-old daughter at the candle-lit memorial on a street corner where her father fell victim to what appears a racially-crazed white police officer. The footage of the arresting officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck with the victim crying out “I can’t breathe now” depicts a horrendous act.

One could ask, cold-heartedly, what’s new about it. Blacks in America and the true inheritors of the land, the native Americans, have for long faced brutality from white immigrants who came to dominate and created what is often referred to as the “land of the free.” Ironically, it has also become apparent over time that in this land of the free, all men are not created equal.

Some of the previous victims of racial killings in America were better known than Floyd. But even the assassination of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr did not evoke such a long-lasting global outrage that we witness for the murder of this little-known poor man. The blacks and the people of colour have reached the point that they can no longer endure the discrimination and they must fight back.

Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe,” have reverberated across America and around the world sparking a tsunami of protest and a clarion call for the oppressed to rally for justice, civil rights and human dignity. And, people have taken to the street not only in America but also in Australia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, Gambia, Israel, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries across all continents – demanding the right to breathe economic, racial, and political equality and justice. The vandalism that followed is not excusable but is an understandable retaliation of the disadvantaged. This incident could well be a warning for governments anywhere that clamp down on people seeking equality, justice and freedom of expression—including China that now uneasily wrecking its brains to device measures against civil rights protests in its Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong.

America has been addressing racial injustice since the adoption of its Constitution in 1788. It is doing so again, as the world watches with a mixed sense of admiration and disgust. But no action has yet gone far enough for all in this multi-racial society to feel equal.

At the height of the protest on Friday, May 29, Floyd and protests surrounding his death were mentioned 8.8 million times on television and social media platforms, according to Zignal Labs, a media insight company which analyses global television and social media broadcasts.

At the memorial held on the Minneapolis street corner, a mural inscribed with Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe now,” was displayed. It spoke volumes of all those murdered and suppressed worldwide. Coincidently, a candle-light memorial was in progress that day also in Hong Kong where tens of thousands of people gathered—defying a police order for Covid-19 social distancing. They were holding the annual remembrance of an untold number of civil rights protesters killed on June 4, 1989, at the Tiananmen Square in China’s capital. These two memorials held 12,000 km away from each other had a familiar ring to them.

In America’s long history of racial disharmony, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2013 in Florida, was a trigger point. It gave rise to the Black-Lives-Matter movement and has since gathered momentum as black people continued to fall victim to white police officers.

Black men in America have a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by police and two-and-a-half times more likely than white men to be executed after being arrested.

Native Americans and people of colour in America continue to suffer what the Washington-based think tank Urban Institute calls “structural racism.” A wide range of overt and covert discrimination in areas such as education, employment, health care and housing that have been highlighted by Covid-19 and Floyd’s death.

In my home state of Arizona, the Covid-19 mortality rate among Native Americans is eight times as high as whites. African-Americans account for 2.4 times more Covid-19 deaths than whites.

Floyd’s dying plea echoed that of Eric Garner, an African-American whose death in New York in 2014, under similar circumstances, whose pleas of “I can’t breathe” ignited nationwide protests. The policeman who asphyxiated Garner has not faced criminal charges and still works for the NYPD, even though the medical examiner found that Garner’s death was a homicide.

Thankfully, the situation is changing. The four officers involved in Floyd’s death have been fired and charged with homicide. It is a change that was long overdue and one we can all relate to. How this cry for change should be carried on was defined by Floyd’s brother Terrence at the candle-lit memorial. “I’m not over here blowing up stuff … Because that’s not going to bring my brother back.”

All that is needed to make the world fair and peaceful where we can all breathe is the political will to execute the words of Floyd’s brother and daughter constructively.

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Illustration: Mark Carparosa

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