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August 17, 2020

In the matter of Black Lives: Part - II

Opinion

August 17, 2020

Churchill’s Finest Hour seems behind him. Colston – whose ships carried some 80,000 slaves – now, himself, belongs to the water. Columbus is, once again, lost and not where he is supposed to be (or, alternatively, he is finally exactly where he should be).

Back in the US, Obama’s advice to ‘work within the system’ is falling on deaf, flushed ears. But if working within the system has failed, what has being out on the streets brought?

The protests are, by many metrics, the largest by far in the history of the United States, making the original civil rights movement seem like an indie movement, by comparison. But they are also deep: they span not only geography, but also the demographics within. Part of it is the pandemic – the prevailing sense of despair and doubt that turns the eye in and pushes people out. Part of it is that the trigger-happy men in blue have really shot themselves in both feet: as new video clips validate past grievances every day, the US government has responded by deploying more soldiers than are on-ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In any case, despite all this, over two months on, it seems like if this is going to be a truly transformative movement, more is needed. Part of the problem is the messaging. For a movement that, by design, lacks a clear hierarchy, it is difficult to coalesce around a common narrative. It’s only natural, given the way things have played out, that the lightning rod for change is, largely, police reform. And in two months, a lot has been achieved on that front.

LA’s Mayor Garcetti has called for $150 million in cuts to the LAPD, while New York’s Mayor de Blasio has called for shifting funds from the NYPD to youth and social services. Minneapolis has called for the disbanding of the police department altogether. In Washington, a bill calls for making it easier to sue the police, banning no-knock warrants, and chokeholds.

But those who are out on the streets are not just there for police reform. Day after day, scenes coming out of the US remind us that we are living through history. In a particularly moving interaction, two generations of black men grapple with how to end the cycle before it consumes 16-year-old Raymond Curry.

Through a voice quivering with the weight of generations of despair, the 31-year old Curtis Hayes cries out, “He’s angry at 46, I’m angry at 31. You’re angry at 16...Come up with a better way.”

That, of course, is why America is still out on the streets: rage. Label it whatever you want, but the ultimate question is how to make sure there isn’t a fourth generation.

In 2001, a few thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, Richard Reid attempted to detonate two shoes packed with explosives. A combination of perspiration-soaked shoes and the valour of passenger perseverance thwarted the attempt, but for almost two decades since, passengers across US airports have had to remove their shoes before passing through scanners. It didn’t end transatlantic terrorism, but it did reduce available hiding places by one.

As reductionist as the comparison may seem, police reform will only cover one hole in a particularly evasive game of whack-a-mole. Malcolm X, in broad brush terms, caught part of the malleability decades ago when he said bloodhounds and white hoods had been swapped for police dogs and police uniforms. But that, again, was only part of it: racism in America has demonstrated an uncanny ability to slip through the cracks.

The end of the civil rights movement marked the beginning of Nixon’s war on drugs – incarcerating, in disproportionate numbers, a population that used proportionately less. The overt terror of the Red Summer in the 20s gave way to the covert redlining of the 60s. When the financial exclusion was made evident, it gave way to predatory lending and subprime loans under the garb of inclusion.

So how far back does one go? To this, there are those who contend that to consider the problem as one of only race is to see it as something that is, quite literally, only skin-deep. The even less popular Clinton, would respond, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” The man she beat for the nomination back in 2016 would respond, “It’s not either-or. It’s never either-or. It’s both.”

Black Lives Matter, itself, knows this. BLM’s #Whatmatters2020 lists Racial Injustice right at the top, but Economic Injustice just a few spots below. MLK, too, knew this. The 1963 March was, of course, the March on Washington – for Jobs and Freedom. Even afterwards, having decided that LBJ’s ‘war on poverty’ was hardly a skirmish, let alone a ‘full-scale war’, he turned to the ‘second phase’ of the civil rights movement.

King was assassinated in Memphis, fighting for a ten-cent increase in the minimum wage for sanitation workers. All the debate on how much of his dream came to be tends to focus on only half of the dream. Between reduction to class and reduction to race, neither can be separated: it has to be both.

America is realising that the system doesn’t work for them. This is progress. We know now that this is not about bad apples. But it is not just about the branches that support them either. The sin is in the orchard; the poison is in the roots. The blade of the axe, alone, is not the solution. This time, the Economist may not ask what became of Black Lives Matter. But History demands that it go farther, still.

Concluded

The writer is a lawyer.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @brainmasalaar