White men have wasted the lives of black men and women for hundreds of years from the Middle Passage to inner city shootings in the United States. But on May 25, 2020, they killed George Floyd, an unarmed, apparently, innocent man, held down by policemen, one of whom placed his knee on his neck, choking him until he died. His travails were captured in a cell phone video camera in which he was pleading with the policemen, begging for his life and telling them he could not breathe and finally, before he breathed his last, calling for his late mother who had died many years ago. It was the most traumatic video to watch and most people were upset by the fundamental cruelty and impunity exercised by the police men, one of whom had his hand in his pocket while asphyxiating Mr. Floyd.
The backlash has been a worldwide protest against racism, a revulsion against police brutality against black people, and a general backlash against the tainted law enforcement practice, which seems to imply that policemen are above the law. Even after Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis Police Department did not think a crime had been committed. It made no arrests. Even when eventually it did, thanks to vocal street protests, it could only charge one of the four policemen of third degree murder/manslaughter. It took three more days of public protests before the other three policemen were charged with aiding and abetting the murder and to upgrade the original charge to second-degree murder/man slaughter.
It was barely three weeks when three white men, including a father and son, hunted down a black young man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging and shot him to death on the suspicion that he might have stolen something. Black men live in utter fear of the police, a traffic stop could be a death sentence and many instances include Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breona Taylor. Americans have lost count.
The death of George Floyd finally opened America’s eyes to the evils of racism. Many seem now to be rethinking issues like slavery. A few now think that reparations may not be a bad idea after all. Others are wondering how the United States allowed things to get to this sorry state. The result is an unprecedented outpouring of passion from black, white, Hispanic, Asian Americans who are now questioning themselves: what took them so long to realise the evil, the corruption, the damage that racism and police brutality and the oppression of black people have inflicted on the psyche of America. The protests have gone on for 14 straight days, not just Black Lives Matter events, but All-America protests. Indeed, in many cities, blacks were a minority of the protesters. The hunger for change is in the air. There are unprecedented calls for “defunding” the police, an idea that would have sounded like madness a month ago. But it is getting traction. People are beginning to conceive of a life without the police. Nine members of the 13-person Minneapolis City Council pledged last Sunday to do away with the police department in favour of a community-led model. “A veto-proof majority of the council just publicly agreed that the Minneapolis Police Department is not reformable and we are going to end the current policing system.”
In the unending struggle for human equality, against slavery, against oppression, history records John Brown as the first anti-slavery, anti-racist martyr, the white man who organised an insurrection against the United States, who seized federal armouries in Virginia and had hoped for a massive slave revolt across the South to free the slaves and create territory where they could live in freedom and liberty. The insurrection failed and he was captured, tried for treason and convicted. On the day he was executed, on December 2, 1859, John Brown passed on a written note to an official on his way to the gallows: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” Sixteen months later, the American Civil War began over slavery. When it ended, 645,000 people had been killed. John Brown’s Body’ became a unionist army battle song, and ‘his soul goes marching on.’
George Floyd was no John Brown, but millions of Americans, who marched against racism and police brutality for 14 consecutive days, invoke his name. He is the symbol of their protest. The manner of his death was the evidence of the repugnance of racism and oppressive policing. He is the last martyr. The deep moral decay, which gave rise to something as cruel as George Floyd’s death must be extirpated from American life. If the police cannot be reformed, the society must be able to devise other means to secure public safety. But if those warnings go unheeded, if the protests are ignored, as John Brown’s were, the fear is that the next explosion would be a calamity, worse than the American Civil War. If America does not destroy racism, racism will destroy America, say the protesters. Their warnings need to be heeded.