By Bumpy Walker
In the last few weeks global attention has focused on the United States of America, where an African man, George Floyd, was extra-judiciously killed by a member of the United States police forces. This is not an unusual event. After all, the musician Miles Davis felt the brunt of a police night stick in front of a venue where his name was in lights. During a trip to the United States in 2016 for a visit to my vision of Hell (Disney theme parks in Florida), Treyvon Martin was killed and I was inspired to write a commentary on my smart phone as I stood miserably queuing to go on roller coasters.
In recent weeks wiser Jamaicans than I have weighed in on this matter. The academic and author Orlando Patterson was on MSNBC sharing his wisdom. The intellectual giant and knight of the realm, Sir Hilary Beckles, wrote an elegant, succinct summary of the connection between American anti-racism activism with Jamaica in an op-ed on this website. The wisdom and temperance evident in the comments of one of our ablest diplomats, Curtis Ward, should be listento. My fellow “schooler”, the Winter Olympics pioneer Nelson Christian Stokes gave a perspective on That’s a Rap, rooted in his unusual experiences as a student living in rural Idaho, where he formed relationships and represented Jamaica to a more conservative demographic than is normal for members of the diaspora. For me, Stokes’s comments must carry the most significance as I suspect that there are back stories in which his humanity and abilities were questioned based on melanin content.
Righteous indignation has swept the planet with empathic reactions from Palestinians in Gaza and West bank to the conservative Pat Robertson condemning this callous act, while offering solidarity with the yanki demonstrators. Yet watching other nations demonstrate, gesturing in solidarity, while ignoring their own identifiable “others” who are at the bottom of their economic hierarchy feels off.
March With US
One video stuck with me; where a police commander in the United States subjected a demonstrating crowd to a “platitudanally” heavy speech. He disarmed the crowd by agreeing with the pervading sentiments. The crowd took up the chant “March with us”. The police took the crowd’s advice and rather than using pepper spray and rubber bullets, did march with the crowd.
Watching this, one is left wondering if one collected comparative data of the interactions of these police officers individually, what this data would show of stopping and searching African Americans for minor infringements when compared to European Americans. And how did the justice system deal with our co-ethnics subsequently?
How many of the kneeling policemen have used micro motions of a pinned suspect to claim that they felt threatened? Video recordings of these events do not stop the murders, nor do they provide justice when presented as evidence. These are disregarded as prosecutors accept these imperceptible motions as threats, then either fail to prosecute or bringing lesser charges.
As for the officers now kneeling in solidarity to condemn the death of the African American, Mr Floyd, one wonders whether they condemned the “footballista” Colin Keapernick for his knelling during the national anthem. Or are they simply reacting like the NFL belatedly agreeing with the gesture?
It seems the death of Mr Floyd was required to make these gestures acceptable to the powers that be, but when it was unpopular they chose to conform to the idea that the kneeling protest was unnecessary. It was deemed an affront to yanki national icons and demands were made that such protesters should be fired and blacklisted; much in the manner that Paul Robeson the actor was when he made similar gestures. Robeson, like Kapearnick, did make personal sacrifices that morphed the gesture into activism.
Gestures are emotionally satisfying, like the temporary sugar rush from soda pop. What is urgently needed is an acknowledgement that the policing that particularly the African American males face has been disproportionately cruel. More important, it is not just simply policing; in all aspects of life there is an inherent bias against this group. Even this acknowledgement of disproportionality will not ameliorate, unless the root cause is addressed and there is the political will to make changes. This would require social investment, which is politically not sustainable.
Private Domain: Fear the Root of these Murders
In Orlando Patterson’s comments on MSNBC he spoke of the political and social change that happened in the 1960s. He acknowledged that significant progress had been made in the public spheres. However this was not mirrored in the private space. Thus the lack of personal inter exchange has meant that there has been a lack of acknowledgement of the humanity between these artificial socially constructed groups.
If one watches the death videos of George Floyd death, three policemen had immobilised the middle age man. One officer is seen kneeling, on his neck, slowly cutting off blood flow to his brain and oxygen to his lungs, resulting in a prolonged agonising death, while casually keeping his hands in his pockets. Another officer is heard inanely advising the witnesses not to use drugs, even as they are desperately telling him his colleagues are killing Mr Floyd.
