02 Jun 2020 17:28 IST

Race riots rock America

George Floyd’s death has made the US erupt, yet again, over an issue that has plagued it historically

To most of the free world, the United States is the gold standard to measure up to. It is a land of opportunity for immigrants and the destination of choice for the foreign student. The country’s capital markets are the world’s best; its intellectual property and bankruptcy laws are the world’s envy. The US dollar is the pre-eminent currency in international trade, invoicing and settlement. America is so dominant in military power that it spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined.

But during a week when American hegemony was again on display as NASA and SpaceX successfully kicked off a new era of spaceflight, the country was again embroiled in an issue that has plagued it since its birth over 250 years ago: race relations.

The concern now is a frightening video clip that went viral, of a white police officer in Minneapolis holding down a black man, George Floyd, for over eight minutes, choking him to death. Floyd allegedly passed a fake $20 bill at a convenience store when the store owner complained to the police. It is not known if Floyd knew that the bill was fake — he could have received it himself during a prior transaction.

Dominant concern, even in peaceful times

Under the vice-like grip of the police officer’s knees, immobilising Floyd flat on the ground, Floyd repeatedly pleads, “I can’t breathe!” But the officer, Derek Chauvin, ignores him. Floyd’s subsequent death was quiet for a couple of days but protests quickly began to simmer in Minneapolis and other cities. For the last few days, there has been such extensive coverage of the protests on TV and in the media that Covid-19, the story which dominated the news for nearly two-and-a-half months, has gone to the back pages. Even the incredible scenes of the docking of the Crew Dragon capsule with the International Space Station lay buried under the weight of the Floyd riots.

 

Race is the pre-eminent topic in America even when things are calm. Not a day passes without a politician formulating policy or marketing it based on race. Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee to challenge President Trump this year, was resurrected by black voters in South Carolina, and later, across the southern states. For months, he has been facing pressure to choose a black woman as his VP nominee, based on race.

For over 55 years, since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the country’s laws have addressed every aspect of racism going back to its founding. At least according to the law books, blacks are supposed to be no different than whites. No decision affecting human life — from birth to death — can have a racial component. Period.

But on the ground, these laws are enforced with varying degrees of compliance. It is customary for landlords to deny black families rental opportunities. For decades, banks refused to lend to blacks, including small businesses owned by blacks. Blacks are routinely passed over during hiring and promotions.

Glaring inequalities in criminal justice

While many of these racial inequalities have gone away now, one big inequality remains: criminal justice. The NAACP, a 110-year old civil rights organisation for the advancement of blacks and people of colour, says that African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. In 2014, African Americans constituted 34 per cent of the total 6.8 million people in prisons — although they are only 12 per cent of the population.

On the street, a white police officer is a lot more likely to arrest a black male for something a white male is never punished for. Worse, black males are more likely to draw aggressive action from white police officers — including lethal fire. The problem is nationwide, with events in just the last few years crippling Baltimore, New York, Ferguson (Missouri), Chicago, Sanford (Florida), and Satilla Shores (Georgia). The last two cases didn’t even involve police officers on duty. These tragedies happened when ordinary white Americans took the law into their own hands and shot two innocent blacks dead.

For the country, Minneapolis was yet another case of police brutality when an unarmed, innocent black man went from bright life to death in a matter of minutes. The officer who caused Floyd’s death has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder. Fighting crime in America is a local responsibility, so the city of Minneapolis will try the officer in a local court of law. To prove a third-degree murder charge, prosecutors do not have to prove intent, so there’s a good chance that Derek Chauvin, the officer, will be found guilty. Just in the event that the court finds him not guilty, the Department of Justice and the FBI are on the case too. They intend to bring charges in US Federal Court that the accused violated Floyd’s civil rights. No matter what happens, Derek Chauvin will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Collateral damage

As sad as this situation is with the police and blacks — a situation which gave rise to a nationwide movement called “Black Lives Matter” — what is sadder is the way protests have turned into violence with some damaging buildings, police cars, and even the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Many rioters are looting small businesses, many of them minority-owned, in city centres, burning them down. These are hard-working men and women who have spent their lives sustaining their businesses during the pandemic, ordered to shut down for weeks. Now, as they slowly open back up, they have been destroyed forever. Peaceful protests are fine. Rioting, looting, and violence are not.

Martin Luther King — America’s best-known civil rights leader — said in 1963 that his dream was to live in a nation in which his children would “not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King, who was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, would be shocked to see America today, because the country still has a very long way to go to meet his simple and just dream.

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