America can’t breathe

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If you have never witnessed  murder, and you have no desire to see a human die at the hands of other humans, do not watch the video of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer and his colleagues in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, last week.

If you have watched the video, you would have seen a black man with cuffed hands behind his back lying on his belly, pinned to the ground by a white policeman with a knee on his neck. The black man was George Floyd, 26, a local arrested on suspicion of fraud. He had been held down to the ground and cuffed by four policemen, one of whom had his knee firmly on his neck. As some members of the public used their cameras to film the sickening incident, you hear George groan, ‘I cant breathe’.

For almost nine minutes, the white policeman did not budge from his position despite the pleas of Mr Floyd. He urinated in agony and called out for his mother. As members of the public appealed to the policemen to pick up a man who had already been rendered harmless and ease the pressure from George’s neck, the video showed an ambulance arrive. But George had died under the knee of a policeman while three others helped keep him on the ground.

George Floyd joined the line of black Americans who have died at the hands of the police. There is a longer list of many, many black men all over America who live in fear that they could be victims of police brutality, including being shot by police, because their race makes them fair game in a system that cannot shed its character as basically racist. There is an even longer line of Americans of all races who feel they have stood up against police killings of black people too many times, and are worried that it is not enough.

There was stunned silence as Americans watched what was described as a public lynching of Floyd, then indignation and anger blew up when an interim report on Floyd’s  death hinted at the possibility of a cover-up by its failure to link his death directly with the knee-in-neck evidence.

For more than a week now, American cities have been rocked by massive protests, violence and looting, as thousands of people of all races defied the COVID-19 pandemic, rules on social distancing and curfews to register protests at the killing of Floyd and the systemic racism that will not budge from the heart of American law and order agencies. Many observers say they have not seen anything of this scale since 1968. These protests will certainly taper off and die, but the country will take a while to count their costs. There will be many who will not believe they will not see killings like this again.

Watching thousands of black and white and brown Americans take on police in many cities day after day, and having businesses and shops looted in the night, you will be forgiven for experiencing a strong sense of deja vou. The Washing Post reported that the police in the US shot and killed 1,004 persons in 2019. It did not say all those killed were black, or all the killings were illegal.

There is evidence, however, that young black males have a much higher chance of being killed by the police than all other categories. What speaks louder than all statistics is the well-publicised killings of black people that gave rise to movements like Black Lives Matter and a rise in consciousness among black people that they still live in an inherently racist country which cannot guarantee that black people will be treated with the same standards of fairness and justice as other races.

Floyd’s killing holds up America at its worse moment. The world’s most powerful nation with the strongest economy has been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as vulnerable to weaknesses of its systems and the flaws in its leadership. Infections and deaths have highlighted the huge differentials in the economic circumstances of its non-white (or, more specifically, black population) and white populations.

The pandemic has hit the black population worse than all others because they were already stuck at the bottom of all pre-existing conditions that could mitigate exposure to the virus. It is also very likely that Americans have never been more politically divided by a leadership than daily offending one section so that the other will feel more American.

President Trump is gearing up for a bruising contest  in November this year in a country he had systematically and dangerously polarised. The killing of Floyd has shocked all but the most extreme right-wing supporters of Trump, but this wing is significant to Trump. He plays to it with such dexterity because it is an organic part of his character and the route to a huge constituency that surprised the world by putting him in the White House that could very well give him a second term. He has milked the protests, the riots and the looting with tweets in language designed to inflame passions and portray him as him as tough defender of law and order. Some US Presidents will calm passions with carefully chosen words. Trump thinks there is more political capital in threats to cover the country with forces and yield no ground to protesters that are offended by the character of their country today.

In the next few days, these protests will die off. They will leave the images of anger and genuine attempts to create a more accountable America, images of the use of force against legitimate and orderly assembly outside the White House so that President Trump could walk a few metres to a church across the street to take photos holding up a bible. They will also leave behind images of looting and reminders that the world’s most powerful economy and leading democracy habours citizens who tag behind causes to steal other people’s property. As a Nigerian, I am saddened by the absence of the voice of my country, the largest black nation on earth, at the killing of black people in the US and the outrage that has followed Floyd’s gruesome killing.

Since he became President, Trump has worked to make sure America will never be the same again. There is nothing wrong with this. All US Presidents had wanted to change the basic character of the country. Where Trump differs from them is his consuming passion to destroy those values that sought to create an inclusive, compassionate and united country. Like Floyd’s last few minutes, America is under the knee of a President that just cant  let it breathe. The November elections will tell whether Trump permanently changes America’s course for the worst, or his country gets a reprieve to re-discover its real soul.

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