FRANK F. ISLAM
SINCE the brutal death of 46-year-old African American George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, the United States has witnessed civil strife of the kind not seen in more than five decades. In a video that has been streamed around the world millions of times, Chauvin is shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even as the black man is heard crying, “I can’t breathe.”
For several years running up to Floyd’s death, American society has been a combustible mix of racial and political divisions, ready to explode. In the past four months alone, two young African Americans lost their lives to racial violence and police brutality in two highly-charged incidents.
In February, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was killed in southeastern Georgia, while jogging, by a white father and son who chased and fatally shot the African American man. In March, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot and killed by cops in Louisville, Kentucky.
Floyd’s death became a trigger that brought hundreds of thousands of American citizens to the streets protesting. Under the broad banner of Black Lives Matter, a movement that fights systemic racism, inequality and violence against African Americans, these protests spread to hundreds of cities across the country and around the globe.
While the protests have largely remained peaceful, in a few cities they resulted in riots and looting. Police enforced curfews and used tear gas leading to fatalities and injuries.
These protests bring back memories of the mid to late 1960s when there were racial protests and riots in several major American cities in response to police violence and racial incidents. As then, the public mood is one of discontent and dissatisfaction. According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 80 per cent of Americans feel that the country is spiraling out of control.
There are some major differences, however, between the chaotic events of the 60s and today’s turmoil. The current chaos is occurring at a time the country is dealing with the worst health crisis in its history and resulted in the catastrophic collapse of the economy.
The 60s protest movement happened under the watch of President Lyndon Baines Johnson who signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most progressive legislative measures in the history of the country. The law banned discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin, and increased minority political participation.
The current protests are unfolding under the watch of a president, whose actions have worsened life for ethnic and religious minorities in the country, and undermined democracy and institutions.
While the political polarization and coarsening of civic discourse predate Trump, they have dramatically declined during the nearly 41 months he has been in power. President Donald Trump is perhaps the most divisive president since Andrew Jackson who left the White House 183 years ago.
Trump is singularly focused on keeping his base happy, rather than being a president for all Americans. An influential part of that base, unfortunately, includes a large segment of America that is still stuck in the Antebellum South.
The Republican Party has been communicating in dog whistles on race and immigration since the presidency of Richard M. Nixon who won the office in 1968 by running as the “law and order” candidate. The Trump era has injected the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia.
So where will America go from here?
There is no doubt that there is systemic racism and injustice in America. That is not good news. There is good news though in what these protests portend for the future of America and all of its citizens.
Unlike the 60s, when those in the streets were primarily blacks, those protesting in 2020 are of all hues. Among them, there are Americans of all backgrounds and heritage, including whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Indian and other South Asian Americans. Millions have made their voices heard by coming together in a coalition through protests and speaking out for a more just and inclusive and tolerant America.
In less than five months, they and tens of millions of other concerned and caring citizens who want to extinguish systemic racism can change the country’s trajectory by voting and consigning Trumpism to history. Putting a new president in place will start the process of healing the country’s wounds and reducing the structural violence against blacks and other minorities.
In addition, the protesters have forced the country to take a fresh look at race relations and police brutality. As a result, many cities have begun to redefine the way local police are doing their job through a shift toward community policing.
Another source of optimism is the 244 years of America’s history. Every time the country has taken a regressive step, it has followed with several steps forward.
The nation has been led in the past by Presidents such as Jackson, Nixon and Trump, who tried to erase progress toward racial equality. America’s story has also been written by leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, who have brought the country and its citizens together in the collaborative pursuit of the common good and a more perfect union.
The Negro spiritual and civil rights protest song of the 60s begins with these memorable words:
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome
We shall overcome someday
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome someday.”
In 2020, this appears to be the day. Where America will go from here is on the journey to overcoming the racism that has shackled it since its establishment as a nation.