THE storming of the Capitol Hill Building in Washington, DC, last week by supporters of President Trump trying to stop the US Congress approving Joe Biden as the next president was a real eye-opener on the stark inequality of treatment by law enforcement to African Americans.
This was the view of a Trinidadian who lives and works in the US when contacted by Newsday on the weekend for his view on the riots. TT-born engineer Jerry Fletcher, who lives in Baltimore, an hour away from Washington, DC, said that in the wake of the storming of Capital Hill, Trinis in the area started to get in touch with each other to ensure they were ok.
“A lot of people working in that area are very concerned. People were checking up on each other, making calls and making sure everyone is ok.”
But he said the mood in the US is one of optimism ahead of Biden’s swearing-in later this month.
Fletcher said the incident unequivocally and vividly illustrated the unequal treatment by law enforcement which black people in the US have been complaining about for decades.
“We are doing ok physically, but mentally it is still almost surreal what happened. It was a sense of disbelief for us that harkened back to 1990,” Fletcher said in reference to the coup attempt in Trinidad.
While he had been in primary school during the attempted coup, the Capitol Hill incursion brought back a flood of memories for Fletcher of July 27, 1990 when Yasin Abu Bakr tried to overthrow the TT government.
Fletcher said he was struck by the stark contrast in how the authorities handled the Capitol Hill riot and the various Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last year in the wake of the police-involved killing of African American George Floyd.
“At one point (during the BLM protects) some people peacefully protesting were tear-gassed so that Trump could go and stand with a Bible,” Fletcher recalled.
“But in the Capitol Hill case you have confirmed reports of law enforcement officers opening barricades, people taking selfies and protesters being calmly escorted out of the Capitol building. So you could clearly see a double standard there...as a black person in America, it is undeniable.
“It was surreal seeing a different type of policing. Different types of tactics were used at the Capitol to try to de-escalate a situation, compared to what happened last year to black people during the BLM marches.
“It’s still very, very surreal looking at the news and seeing the different fallouts and the things that are happening. It leaves me wondering, what would this period in history be looked back at and remembered as.”
Newsday asked what was the mood given the racist undercurrents of US society, even as Biden was set to take office.
“There is a bit of optimism regarding inauguration on January 20, but in reply to your question, Donald Trump was not there (at the Capitol) even though his words may have incited a lot of the things. He was not there himself personally, coddling these rioters. So his being removed from office isn’t going to remove the sentiment that has pervaded in this country since inception.
“It is something black people in America have been saying over and over and over again, that we are not treated the same. Now it’s kind of like ‘This is what we’ve been talking about.’”
He said that there is no longer any counter-argument the police can use to hide behind. “So while there is that optimism, there is a greater sense of frustration. I wouldn’t say ‘resignation’ because there is optimism that things can change. We have seen it change if you look at the election results in Georgia which was a predominantly red (Republican) state.
He said what the world witnessed on Capitol Hill was the bringing to the fore what black people have been talking about in terms of the way they have been treated. “It is not necessarily that we want everybody to be killed the way black people have been killed, but if you can show this level of restraint with people who are vandalising Capitol Hill in an effort to stop a democratic election, then why is it that someone on the side of the street who is selling cigarettes is dead?
“Why is it someone is dead after having a policeman’s knee placed on their neck? Why is it someone is dead in their own house?” he asked in reference, in the first instance, to Floyd’s death and then to the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.
He contrasted the killing of black people by police, who most times claimed they acted with deadly force because they were in fear for their lives, with the police inaction at the Capitol when confronting protesters while armed with guns and riot shields and wearing bulletproof vests.
“Other than the one lady who died from being shot and the four from injuries, almost everyone was able to go back home. They were able to have awakened the next morning with a sense of privilege that, ‘I attempted a coup and I am home and cool.’
“They would have told themselves, 'While I go there, in the middle of a pandemic, I’m not going to wear a mask, I’m not going to try to hide my face. I’m going to live-stream my face while I do it to social media, give my real name, because that is the privilege I am afforded (as a white American). I’m not afraid of what will happen to me.’”
What happened at the Capitol, Fletcher said, epitomised the white privilege that has been spoken about over the last year, which a lot of people tried to push back on, with even the President stopping a lot of sensitivity training in federal government, saying it was creating an anti-America sentiment. “But when you look at Wednesday, what could be more anti-American than storming the Capitol?”
Fletcher said the Capitol incursion was not only about race relations but also national security and democracy. “I believe there could definitely be a larger groundswell of support for it as a whole which could branch into more attention for civil rights and how it is we address the racial inequalities, biases which are systemic.”
However, he said things move slowly in the US, which has had many false dawns for equality. He noted that even after Barack Obama, the first black president, systemic issues remain.