Whether Donald Trump and the GOP like it or not, a movement of rage has begun in America. The movement has been largely symptomatic of the latent rage of Black Americans and the oppressed people of colour in America, and now they appear determined to exact justice by any means necessary. For every tipping point that we see in any given situation, there has to be a series of preceding events. This is presently the case in America with the death of George Floyd, a black man who was gruesomely killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, who suffocated him by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ironically, on Memorial Day.
The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer named Derek Chauvin, completely insensible and unjustifiable in any situation, has become the catalyst for a gradually escalating movement of rage in several cities in America. George Floyd’s death and the consequent rage across America reminds one of the death of Emmett Till in 1955 – a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by a racist white family who had his eyes plucked out and was beaten severely, and then dunked his dead body in a river while tied to a cotton-gin fan with barbed wire. A public, open-casket funeral of Emmett Till went on to invigorate the emerging Civil Rights Movement of the time. For six days and still counting, protests have been continuously gathering steam in different American cities, just as there has been increasing instances of rioting, looting, human rights abuses by police officers and at least five dead protestors.
Racial injustice has been with the United States of America for as long as memory can remember. It is the hydra-headed monster that has persistently continued to terrorise Black people across America, despite all past efforts and actions. Floyd’s death is the culmination of several deaths, cases of harassments, racial prejudice, bile, and institutionalised racism against Black people in America. Within the last decade alone, for instance, there have been several race-triggered killing of Black people by racist police officers and white supremacists across America.
On November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down in Cleveland, Ohio, by a 26-year-old police officer, Timothy Loehmann. Trayvon Benjamin Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager, was fatally shot in Miami Gardens, Florida, in 2012. His killer, George Zimmerman, was later acquitted, just as the killers of Emmet Till were acquitted in the 1950s. Still in 2012, March 21 precisely, a 22-year-old Black woman was fatally shot by a police officer named Dante Servin. He was later acquitted of all charges, too. In July 2014, Eric Garner was suffocated to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo walked scot-free. On April 4, 2015, an unarmed Walter Scott was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer. On February 23, 2020, Ahmed Aubrey was shot dead by Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael while jogging in Georgia. It took a national outrage before the two were arrested in May 2020. And the cases go on and on. But these are not mere numbers or statistics, they were humans, Black people.
In George Floyd’s case, the pithy remark of Will Smith that “racism is not getting worse, it is getting filmed” manifests most obviously. Watching several video clips of George Floyd’s death was one of the most devastating things I have had to see in recent time. Not only did the officer display crass nonchalance through his vile action, but he also displayed unalloyed resolve to end George’s life on the spot. Despite Floyd’s entreaties saying “I can’t breathe,” the officer pressing him to the ground while kneeling on his neck seemed the least bothered about Floyd’s predicament. As many lawyers have described it, I wouldn’t agree less that Floyd’s death was premeditated murder. Although Chauvin is now in prison waiting to be charged and the other officers with him during the odious incident have been dismissed, the ultimate question still awaiting answer is whether or not justice will be done in this case, and also how America will address racial injustice and institutionalised racism against Black people, going forward.
The defining phrase of the edifying heroism of the protesters on the streets of America has been “We Can’t Breathe,” a collective rephrasing of Floyd’s words before he eventually stopped breathing. The ongoing protests across America are indicative of the precarious condition in which Black people are expected to live and respire. Black Americans are expected to live and breathe in America despite being deoxidized and asphyxiated by age-long cultural and institutional racism. The heroic defiance of Black protestors so far, in spite of the incredible number of victims of the coronavirus pandemic in America, the swiftness of the protestors’ resolve to organise, and their dauntless resolve to remain in the trenches until there is justice for Floyd is an extraordinary act of humanness and an inspiring dedication to racial justice.
Worthy of note, also, is the growing awareness among White folks in America that being silent in the face of racial injustice is simply being complicit. We have seen footages of White protestors standing as a defensive barrier between Black protestors and violent police officers. They chose to shield Black protestors from pepper pellets and rubber bullets, knowing that they are already protected by the system, but their Black counterparts are perennial victims of the system. We have also seen how police officers in Miami, New York, and other places are genuflecting in solidarity with Black protestors. These heroic acts deserve mentioning and certainly imitation in other countries where racial, political and other forms of injustice are rife.
Of course, we have also seen some protestors express their rage in different and even extreme ways. Some have decided to make themselves arsonists out of frustration and fury, while some have shown extraordinary courage by responding in kind to police officers who use pepper pellets, rubber bullets, tasers and other types of violent dissuasive methods to attempt to disperse protestors. Their courage and acts of heroism must be commended. If the situation on the streets of America wasn’t the norm but is now the case, then we cannot ignore the insightful words of Martin Luther King Jr. that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In situations like this, people must be allowed to unrestrainedly express themselves, so long as no fatal harm is done to another in the process.
One phrase that has become a major theme of protesting racial injustice in America and across some other parts of the world is Black Lives Matter. Since its formation in July 2013, BLM has evolved beyond an activist movement founded by three extraordinarily courageous black women to campaign against systemic racism and police brutality against Black people into a global household chorus of resistance against racial injustice. It is also worth mentioning that the Black Lives Matter phrase has survived every attempt by White supremacists to water down its intended focus by occasionally substituting the phrase with “All Lives Matter.” ALM is merely a sick and disingenuous trick by White supremacists to de-popularise the several injustices against Black people in America and across the world.
