I can’t breathe were the last words uttered by George Floyd, a forty six year old African American resident of St. Louis Park, Minnesota in the United States of America. George was ordered by policemen to step out of his car, he was handcuffed.
The force used to restrain George Floyd was extremely excessive to say the least with a bystander recording the incident and posting it on social media. Even more shocking is the latest footage that has emerged of all three (warning: the attached video contains upsetting images) ‘white’ officer’s kneeling on George for nine minutes and George crying out, ‘I can’t breathe, Please, I can’t breathe.’
George Floyd later died.
Regardless of the nature of the ‘alleged’ crime that was committed, there is never a reason to kneel on any man’s neck. This has prompted the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey to say, ‘Being black in America should not be a death sentence.’
The scariest questions that I’m grappling with are, ‘how many other black men had a white police officer kneeling on their necks and were fortunate not to die?’ or ‘how many other white police officers committed similar atrocities but just did’nt get caught or filmed?’
This is not the first and I’m sure it won’t be the last instance of black person paying the price for their skin colour. Only last week in Central Park, New York in yet another incident of racism, an African American man, Christian Cooper, an avid bird watcher and board member of the New York City Audubon Society suffered a different fate.
Christian emerged out from the bush at the wooded-area of Central Park while Amy Cooper (no relation) was walking her dog. Amy’s dog was not on a leash, which is contrary to the Ramble’s rules, according to the park’s website. Christian Cooper recorded part of their encounter and posted it on Facebook, where it has since been shared thousands of times and became a trending topic on Twitter. In the video, Christian is silent while Amy frantically calls the police on her mobile phone and tells them he is threatening me and my dog. ‘I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,’ Amy Cooper is heard saying in the video. ‘I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.’
Who can forget the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man, who went out for a jog in Brunswick, Georgia, not knowing that doing so would lead to his death. His killing raises a host of troubling concerns in a country where jogging while black must be added to the outrageous list of hazards facing black men. The list goes on and on and on….
What we are witnessing today is just a new another chapter of the same book which started with the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 and continues today with the sad chapter ending with the death of George Floyd. Most of the chapters of this book involve black men and white police officers and its always the black men who come off worse.
The racist genie just cannot be put back into its bottle because having a black skin continues to be a crime in the United States of America and in many parts of the world.
Like many of you, I’m growing tired of the endless marches, hashtags and funerals. The question we must now ask ourselves is, ‘how long do we have to sing the same old refrain?’, ‘We shall overcome, someday’ or as Bob Dylan asked, ‘How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?’
If we thought the fear of racism was enough for black people to deal with, we also have a rampant COVID-19 that appears to impact black and ethnic minorities more adversely than any other. According to the Office for National Statistics, black people in the United Kingdom are four times more likely to die from COVID-19, with black men 4.2 times more likely to die than their white counterparts.
The one thing the current epidemic has exposed is the stark inequalities that exist in the world. Why is it that when crises be it economic, austerity, global warming or pandemics ‘black people’ tend to suffer the worst impact. Even more troubling is the deafening silence from our ‘so called’ world leaders. All we ever get from these spineless leaders is platitudes.
One of the main symptoms of COVID-19 is the lack of oxygen. Those infected struggle to breathe which often results in death. George Floyd struggled to breathe not because of COVID-19 but because he was robbed of oxygen by the knee of a white police officer on his neck.
How long will black people be robbed of the oxygen of freedom?
As I write this, there’s a frantic race by world leaders and pharmaceutical companies to find a vaccine for COVID-19, perhaps it’s time for us to place a higher urgency in finding a vaccine for the pandemic called, ‘the fear of black men.’ Perhaps it’s high time for us to place an even higher urgency in dealing with the stark inequality in our world.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’
Every day, all around us, we see the consequences of silence manifest itself in the form of discrimination, violence, genocide and war.
Silence is the residue of fear.
Silence is deafening.
Silence is an enabler.
Silence is pain.
Remaining silent is no longer an option because it empowers racism, facism, bullying, sexism, homophobia, bigotry and every other despicable form of discrimination.
History is littered with examples of millions of innocent people who lost their lives just because they were the wrong skin colour, spoke the wrong language or worshipped differently while others stood by silently.
Let us vow to speak out and not take a vow of silence.
Now is the time for us to say enough is enough.
Now is the time for us to come together.
Now is the time to take action.
Now is the time for us to reach out to each other.
A few years ago, a visiting Psychology professor set out to teach a group of children in an African village a new game. He placed a basket full of delicious fruit near a tree and the children were told that whoever got to the fruit first, could have all the fruit. The expectation was that the children would all race towards the fruit with the winner taking all the fruit.
Instead of racing each other, the children all joined hands and walked together towards the fruit, sat together and enjoyed the fruit. When asked by the professor why they chose to walk together, instead of competing with each other for the fruit, they said: ‘UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad’?
UBUNTU in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because of you and you are because of me. We are one.
The African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ teaches us that, ‘I am because of you and you are because of me and together we are.’ In simple layman’s terms Ubuntu reminds us that (all) of humanity is intertwined.
We are one—we are all connected. A simple gesture carried out by one person creates a ripple effect through the fabric of mankind. Something I do will somehow affect you. We are witnessing the ripple effect of the death of George Floyd across the United States right now.
Every one of us are feeling the ripple effect of the death of a man none of us have met and despite him living on a different continent.
Now is a good time for us to join hands (social distancing permitting), walk to the table, share and enjoy the fruit together:
- Its time to (re) connect – in the true spirit of Ubuntu, I believe that its time for us to make a concerted effort to reach out and connect with people who may not look, speak or worship like we do. We need each other.
- Mark Twain said, ‘the truth hurts but silence kills’ – in the case of George Floyd there were officers who stood silently and watched a man plead for mercy before dying – these police officers will have to share culpability in the death of George Floyd. If only just one of the police officers had spoken out, just maybe George would still be alive today. Silence is not an option, silence can lead to death.
- Nelson Mandela said, ‘education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world.’ We must educate our friends and extended family about the impact of discrimination and challenge bigoted attitudes.
- Words are Powerful – Nelson Mandela also taught us a valuable lesson about the power of words. He likened our words to toothpaste. He said, ‘when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste and once the toothpaste has left the tube, you cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube. Words have the same effect once they’ve left your mouth – you can’t take them back. Words can either break or build. We must hold people accountable for what they say.
- Use your privilege to benefit others – if you find yourself in a position of privilege or influence, please use your privilege to help others who are less privileged.
- Teach your children well –our children are the future so we must have open discussions with them about all forms of discrimination and its impact on society. Our children must be taught to acknowledge and celebrate differences. Most importantly we need to teach our children to never remain silent in the face of discrimination.
It’s vital for us to cling to the hope of a better world but we need to broaden the conversation and expand the circle so that we have conversations not only with those we are in agreement with but also with those who we may disagree.
We need to ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to learn more, share more, speak out more and how can I include more people in the debate?’
When we watch the news or engage in discussions with those around us – it matters what we choose to “like” or “share” on social media.
Desmond Tutu said, ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.’ With all the ongoing issues that we are having to face it would be easy to give up hope. I remain a prisoner of hope’.
We must keep hope alive and believe that we can make the world a better place and stand up for a world where all people are equal.
I hope that we never ever have to hear another human being crying out, ‘I can’t breathe.’