Living in the US encourages us, to make friends with pain…and also grief. The raging battles in the streets of America have numbed us to the realities which created the chaos.
By Nazarul Islam
All of a sudden, more than 350 cities in the United States erupted after George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, was killed by a white police officer.
Those were nine agonizing minutes—when the gods had appeared deaf to Mr. Floyd’s pleas and in the growing alarm of the crowd, an officer of Law Enforcement, choked the droplets of life, out of the deceased.
No wonder the spark had ignited a tinder box, lying nearby. This week’s arson and its rising flames had burned for the same reasons it had done so in the past: that many African-Americans still live in places with the worst schools, the worst health care and the worst jobs; that the rules apply differently to black people; the fact, rammed home by covid-19, that whenever America suffers misfortune, black America suffers most; a sense that the police are there to keep a lid on a city’s poor, even as they protect wealthy suburbs.
Of course, the sheer intoxication that comes from belonging to a crowd that has suddenly found its voice, which demands to be heard. The cycle of injustice, protest, riot and conservative reaction has come round many times since the forgotten year of 1968. I remember, the month of May of this year, far away, waiting for my SSC exam results. That year in Dhaka, we had celebrated three Eids in the calendar year.
And for many, who live in the US, it would be easy to conclude that police violence and racial inequality in America constitute problems that are really hard to fix. Yet such pessimism is unwarranted. Perhaps, it is also counter-productive.
Die-hard Activists sometimes charge that America’s entire criminal-justice system is racist. Police unions protect their members, including the ‘not so good’ ones. In recent days a police car had rammed protesters and the officers had assaulted people on the street. But the system, that is made up of thousands of jurisdictions and police departments are not at all, the same in practice.
In each police precinct where some ‘thuggish’ officers went on “warrior” courses and saw themselves as an occupying force, there exist the likes of Camden, New Jersey, police force—that was so broken that in 2013 it was disbanded and the city started all over again! Its police chief was this week able to march with peaceful protesters through their city.
Administrators of Law Enforcement agree that Policing America is a tough job, because this country is more violent than any other rich country and its citizens more heavily armed. More than 50 police officers are murdered while doing their job each year. But the sustained falls in crime over the past three decades have made room for less warlike law enforcement—by training officers to diffuse confrontation, not seek it, and by making them accountable whenever they use force.
Many police departments, including the Camden PD, have already taken this chance to turn themselves round. Others have not, partly because the federal government under President Donald Trump has eased the pressure for change. But the police and prosecutors are under local democratic control. They can be made to embrace reform if enough people voted for it.
By all accounts pessimism is pretty much self-defeating. It is a short step from thinking that America’s original racial sin is so deep that it cannot be overcome, to thinking that smashing and burning things is justified, because it is the only way to get attention. Yet if today’s protests slide into persistent rioting, as in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the harm these caused could be felt most keenly in African-American districts. Those people, who can leave, will choose to do so. And those who are left-behind will be worse off—simply because home values plunged and jobs and shops disappeared from reality!
Again, the police may withdraw, leading to an increase in crime, which in turn may eventually bring more violent policing. These scars will be visible for decades.
Across the country, black leaders who have seen this happen before are telling protesters not to undermine their cause.
“A protest has purpose,” said Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, condemning the vandalism in her city. In recent days protesters have heeded that and have been trying to restrain those who just want to start a fire—some of them white troublemakers.
Black leaders in America also understand how riots can wreck a political cause. When neighborhoods are ablaze, the rest of the country focuses on putting out the fires. Harm to police officers in riots may cause voters to forget where their sympathies lay when it all began. When the rioting takes hold, those who support the protests may find that their demands for change are drowned out by the clamor for order to be re-established.
In a presidential election, fear often beats idealism. Obviously, Mr. Trump seems to want this to be the choice in November. He has reportedly encouraged his supporters to clash with protesters outside the White House and had been looking to deploy active troops alongside the National Guard so as to “dominate” what his people have called the ‘battles pace’. In 1968, Law and order helped Richard Nixon defeat Hubert H. Humphrey in the elections. Will the same cycle repeat itself 52 years on!
Let us not be immune to the fact that fear itself is likely to betrays Mr. Floyd’s memory. The more America is united, the better it can strive to ensure that all its citizens are able to live by its founding ideals. Unity will not come from Mr. Trump, who has spent four years trying to divide the country. Instead, the leaders of protest movements, along with America’s mayors and police chiefs, must inspire it themselves. If the protests are overwhelmingly non-violent, these should also carry a promise.
Not that the protesters will get everything they want, nor that the injustices holding back African-Americans can all be put right at once, but that tomorrow can be better than today. By the end of the decade in which James Baldwin the American novelist wrote of the need to heal America, the country had set about dismantling the legal edifice of racial segregation. It was also in the grip of a reaction from those who thought civil rights had gone too far. America is like that.
Finally, we the (sanitized) people, wherever we live in this planet must realize that all forms of progress, create tussle with its opposite. But Americans have been tugging into and away at racism for nearly half a century. This week, when the cruel death of a black man drew protesters of all races onto America’s streets, it was not just a sign of how much work lies ahead, but also that progress could be made possible.
We need to remember the immortal lines: ‘An eye for an eye makes our world blind’. Won’t this lead us to pitfalls and drastic consequences?