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Sunday December 05, 2021

In the matter of Black Lives - Part I

August 16, 2020


As far as slogans go, it’s a modest proposal: Black Lives ‘Matter’. But for a nation whose first words were a declaration of this supposedly self-evident truth, there’s still no assurance. Then again, it would be a full century before ‘equal’ wasn’t preceded by a parenthetical ‘separate, but’.

This month will mark three months since the death of George Floyd. And America is still out in the streets.

Those who knew him described him as a “gentle giant” – the kind of man who “would dance badly to make people laugh” As a child, in school, George Floyd once wrote that he wanted to be a Justice of the Supreme Court. Things didn’t work out that way. Financial pressures squeezed him out of school, and into drugs. He racked up a criminal record – once spending ten months in prison for a $10 drug sale. But when Floyd left New York for Minneapolis, he promised himself a new beginning. Instead, of course, he met his end.

It was at the end that the rest of us first met him. In his last eight minutes and forty six seconds, twice, we heard him call out for his dead mother. Sixteen times, he said he couldn’t breathe.

This was five times more than Eric Garner, six years earlier. Over fifty protests sprouted all over the country following Garner’s death. Protesters held up the same placards they held up for Trayvon Martin the year before: Black Lives Matter. But a grand jury thought otherwise. Officer Pantaleo, the man who murdered Garner, wasn’t indicted. The eventual settlement was paid by the people of New York.

For Black America, that Floyd and Garner shared last words was not a coincidence: it was a pattern. It was the pattern that led Chauvin to continue to dig his knee into Floyd’s throat long after he was limp and motionless – for a whole minute after the ambulance arrived to take him. It was the pattern that led police officers to fill ‘none’ in the injury section for Breonna Taylor’s report, after she was shot over half a dozen times. It was the pattern that allowed Officer Pantaleo to continue to wear his uniform for an entire decade after it was first smeared with Garner’s blood.

There’s not much in any of the facts that was new. This wasn’t the first black ‘celebrity death’ this year: Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down on his morning jog. Breonna Taylor’s house was broken into, leaving eight bullets in her body.

It wasn’t the first incident of police brutality in Minneapolis. Over the past decade from last year, almost two in every three victims in a police shooting was African American, despite making up only a fifth of the population.

This wasn’t even Derek Chauvin’s first killing: the seventeen complaints against him included three shootings, one of which was fatal. Consider, then, that Chauvin was their ‘training officer’. Twice, he received a medal of valour, once for “showing great restraint and composure in using only as much force as necessary to prevent loss of life and further injury”.

And yet, for all the similarities, there’s a sense that this time is different – that the cycle can be broken. This time, it seems America will have something to show for it.

Four days before Floyd’s death, the Economist ran the headline, ‘Whatever happened to Black Lives Matter?’ At the fifth anniversary in Ferguson, though body cams had been introduced, police killings had increased. They killed three people every day. For those surprised by the outpouring of people during the pandemic, as far as black men go, they weren’t risking their lives; they were protesting their sixth-biggest cause of death.

But forget that it has been over half a decade to Black Lives matter; it has now been over a century since even Plessy. In the meantime, America, through black ink, injected colour into schools in ‘54, votes in ‘65, and housing in ‘68. It has spent over a third of the new century with a black man as its president. That its citizens seek reassurance for the importance of their very lives seems a massive step back. It goes against the neat journey from slavery to abolition to the Civil Rights Movement to Barack Obama.

But President Obama’s journey, more than anything else, illustrates exactly what is wrong with the system. The first time that African Americans sought reassurance that their lives mattered was under a black president. As Harvard Professor, Cornel West reminded us, “We’ve tried black faces in high places. Black Lives Matter emerged under a black president, a black attorney general and a black homeland security. And they could not deliver.” Add to that count that the next attorney-general was also black, and that this came at a time with the highest number of black people in congress, in its history.

In 2008, forty years after Bobby Kennedy famously proclaimed that things were ‘moving so fast in race relations a Negro could be president in forty years’, the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, raised his right hand and swore solemnly in a white house built by black slaves.

Barack Obama promised a More Perfect Union and left one even more divided. Candidate Obama spoke of the present – ‘Yes We Can’. President Obama spoke of the sins of the past and hope of the future. After eight years in Office, Former-President Obama posts tepid takes on Medium (the aptness of the title is not lost). The grey haired ‘cool-uncle’ who seems to have forgotten he was ever president, urges people to work within the system.

Really, Obama doesn’t have much to offer beyond Candidate Clinton visiting Los Angeles, following the Rodney King Riots, diagnosing the unrest as a case of people who are “not part of the system at all anymore.” Though black voters overwhelmingly backed Clinton, by the time he was done, the only ‘system’ they were really in was the carceral system. Clinton now, himself, accepts as much. If Obama is not ready for that kind of introspection, he may as well stick to updating his Goodreads profile.

To be continued

The writer is a lawyer. Email: salaar.khan@columbia.edu Twitter: @brainmasalaar