To be clear, there is no doubt that all lives matter. Human or not. This is a simple fact of life. But we cannot allow White supremacists to cynically elevate an “all lives matter” narrative when Black lives are evidently endangered or when Black people are fatally shot or inhumanely charged for offences they never committed. All lives matter is just like saying all child matters. But the world is often echoing the protection of the girl child because, historically and presently, the girl child is more likely to be sexually assaulted, forced into an underage marriage, or compelled to submit to others forms of dehumanisation than the boy child. In the same way, Black people’s lives are in danger because we are ten times more likely to be assaulted or killed than any other race in the world, simply because of our skin colour. And thus America and the world must be constantly reminded that Black lives matter.
Trump’s era as the President of the United States, otherwise known as the ‘Age of Trump,’ has severely redefined America for the worse. In the Age of Trump, racial attacks are on the rise and racists are emboldened by his slew of savage racist rhetoric. A President should be a father of the nation, the embodiment of wisdom to guide and inspire the people; but Trump has been nothing but the chief inciter and chief anarchist of the Unites States.
I was unsurprised when Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, reported that “He didn’t give me an opportunity to speak… I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’” Although Trump’s explanation of the phone call he made to Floyd’s brother was, characteristically, sharply different and appeared more humane, anyone who has been following the demagogue since his campaign trail would waste no minute before believing Philonise over him. Trump’s disdain for Black people is age-long, and his link to the KKK, and love for White supremacists, has been repeatedly made conspicuous by him – and several courageous people in America.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise, when Trump mounted the horse of chief promoter of excessive force and violence against protestors on his Twitter page. Not only has he been vociferous in promoting the use of force against protestors, but he has also been forthright in condemning city mayors who have chosen the honourable path of dignifying the protestors and allowing them to exercise their rights. Trump is no lover of democracy, he is only partly tamed by the fortress-like democratic institutions in America – some of which will not be the same when he eventually leaves power. Without doubt, Trump shares the same temperament with Buhari in terms of tolerance for democracy and democratic institutions. Like Buhari, he has expressed his intention to proscribe ANTIFA – a leftist political protest movement, as a terrorist group (despite the absence of information on their involvement in the ongoing rage in America) – obviously in the same way that Buhari proscribed IPOB in Nigeria. Trump’s intolerance of dissent and the ongoing outrage over Floyd’s death and racial injustice in America, will play a huge role in ultimately defining his presidency. His incapacity to lead with wisdom and unite the American people, his incapacity to take the lead in ending police brutality and racial injustice, will not be favourably recorded in the annals of history.
If there is any country that should pick a pen and paper to write down the several things one can learn from America’s outrage over Floyd’s death, it should be Nigeria. Like America, Nigeria is bedevilled by ethnic profiling and injustice. Religious attacks, ethnic cleansing, banditry, terrorism and communal clashes are taking multiple monstrous dimensions daily. Nigeria’s inability to deal with her problems is as much the fault of her citizens as it is her leaders. The executive mendacity and yakuza-mentality of Nigeria’s leaders continues to be a stumbling block against any chance of progress or solution in the face of these myriads of problem.
In Nigeria, like in America, Buhari is bent on protecting the interests of only one part of the country and the interests of only one religious group in the country, to the traumatizing detriment of other parts of the country and other religious groups in the country. Like America, police brutality in Nigeria is alarmingly worrisome, and what’s worse, the southern hemisphere of the country is more likely to record cases of police brutality in a day than the northern hemisphere. Also, the victims of police brutality are more likely to be youths from the southern extraction than youths of the northern extraction.
Whilst the unprofessionalism of the Nigerian police is a nationwide truism, the violence and brutality of the force is more likely to affect some than the others. This is a conversation that Nigeria is unwilling to have but must have nonetheless. Like America, Nigeria is presently being assailed by a clueless president, and his continued stay in power, in the long run, will exact catastrophic consequences on the country.
The outrage of Black people in America, accentuated by their defiance of COVID-19 to storm the streets in blizzards to protest racial injustice, is a distinct lesson for Nigerians, especially Nigerian youths, to take the bull by the horn and rise as one on the streets – beyond the comfort of character-limit media platforms and the affinity for trending hashtags with flippant attention. The salvation of the Nigerian people, and their chance at exacting justice is not on social media but on the streets and in the homes and places of comfort of their oppressors. The Nigerian people must learn from the Americans the will to be in the trenches to demand justice. The Nigerian Police must also learn from the courageous policemen in America who are genuflecting and protesting with protestors for justice. Nigerian leaders also have a chance at learning from Mayors and community leaders of different cities in America who are choosing civility and decorum over violence and use of force on protestors. Injustice can only last for so long, eventually the oppressed will rise, and when they do, it will be uncontrollable chaos. Nigeria has been presented another rare chance of learning from America and taking steps to prevent citizens’ outrage and chaos.
• Raphael, a writer and human rights ctivist, writes from Abuja; [email protected]