The slogan ‘Black lives matter’ is a damning indictment of the United States’ failure to rise as a full-fledged democracy. Some 244 years after US founding fathers in their Declaration of Independence affirmed that “All men are created equal”, the protests against racial discrimination make a powerful statement that the American democracy is a sham.
By disregarding health guidelines such as social distancing, black-lives-matter protesters, knowingly or unknowingly, are making another powerful statement that the racism is a much bigger pandemic than Covid-19.
The US did see its first African American President in Barack Obama who was elected to office in 2008 and reelected for a second term four years later. Does this mean that racism has ended in the US? Far from it.
Confirming this was yet another killing of an African American on May 25, 2020. The 46-year-old George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was arrested on suspicion that he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill. He was handcuffed and floored. The white police officer kept on pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. He showed no remorse even as Floyd repeatedly groaned “Please I can’t breathe”.
Floyd was not the first African American to be suffocated by a white officer. Going by the lack of progress in reforms aimed at racial equality, neither will he be the last. In 2014, Eric Garner made the same “I can’t breathe’ plea when he was in a chokehold of a white New York City Police officer who arrested him. Later, when the case was taken up, a grand jury declined to charge the officer who killed Garner, prompting President Obama to say that more should be done to make all Americans feel that they were equal before the law.
But the ongoing protests show that little has happened. When African Americans are unfairly disenfranchised, when they are paid less and when they are judged differently by courts, the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle is far from over.
It appears that the immortal words of US civil rights firebrand Malcolm X are still relevant. During the height of the civil rights campaign in the early 1960s, Malcolm X said: “They police the same way… Every case of police brutality against a Negro follows the same pattern… We have to put a stop to this and it will never be stopped until we stop it ourselves. They attack the victim and then the criminal who attacked the victim accuses the victim of attacking him. This is American justice. This is American democracy and those of you who are familiar with it know that in America, democracy is hypocrisy.”
What’s worse, heading this hypocritical democracy is Donald Trump, who in his very first year in office as president refused to condemn right wing racists during the 2017 Charlottesville troubles which saw a racist youth ramming his vehicle into peaceful protesters and killing one person and injuring scores of others?
He is also refusing to name the US representative to the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In its reports, CERD has slammed the US for persistent racial and ethnic discrimination and failure to meet its treaty obligations under the convention.
Trump’s policies suggest that he is appeasing rightwing voters, who are a major segment of his vote base, together with white Evangelists. So there he was this week holding a Bible outside St. John’s church in what has been condemned as a photo opportunity at the expense of firing tear gas at peaceful protesters outside the White House. The very Bible he was holding says, “Neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Enlightened religious philosophies – Buddhism and Islam, among them -- also insist that greatness is determined by neither colour of skin nor one’s birth, but by one’s righteous conduct.
In politics, there is little place for righteous conduct. The US constitution may be hailed as the best man-made document in human history, but many were the presidents and politicians who have failed to uphold the spirit of the constitution. There is little righteousness in the US foreign policy which has led to many unrighteous wars around the globe. It remains as a major stumbling block to peace in Palestine, where encouraged by US support, Israel continues its oppression of the Palestinian people who have seen in the past ten years more than 3,400 Palestinian George Floyds. The latest victim was an autistic man who had a mental age of an eight-year-old. He was killed last week.
While the ongoing black-lives-matter protests can be a shock treatment to bring about a just order in the US, an ‘All-Lives-Matter’ slogan should also be heard loud and clear worldwide to eliminate all forms of discrimination wherever it takes place.
As human beings, we have accrued identities based on many factors such as family, education, jobs and our affiliations to ideologies. But our differences should not create hierarchical systems where some people are regarded as more equal than others. The human race is one big family where different identities exist not to divide us but to add strength to us through unity in diversity. This is what the Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us. The coronavirus is no respecter of caste, colour, class, race or religion. The message it is spreading is that human beings and nations need to unite and cooperate to find a medicine or a vaccine to end the pandemic.
A nation’s level of civilization is not manifested in the level of economic development, but in its adherence to moral values.
Sri Lanka has seen enough bloodshed due to hatred-driven violence. This week we observe the 33rd anniversary of the Arantalawa massacre in which more than 30 young monks were gunned down by Tiger terrorists. Next month, we will mark the 37th anniversary of the 1983 race riots. These anniversaries should stand as monuments in our collective memory to warn us that racism kills. That racial attacks still take place in this country and in certain sections of the media despite the heavy price the nation had paid during the 30-year war indicates the necessary reforms are yet to come.
It is perhaps due to the absence of such reforms this country saw a George Floyd like incident in Aluthgama last week. The victim was a 14-year-old speech impaired autistic boy. In a video interview that is widely shared in the social media, the boy’s father alleges that several police officers mercilessly attacked the boy.
If we want to be united in spirit with black-lives-matter protesters, we should stand up against all forms of racism and injustice in Sri Lankan society, too.