The death of 46-year-old African American George Floyd choking under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 triggered waves of protests that continue to wash over the U.S. Floyd was pinned down for eight minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe,” he said several times and called out for his mother before falling silent. The fresh round of protests also brought back to the street as well as social networks the Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement for racial justice that many thought had begun to ebb after its dramatic rise since 2013.
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The election of Barack Obama as President had raised hopes among the African Americans in 2008, but racism continued to fester. The 36 million blacks in the U.S. are mostly descendants of around 400,000 African slaves brought to land by British colonisers. Started to control slave riots, racism is foundational to policing in the U.S.
In July 2013, three Black organisers, Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors and Opal Tomett, were discussing on Facebook the acquittal of a man who killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black teenager in Florida. “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter,” Ms. Garza wrote on Facebook. Ms. Cullors replied: “#BlackLivesMatter”. Ms. Tometi joined in and the hashtag spread its digital wing. BLM radically differs from the earlier avatars of black mobilisation that cloaked as civil rights or faith-inspired. All three founders are women, Ms. Garza and Ms. Cullors identify as queer. They say their motto is also to touch black people who are marginalised by African American politics itself. The BLM website says its “mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes”.
True to the digital era, it is a loose non-hierarchical network that swings into physical mobilisation in response to situations. Ms. Tometi told the New Yorker in an interview this week: “We want a divestment from the police and an investment in black communities. We are demanding immediate relief for our communities. We want community control.” BLM identifies itself as a human rights movement more than a civil rights one.
The movement germinated in July 2013, and the shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American boy in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014 led to the first street protest under its banner. It then spread to other cities. “No justice, No peace,” the protesters said. Earlier the same year, Eric Garner, who was selling single cigarettes in New York was put in a chokehold by a police officer until he died. From its initial appearance in 2013 to until May 2018, #BlackLivesMatter was used almost 30 million times and was one of the most used hashtags on Twitter. White supremacists and several Republican politicians have opposed the movement, and counter hashtags and bumper stickers — “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” — were launched.
In a country as methodical as the U.S., there is no data on policing at the federal level. The Washington Post began to catalogue deaths by police shooting since 2015 and it turned out to be twice as much as the FBI’s count. In 2019, the police killed 1,004 people — 376 of them white, 236, black. African Americans are 13% of the population, but they are a quarter of those who die in police shootings. Only in 127 cases, the officers were known to have body cameras. Chauvin had 18 complaints against him but never faced action — police rarely face the consequence.
Tool of the system
But then, police officers are merely tools of a law enforcement system that is accused of being biased against the poor and the African Americans. Though the standard reporting on police violence against the blacks currently centres on President Donald Trump’s apparent pivot to white prejudices and claims of being a tough leader, things were no better in the past. A 1994 Federal Crime Bill championed by Bill Clinton accelerated mass incarceration, writes Udi Ofer of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 1996 Democratic Party Platform “bragged about instituting the death penalty for nearly 60 more crimes, and even encouraged the prosecution of young people as adults. This platform remained largely in place until 12 years later.”
Sociologist Alex S. Vitale, in his 2017 book, The End of Policing, argues that policing in the country expanded over a 40-year period. More funds, technology, fear in society and criminalisation of poverty brought police deeper into society and aggravated the problems that they are incapable of solving. In most cases involving police shootings, the jury is required to address only a narrow question — did the officer fear for his life at that exact moment that he fired.
While Democrats largely responded positively to the BLM movement, Republican response was harsh. One Senator called the movement an incitement of violence against the police. Former FBI chief James Comey speculated that BLM had a restraining effect on policing and crimes were going up. During the 2016 election, BLM activists forced Democratic aspirants to make commitments on addressing these issues, but the party establishment always played a balancing act. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a presidential aspirant who stepped aside in support of Joe Biden, could not or did not bring charges in any of the 30 cases of people killed by police under her jurisdiction as a County Attorney in Minneapolis.
The 2016 election of Mr. Trump started a decline of BLM’s popularity. There were a lot of things that contributed to this, including a reduction on police killing. In 2005, the police killed 305 African-Americans, 27% of them unarmed. Last year, it dropped to 260, 11% of them unarmed. Many decided to turn their attention to other progressive causes, targeting Mr. Trump. Floyd’s death has spurred the movement back into action.