The poignancy of George Floyd’s dying words in the midst of the covid19 pandemic was not lost on people around the world. “I can’t breathe” has become the rallying cry for millions of people fired up as much by yet another wanton murder of an unarmed African-American man as by the terrible inequities that the pandemic has revealed, not only between races but within countries and societies.
The young have taken to the streets in umpteen US cities, in Europe and elsewhere. In TT a dozen or so people tried to express their solidarity publicly and were dispersed by the police. They and others have depended partly on a short and powerful video of Fr Harvey, now Bishop of Grenada, to circulate, and the elegant words of UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles and of the Prime Minister and other politicians to speak for them openly whilst the social media underground whirls with true sympathy for the Floyd family’s loss and simultaneous troublemaking of fake sympathisers. The TV channels have been replete with coverage of defiant crowds of people of all ethnicities, many wearing masks but with all notion of social distancing thrown to the wind.
The deep revulsion felt by so many people everywhere over the humiliating death of George Floyd sends a very strong message to governments globally of the depth of dissent felt universally over the many injustices people endure, the economic and social as much as the racial. Our contemporary civilisations have been pushed to a point of turmoil in which events have become totally unpredictable, even though there is a clear logic to them.
Who would have thought it possible that the simple, oft revealed fact that white people, at least in the US, still regard black people as less human than them would be so openly captured on camera for the world to see? The fact that black lives matter less cannot be denied when there have been so many instances of clear evidence. The fact that dozens of individuals could be killed by the police and go mainly unpunished is ample proof in itself.
The Atlantic magazine ran an article recently emphasising that the disastrous manner in which the US president has managed the covid19 pandemic is in direct response to the considerably higher numbers of African Americans and migrant workers affected. Once Trump realised that it was not the bulk of his white voters losing their lives his thinking changed. Unlike President Bolsonaro in Brazil, who also has wilfully mismanaged the pandemic, he did not say openly that poor people can dive into a cesspit and come up smiling and healthy, but actions can speak louder than words. Serena Williams’s pulmonary embolism and a haematoma caused her to nearly die after childbirth in 2018. She argued that she could easily have been just another one of the many black women, three to four times as many of whom die in childbirth compared to white women as the result of systemic racism and discrimination entrenched in the US health system.
The vast numbers of demonstrators internationally may in part be a reaction of the months of being cooped up at home and an almost primitive desire for human companionship and communion overlaid by outrage at the state of affairs generally, but the effect has been astonishing. It may have led to the incumbent US president finally losing the presidency at the next election in five months time.
The fact that he is totally devoid of any compassion or empathy was laid bare by the vulgar display of false piety last week. He got the demonstrators around the White House cleared by tear gas and force and he took a walk under heavy guard to pose for a picture holding up a bible outside a church damaged a few nights before by rioters – apparently fake ones, whipped up by white supremacist groups to discredit the authentic, peaceful demonstrators.
The ruthless focus of “the president of law and order” has been the widespread rioting and looting, not a public murder by a man representing the state. It was left to the US Ambassador to TT to do his diplomatic job and express solidarity with those who are speaking out against injustice here and there.
We all long for things to be better after covid19. If it materialises that the demonstrators and those disgusted by state sanctioned violence use their power to vote for change it would be a huge achievement. On the negative side, the worst of the demonstrations is that many more people will get ill with coronavirus, and if not the demonstrators themselves then others around them may well die as a result.
The world may be overpopulated but we do not need more people dying now just when the US needs them to vote on November 3 to remove the nightmare president who currently sits in the White House, who understands nothing of what is being revealed to him and must therefore be swept decisively from office.