The murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, are grim reminders of enduring racism. Even while many prepare for a promised ‘new normal’ it seems that some things, most tragically, do not change. Days after the video of George Floyd’s death went viral, a spate of protests have engulfed the US, and Canada. Ever an insidious reminder of a cyclical history, so much of what is happening seems eerily familiar. Right down to the cries of “I can’t breathe” all of what is happening, has happened before. Too many times.
That all of this persists isn’t scary: it’s traumatising.
And I cannot help but feel that part of the problem is our solution of choice. To decry a single act of violence, and the person committing it ignores the legacy. And if anything, a recent plethora of racially motivated violence proves that, lasting justice has to start at the source.
In Broad Daylight: Ahmaud Arbery
George Floyd’s murder was not the only video evidence of brutality that had surfaced recently. On May 5, a video showing Ahmaud Arbery being pursued, and fatally shot by two white men began making rounds.
The incident had occurred in February. Two prosecutors had viewed the video, and recused themselves. District attorney George E. Barnhill in his verdict, stated that the two perpetrators had done nothing unlawful. That they had acted lawfully under the state’s citizen’s arrest and self defense laws.
To give you some context, Ahmaud Arbery had been unarmed, and was out for a run at the time. The father and son responsible for his death allegedly suspected him of robberies. Their defense was that they had acted in self defense.
Protests had already broken out in April. However, after the video surfaced, both the public outcry and ensuing legal action was much more pronounced. The men who had shot and killed Arbery were arrested, and an investigation into prosecutorial misconduct was also suggested. By late May, the man who had video-taped the incident was also arrested. It was revealed that he had used his truck to prevent Arbery from escaping his assailants.
A Continuation: George Floyd
That Ahmaud Arbery’s death was still fresh in their minds, surely added to the public outcry about George Floyd. The video of a white police officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he struggles to breath, is chilling. Particularly because of the wanton disregard for human life; the violence was methodical, almost.
In the wake of the now viral video, protests broke out in various cities across the US. The cracks in the system were exposed yet again, as days passed before the officer was arrested.
There are two things that I need everyone to consider.
Firstly, racism is not limited to the individuals that exhibit it. In many societies, systemic racism is built into social institutions. In the US, members of the black and latino communities are more likely to be targeted by police. This is not a coincidence, it is an indication of an underlying, and difficult to document, system.
Secondly, there is also a systemic bias which favours police officers. As agents of the state, they are at an advantaged position. So, should one of them break the law, they will not be dealt with in a similar manner as a civilian. BuzzFeed news did an excellent piece on why it took so long to arrest the perpetrators. It details the web of alliances and networks that protect police officers who commit crimes.
So, when discussing racism, it is important to take pre-existing biases into account. Anyone calling out a racist act, is also going up against a system that perpetuates and even protects such actions.
Racism And Weaponised Privilege: Christian Cooper’s Central Park Encounter
It is harrowing to note that what happened to both Arbery and Floyd was somehow justified by people. Be it Twitter users, or certain media outlets, explanations were offered. And they all followed the ‘possible suspect’ logic. That there had allegedly been robberies, and Arbery’s assailants were just good-samaritans looking out for the neighbourhood. That police ‘suspected’ Floyd of something.
These trends can be seen as tactics to cover up clear instances of racism. But, I would also link them to the enduring moral panic and scapegoating that has plagued the black community, globally. In a really interesting article published in The Newyorker, Jelani Cobb calls this phenomenon the “black panic defense”. In a nutshell, the idea is that acts of violence, even racially motivated acts of violence, can be justified. Because someone, anyone, police officer or otherwise, felt “threatened”.
A more disturbing reality is that a lot of people actively weaponise this moral panic. Another video that coincided with George Floyd’s last moments was that of Christian Cooper. Cooper had been bird-watching in central-park, New York, when he came across a white woman who wasn’t following park rules. Amy Cooper’s (no relation) dog was not on a leash, in a part of the park where that was protocol. When Christian insisted that she follow the rules, Amy threatened to call the police. Further stating that she would tell them, and I quote, “that an African American man is threatening me.”
After which, she proceeded to call the police, and raised her pitch to add to the ‘threatened’ effect.
Had this incident not been recorded, the result could have been devastating. In fact, as was pointed out by Adrienne Greene, it could have been as devastating as what happened to George Floyd.
Meanwhile, Blame and Deflection: Regis Korchinski-Paquet
Shortly after protests started in the US, the hashtag “Meanwhile in Canada” began trending on twitter. Although it probably started as a light-hearted attempt to distance Canada from its neighbour, it was quite a tone-deaf reaction. Particularly, when around the same time, Toronto police were undergoing an investigation regarding the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet.
The 29 year old Toronto resident’s family had called 911 for assistance. At some point after the police arrived, Regis was in the apartment with the officers. Her brother and mother were outside. Allegedly, the family heard her call out for help, after which there was silence. And it was later discovered that she had fallen 24 stories to her death.
This is an ongoing case, a lot of the facts are still not evident. Initially, her family alleged that police had been responsible for her death. However since then, they have said that they are looking for answers. Please read the articles I have linked here for more information. Surveillance footage of the incident is also currently being examined.
However, after her death, thousands attended protests in Toronto. And it points to something, that initially those protests were linked to George Floyd’s death instead.
There are too many tweets right now assuming the #torontoprotest is due to the United States. These tweets are made by folks who don't know the local inspiration behind the Canadian protest. Its saddening.
— Sarah Colero🥄🌱 (@Sarah_Colero) May 30, 2020
The ultimate issue critics raised is that racism, systemic racism even, is not limited to the US. I’d say racism is not limited to any border.
The New Normal and Some Old Tricks: Usurping The Narrative
There has been a lot of violence in the wake of these incidents. There have also been reports of protests turning violent. Most recently, a protest in Montreal became violent within a few hours. Although, given the nature and scale of these gatherings, there is also a lot of confusion on the ground. Most importantly, it isn’t clear who is inciting the violence.
Yet, many have demonised protestors as “looters”, and decried any outcry that isn’t a certain brand of peaceful.
It is important to consider the underlying pattern. Black lives are destroyed, black anger discredited, and then collective black action demonised. I am not in any way condoning the destruction of small-businesses in the name of liberation. But consider how many times a community has been targeted.
Repackaging a story about systemic racism, as one about threats to property rights is not new. Hence, it is very important to not let that happen. A lot of leaders, in political and creative fields, have spoken out against vandalism. In particular, rapper Killer Mike made an impassioned please that I think all of us should listen to.
But, the anger is also unsurprising, and more than fair given everything that the community is going through. Here is a message from the daughter of a business owner who’s restaurant was impacted. I hope this message gets through to all of us.
The owner of Gandhi Mahal, a (very delicious) local restaurant in South Minneapolis that was damaged in the fires last night: "Let my building burn, justice needs to be served." pic.twitter.com/hM1qt4tGEx
— Molly Hensley-Clancy (@mollyhc) May 29, 2020
I think some clear takeaways need to forge our collective path forward. Firstly, we have to accept that racism is not about individuals. Any discussion about racism that doesn’t take systemic biases into account is redundant.
Secondly, when we claim to stand in solidarity with a community, we have to listen to understand. Instead of lecturing them about how they should react, the time now is to appreciate the extent of their experiences.
And finally, we have to educate ourselves. A lot of what has happened, and been documented over the past few weeks is terrifying. And we have to realise that it has been persisting. It cannot change, without active, collective action. I hope that, in the coming days we all partake in such actions.