On May 25, there was a 9-minute incident in Minneapolis, Minnesota that sparked protests in hundreds of locations across the USA and in numerous cities around the world. That incident was the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with three other officers in attendance.
Chauvin killed 46-year old Mr. Floyd by holding his knee on the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” A video of this tragic incident shot by a bystander went viral and has been streamed millions of times.
Sadly, the violence upon Mr. Floyd is not an isolated incident for African Americans. On June 12, after Floyd’s death, Rayshard Brooks, 27, was shot dead by a police officer, in the parking lot of an Atlanta restaurant.
Earlier in the year, before Floyd’s death, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, was shot dead in southeastern, Georgia by a white father and son while he was jogging. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old emergency medical technician, was killed by cops in Louisville, Kentucky in her apartment.
It was Floyd’s tragic death, however, that triggered a national movement organized primarily by Black Lives Matter, aimed at fighting systemic racism, inequality and violence against African Americans. The movement has called significant attention to this matter.
On June 8, the Democrats introduced a sweeping police reform bill. On June 16, President Donald Trump signed a police reform executive order that was much less expansive in scope. And, The Republicans are reportedly working on their version of a reform bill.
Some analysts see the current situation in the U.S. as similar to the race riots and responses of the late 60’s. While there are some similarities, the context this time around is far more complex and contentious due to a number of factors.
This time the enormous impact of the Covid-19 global pandemic has left millions unemployed. The shattering collapse of the American economy has been exacerbated by the turbulent racial situation brought to a fever pitch by Floyd’s killing. Nobody would have ever bet on or wanted this trifecta to happen.
The 1960’s movement occurred during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the historic legislature banning discrimination on race, sex, religion, color and national origin. The present protests are taking place under a president, who has not only undermined institutions and democracy but who has also worsened the lives of ethnic and religious minorities.
Studies by the Pew Research Center show political polarization in the U.S. has been growing for some time and has increased and intensified during the Donald J. Trump era. Eza Klein of Vox states, “For a time, in the 20th century, our political coalitions did not echo our social divisions…Today, our political divisions are our social divisions, and that changes everything.”
Some see Trump as the most divisive leader since president Andrew Jackson who held office from 1829-1837. That’s because Trump is primarily focused on pleasing his voting base rather than working to unite all Americans regardless of their political persuasion. Owing to the president’s attitude and behavior, Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post asks whether Trump is a “fascist?”, and Ezra Klein has called him a “political arsonist.”
I myself have labeled Trump a “model of irresponsibility, inconsistency, and incompetence.” Given his poor performance related to Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd, I would add two new ‘I’s to that description: “inflammatory instigator.”
In tweets, Trump encouraged his supporters to “liberate” states like Virginia and Michigan to reopen even though Covid-19 was still in full force there. On June 1, during a conference call he urged governors to “dominate” the streets and protesters. Following that in a Rose Garden speech he declared that “If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United State military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
These are obviously precarious times for the political and social landscape of the U.S. I must caution though that the U.S. is not the only country that has a history of systemic racism based upon creed, color, language or religion.
The post-Floyd protests that have broken out in major cities around the globe suggest that other countries need to learn from what is going on in the U.S. Based upon those lessons, they should assess their particular circumstances and initiate the necessary pro-active reforms to make their nations more inclusive and equitable before their peaceful protests become violent ones.
That said, what can be said about what the current circumstances bode for the United States of America. Some might see them as a cause for despair. I do not. I see them as a cause for hope.
I view them as President Barack Obama does. He noted, in his virtual Town Hall talk, sponsored by the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, there are different demographics in these protests compared to the protests of the ‘60’s. Obama observed, “You look at those protests (the ones going on currently) and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the street, peacefully protesting. That didn’t exist back in the 1960’s, that kind of broad coalition.”
The basic requirement for carrying this change process forward is this broad and diverse base of responsible and concerned citizens. That platform provides the basis for initiating, implementing and supporting a systemic and sustained response to America’s systemic racism.
That change process must start with tens of millions of these citizens electing a new President when the U.S. holds its national elections on November 4. If Donald Trump stays in office, America’s systemic racism cannot be brought to an end. Electing a new president will bring the U.S. a step closer to reducing police and structural violence against blacks.
That change process must also include getting the right representation at the state and local levels. Quoting President Obama again: “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system are at the state and local levels. If we want to bring about real change the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
The journey toward a systemic response to eliminate America’s structural racism has begun. The destination of a more equitable and inclusive America requires sustained advocacy, political commitment and solidarity. This journey must be completed because the future of the American democracy hinges upon it.
Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal.