A smug look on the white police officer’s face as he dug his knee into the black man’s neck, for nearly nine minutes, while the black man gasped for air and pleaded with the officer — “I can’t breathe” — has enraged citizens and leaders around the world. The video of this violent crime went viral. Ignoring lockdowns and risking Covid-19 contraction, crowds have mobilised and gathered around the world to voice their anger and show solidarity. Authorities have stood by, mostly allowing these gatherings in most settings. A key exception has been in parts of the United States, where this all began.
Derek Chauvin, the white officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until his death, while three officers stood by without taking action, had 18 prior complaints filed against him. Police and military brutality targeting blacks more than other races is not only a feature of American politics. Similar concerns are being raised in the UK, in Australia. In South Africa, the security sector’s heavy-handed targeting of black townships and not in wealthier white suburbs to enforce the lockdown has not gone unnoticed. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic around the world, the authoritarian measures of some states more generally, have raised alarm bells at the highest political levels.
Protests occurring in far corners of the world are calling for “racial justice”, “no justice no peace”, and recognition that “black lives matter”, in support of the social movement by the same name that arose in 2013 to address the killing of an unarmed black teen and acquittal of his murderer. Protesters want the killing of black Americans by police stopped now, and for responsible police to be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law — including those who stand by and do nothing. Some are calling to defund and demilitarise the police. They want institutionalised racism in the police sector and beyond, uprooted and destroyed.
And they are having an impact. The immediate goal of justice for Mr Floyd is advancing — with four officers fired, Chauvin’s charge elevated from 3rd to 2nd-degree murder, and the other three witnessing officers now being charged for aiding and abetting — a key demand of protesters. But this is unlikely to satisfy protesters. As Martin Luther King professed “…a riot is the language of the unheard” — and they will continue “as long as America postpones justice”.
Clearly this tragic event has deep meaning, not just for Americans, but for people globally. The world is watching and participating in the unfolding and shaping of events. In this context we are pressed to ask: will these protests contribute to transformative change in the US? What ramifications does this have for supporting the achievement of racial, ethnic and other forms of social justice in countries around the world?
Varied forms of protest
At the time of this writing, protests gathering hundreds of thousands of people cumulatively are occurring in about 200 cities in the US and many other countries and cities — including in Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Brussels, Amsterdam, Dublin, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Poland, with solidarity acts even in war-torn Syria.
Leaders around the US and globally at all levels of government have stood in support of the protesters. Many politicians, police and military are standing with protesters’ right to assembly. The majority of Americans, with variation across social groups and age, support the protests in general. This includes former and current military leaders. In numerous instances, police and the National Guard have knelt in solidarity with the protesters.
The United Nations has also taken a stand. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised structural racism at the heart of police violence and highlighted “credible reports of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force” by US law enforcement officers. She called upon leaders to “condemn racism unequivocally” and to “reflect on what has driven people to a boiling point; to listen and learn; and to take actions that truly tackle inequalities”.
In Africa, numerous leaders are speaking out. The African Union Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, made a statement strongly condemning the murder, and urging US authorities to intensify efforts to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin.
The South African government has called upon all Americans and especially the security forces, to “exercise maximum restraint in responding to the anger and frustration felt by so many of its citizens, friends and international partners”. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) spokesperson stated:
“It is deplorable that almost 70 years since racial segregation was abolished in America, people of colour are still routinely slaughtered for the colour of their skin. The ANC fought and defeated racial supremacy and will not be cowed to remain silent in the face of the lynching of black people wherever they manifest.” At the same time, South Africans are noting the uncomfortable parallels of police and military brutality and stalled social and economic justice at home.
While the vast majority of protests in the US are nonviolent, the looting, burning and other acts of violence occurring have captured media, and the president’s, attention. Many believe this distracts attention from the real issues. Numerous theories are being espoused about the identity of these instigators. Right-wing commentators and the president himself are blaming left-wing elements, including Antifa, an amorphous group of anti-fascists — while the evidence for this is questioned. Leftist commentators allege that the looting is being carried out by Trump’s base and even Russian agents.
While Trump is using the looting to militarise the situation, many citizens see the protests as a show of profound solidarity among diverse peoples in the US and globally, a willingness to mobilise over a racial injustice.
Reflecting on these events, comedian Trevor Noah has questioned what interests black Americans have in upholding the social contract — the principles and agreements that define us as a people — if leaders who are entrusted to protect them are not doing so.
The murder of George Floyd is merely the latest of dozens of such incidents of police brutality. Normally, national leaders have sought to bring the nation together in the manifestations of anger that have followed, even if they did little to address or prevent these racist acts and their systemic roots. President Trump, who has been a divisive leader fuelling polarisation in the US, has issued a steady stream of inflammatory tweets and statements. His infamous tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” essentially gave a green light to the police to use force against protesters.
Trump has deployed more than 17,000 National Guard troops in 23 states, including Washington DC. Tens of thousands of protesters have been arrested nationwide and law enforcement has deployed tear gas, pepper spray, tasers, batons and rubber bullets against protesters. Perhaps the most egregious use of force was against peaceful protesters (including clerics) from surrounding areas of St John’s Church to create a photo opportunity of himself holding the Bible and threatening protesters with the full force of military troops.
A 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed that black people in Minneapolis, the northern city in which George Floyd lost his life, are 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for low-level offences. Racist and violent policing has been a problem in Minnesota for decades. For example, Minneapolis police rendered 44 people unconscious with neck restraints within five years, and within 20 years, they killed black people at a rate 13 times higher than white people. These statistics reflect police brutality nationwide.
Over a half a century after the civil rights laws were passed, institutionalised racism in the US persists, backed up by laws and policies that obstruct black Americans from achieving economic and political equality. “Redline laws” that allow banks and insurance companies to deny loans to people who live in “poor” neighbourhoods deemed financial risks ensure vastly uneven home ownership among blacks and whites.
Average family wealth for whites in the US is $171,000, and $17,150 for black families. Black women suffer from the intersection of sexism and racism; they have to work seven extra months for their income to equal that of black men. Black voters continue to be disenfranchised due to a byzantine gerrymandering system and laws in some states preventing prisoners, and even ex-prisoners who have served their time, from voting. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.
Institutionalised racism has meant that black and brown Americans have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19. Research has shown the African American mortality rate was, on average, 2.2 times higher than the rate for Latinx people, 2.3 times higher than Asians, and 2.6 times higher than for whites. This is in part due to higher rates of diseases that render people vulnerable to Covid-19 — heart disease, diabetes, obesity and asthma. These diseases generally go hand in hand with economic distress, lack of access to healthy food, air pollution, lack of access to healthcare, and substandard housing. In addition, US prisons have been breeding grounds for Covid-19 as there have been inadequate efforts to protect prisoners from the virus.
From protest to change
Protests are rising as a social phenomenon globally, and the power of protest is certainly becoming more visible. A quarter of the world’s countries saw a concerted rise in civil unrest in 2019 — with predictions that this will continue for 2020.
Research on nonviolent resistance movements and protests are broadly showing their positive impacts in supporting the achievement of peace and inclusive democracy. Chenoweth and Stephan examined 323 cases of civil resistance in overcoming tyranny and oppression in authoritarian contexts, between 1900 and 2006. Exploring the effectiveness of non-violent versus violent approaches, they found that sustained, peaceful transitions were more likely where non-violent strategies were used. Why? Non-violent civil resistance movements tend to have high levels of diverse participation, and they win over security forces and tend to establish more inclusive institutions while catering to the rights of minorities and promoting human rights.
Similarly, our prior research points to the importance of protests contributing to the forging of more inclusive and resilient social contracts. In a nine-country study on forging resilient social contracts, the cases of South Africa and Tunisia stood out in this regard.
At the same time, the global nature of these protests speaks to something else. On the one hand, an identification with the cause — rooted in a rising agreement — among citizens and especially younger generations — that bad behaviour of leaders will no longer be tolerated. Borders matter less with violations of conscience — why shouldn’t 10,000 people gather in Amsterdam during lockdown to say NO MORE knees on necks of black men in American, 8,000km away? Similarly, as Trump’s transgressions — verbal and physical — towards and about women, went viral around the time of his inauguration, the global upswell of millions of women, and men, gathering for the Women’s March on 21 January 2017 was telling. Dr King similarly argued in a 1960 essay, “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness”, that the struggle of African Americans in the US was part of a worldwide struggle.
Connecting protests to politics
Calls are being made by community leaders in the US to connect protests to formal politics — especially voting. Atlanta-based rapper, actor and activist Michael Santiago Render, or “Killer Mike” states that now is the time to “plot, plan, strategise, organise, mobilise” — to take protests to the voting booth and change leadership. Barack Obama’s message has similarly underscored the need to combine protests with politics, and to “elect candidates who will act on reform”.
Reflections on strategies for change among social movements have a long history. Revolution or reform? Participation or resistance? Tree shakers or jam makers? Non-reformist reform versus reformist reform? Vibrant debates on the left spanning centuries continue today, morphing, but are ultimately concerned with questions of what specific strategies, tactics, formations and coalitions will foment transformational change. Peace theorists equally underscore the need to combine activism with peace processes to achieve structural change and positive peace — or peace with justice.
It should be clear by now that radical efforts depicted by masses in the streets play a profoundly important role in raising consciousness, driving and building solidarity on issues, clarifying what people will and will not stand for, and holding politicians and leaders accountable. It should also be clear that protests do not by themselves create and sustain change — action needs to be taken to change policies and practices, to forge new social contracts that better reflect the principles that we are all sufficiently willing to live by.
This, of course, is not easy in deeply polarised societies. Visionary leadership is needed to bring people together. Ballot box changes are certainly important, but require steadfast commitment over time, as progressive changes can be easily overturned, for example, when a Trump comes into power.
There should be little disagreement at this point that addressing systemic racism and other forms of structural violence require systemic, structural measures. The idea that the market’s “free hand” will bring peace and prosperity for all has simply not proven to be the case — indeed it has had the opposite effect. The global protests, violent conflict and state fragility around the world are indicators that the political economy model dominating world politics is simply not working for all.
In addition to finding agreement around a political economy model that better serves people and the environment, addressing structural violence requires targeted attention. This may come in the form of reparative measures — to compensate in some way for the historical legacies disadvantaging black communities and their ancestors from the time of slavery, strengthening affirmative action measures or an intentional “transformation agenda” — of the type South Africa is engaging in.
While politicians often fear these measures for the demands from all corners they might unleash, it is too late for such fears. We must address our structural legacies, and equally for other groups harmed in and through history such as indigenous peoples, in the US and around the globe. The US desperately needs to engage in national dialogue and truth and reconciliation processes.
Personally, we all need to step up to take responsibility in righting historical wrongs — even in individual and everyday ways. We need to work together to recraft social contracts that are inclusive and resilient.
As the #GeorgeFloyd Protests reveal, and equally as the Covid-19 pandemic has done, our social contracts also increasingly lie with a global citizenry. We now need to ensure that Floyd’s death, which has catalysed profound global protest, drives true systemic change. DM
Erin McCandless is Associate Professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. She works in and on countries affected by conflict and fragility, and studies transitions to just, sustained peace.
Mary Hope Schwoebel is Associate Professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Nova Southeastern University in Florida in the US. She has 30 years’ experience in the fields of peacebuilding, governance, humanitarian assistance and development in, among others, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Peru, Pakistan, Colombia, Turkey, Nepal and Indonesia.
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