It will be surprising if the defence of all three is not based on fear for their lives. This was the defence that the police used in the case of Philando Castile, and was the logic given when Miles Davis was assaulted sixty years ago. It was the “fear” defence that ensured the police who killed Tamir Rice were found not guilty. It was the defence that Zimmerman used in mitigation when he shot the Baraka Obama look-alike Treyvon Martin.
This cultural acceptance than European Americans fear African Americans is demonstrated in the recent case where the politically liberal Ms Cooper called the police, claiming she was in fear of a Mr Cooper, the African-American bird watcher. She knowingly used this trope to solicit sympathy from within the public protection system, well aware of the possible lethal consequences.
It is the “silo-ing” of society outside the public space that identifies a prepubescent Black child as a threat as well as a middle aged Black man while pinned to the ground by multiple policemen or a nerdish Black birdwatcher.
For me all the genuflecting, kneeling, virtue signalling officers won’t change this police culture. They are afraid, and to quote Yoda from Star Wars “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
All the current demonstrations and handwringing have happened before. Pessimistically, once the raw emotion is burnt away the status quo will be re-established. Celebrities will, in years to come, claim in biographies that they were revolutionary with their gestures. However there will be little movement to amelioration because the fear will remain.
Viewing History through Fear
There are many ways to view Yankee history, though commonly it is portrayed from the Anglo- Disney like simplistic myth of brave pilgrims and freedom loving individuals. The Marxist can see it through a mirror of Hegelian synergy and class struggle. The African nationalists can see it through the vision of numerous generations of forced free labour by kidnapped African victims used to build the nation’s treasure and power.
A Christian perspective could be that the United States was built from a bastion when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. The result is a shiny city on a hill, to which all nations must aspire, a nation of exceptionalism whose citizens and their descendants are a modern day chosen people. The natives of the continental United States would see this as Plymouth Rock being used as a genocidal ballistic missile targeted at them and a nation that was built on their bones with their resources.
Another view of the political and social development of the United States could be that the driving force is the emotion; fear. It was fear that drove the pilgrims to immigrate to the lands in the west (They feared the liberalism of the Dutch and English). It was fear that drove the Pilgrim colonists and their subsequent iteration into a confederacy of states to injure, brand and kill the recalcitrant victims of their exploitation during this expansion south and westward.
It was fear of the African and Native American that led to the constitutionally guaranteed obsession with firearms. It was fear of old, starving, ghost dancing, Lakota Sioux, in concentration camps that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. (That could also be seen as fear of non-European interpretation of Christianity). Fear of the Chinese immigrant led to laws specifically preventing them from marrying and stopping their immigration in the late 19th century. Fear of Japanese Americans led to their internment in effective concentration camps during World War II. But most of all it is fear of the African-American who, for the most part, are descendants of the kidnapped “machines that breathe” whose congealment of labour contributed to the building of the wealth of the United States.
Each time a fear is identified as an existential threat, laws are enacted to legalise the lethal force that will be applied to assuage the perceived threat to the descendants of the Pilgrims and their co-ethnics. This is witnessed by the development of laws at one time or the other to supress African- American, Native Americans, Italians, Japanese, Irish (yes- Irish) Chinese, Communist or Muslims.
The theoretical concept of at the centre of United States justice system is innocence until guilt is established by an independent unbiased judicial system. This and the theoretical separation of powers at the heart of its political system should be admired and, in my opinion, emulated. Historically, as the examples I have mentioned demonstrate, either by accident or design, this idealism has tragically not been fulfilled. Laws and systems are developed to deny this fundamental right to those who are feared.
This fear and the evolution of laws to supress those who are feared are not unique. There are historical precedents in the British, French, Chinese, Spanish, Aztec and Roman empires. The United States politically does have the advantage of having fundamental mission statements in its Bill of Rights which give hope that this fear should be assuaged and equal rights given to all without regard to “colour or class”.
It must be highlighted that, despite the laws, there are millions of “others” clamouring to enter the United States, risking life, limb and pride. It suggests, for all its faults, that it is still seen by many outside as indeed the shiny city on the hill to which much of the world does aspire.