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June 18, 2020

America in turmoil

Opinion

June 18, 2020

Over the last two weeks many US cities have seen large protests that were sparked by the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis. These protests have continued to grow, under the now familiar banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’.

This is not just about the killing of one man by police, but about the increasing realization that anti-black hatred has brutally subjugated the black population of America for centuries. For those not paying attention, it is a simple matter: America had slavery for a long time and it was abolished 150 years ago, problem solved. Hardly so!

Abraham Lincoln led the abolition of slavery in 1865 when the 13th amendment to the US constitution was passed, forbidding “slavery and involuntary servitude”. The 14th amendment to the constitution, passed three years later, recognized all born in the US to be citizens and therefore eligible to vote. All of a sudden, many formerly enslaved Blacks started to participate in the electoral process, sending their representatives to state and federal legislative houses. Many white Americans were simply not ready to have black Americans as senators and congressmen.

In addition, many of these elected black Americans turned out to be highly articulate and competent, making a lie out of the basic premise behind enslavement – that the black community simply didn't have the intellect to run their own affairs, hence the need for the white people to control and even own them.

Very quickly most former slave holding states started to enact laws to disenfranchise former slaves. The 13th amendment to the constitution had provided them with one loophole – it banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime”. When the inferior intellect of black people could not be asserted as a matter of race, policies started to come into being to criminalize as many actions by them as possible. A whole structure of laws referred to as “Jim Crow laws” was enacted to make it difficult if not impossible for black Americans to vote. Efforts to criminalize their conduct included concocted acts like being in a white neighborhood after a certain hour of the evening, and so on.

The narrative about black Americans now shifted to claims that the entire race was prone to criminality. Policing in America started as what was called ‘slave patrols’ – armed gangs of white people that would ensure slaves did not veer from what was authorized by their owners. If any slave was found away from their plantation without authorizing papers from their owner, they could be given 30 lashes on the spot.

From this grim history grew the institution of present-day policing in America: a militarized police force disproportionally targeting blacks, even as black Americans were systematically held back from education and economic opportunity. Recent cases of police brutality have come to light only because video footage is now readily available. George Floyd, was killed on May 25 when a policeman put his knee on Floyd's throat for a full 8 minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring his pleas and those of the crowds that had gathered. The policeman could see the entire episode being filmed and didn't seem to care. His three colleagues stood by nonchalantly.

The biggest surprise this time has been how quickly protests have spread across the country and even internationally. People across the country – black and brown, and many white – are tired of the continuing legacy of racism in the country.

The United States has an unacknowledged history of racial injustice, particularly towards its black citizens. We will not be a peaceful country until this is acknowledged, and sincere efforts made to remedy it.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

Website: www.sqshareef.com/ blogs