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George Floyd protesters expose the lie of liberty

To break the endless cycle of anti-black violence, we must go beyond the ballot box.

Lola Oriowo
5 June 2020
Protests outside the White House over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer.
PA Images

Awash in protest, America has become a spectacle. Once presented to the world as the land of the free, its traumatised and grieving citizens mourn the brutal death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer.

This is not new terrain. Instead, it is an addition to a long list of names that includes Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and many more, revealing the lie of liberty once again. We view a white supremacist system organised on anti-blackness, doing what it is designed to do. 

It is hard to find any sleep. Like many other black and brown people watching from overseas, our nights are spent in vigil seeking to make sense of the sights we’re seeing. A US senator calls for the army to “restore order”. President Trump explains to governors that “you have to dominate. If you don’t dominate you’re wasting time”, taunting on Twitter “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. And when the American police, the cause of this grief, devolves its brutality  to the people it swore to serve and protect, with rubber bullets and tear gas — it all hits too close to home. 

In France, people pour out on to the streets in solidarity, demanding justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who died in police custody in 2016. David Dungay, a young indigenous man, is remembered in Australia. He was killed in 2015, in circumstances similar to George Floyd, pleading as law enforcers piled on to him and extinguished his life. 

And in the UK, protests are calling for justice for Belly Mujinga, a black woman deemed at high risk of the virus, who contracted COVID-19 and died. Her requests to not be customer-facing while working for Transport for London during the pandemic were denied. 

Our political commentators have begun chirping the tired line that police brutality and racism is ‘not as bad’ on our soil as it is in the US. Apathetic to the deaths of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Joy Gardner and the many other lives lost — a total of 1,741 people that have died in police custody or following contact with the police since 1990, according to the charity INQUEST

The ability to be indifferent to the institutional racism that leaves black British families disproportionately exposed to the cruelty of poverty; the failure to rehouse victims of Grenfell and hold anyone accountable for that tragedy – these are forms of cognitive dissonance.

Who do we turn to when even our prime minister has previously described black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. These dehumanising words from the heart of the establishment are a violent reminder that the work only anti-racists movements can do has been left undone, that freedom must continue to be fought for. 

There is no sense in continuing to demand that black people suffer the slow drip of freedoms peacefully. 

As police flood the cities of the US with violence, the protests stir images of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 Birmingham campaign into the collective memory. Demonstrating against segregation in Alabama at the time, black students succumbed to the brutalisation of the police who confronted non-violent direct action with attack dogs and firehoses. The scenes embarrassed the white imagination of the US and led to the prohibition of racial discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are a long way from the 1960s, yet when we fix the lens on interactions between the state and black people, the violence still looks the same. 

A struggle that is performed neatly is choreography, it requires the practice of trust, discipline and the equity of all partners involved. There has been no trust or equity revealed in the unmasking of the police worldwide. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied”.

Some 57 years on, the refrain of “no justice, no peace” still rings in our ears. As the philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961 in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, “change does not mean reform, change does not mean improvement”. There is no sense in continuing to demand that black people suffer the slow drip of freedoms peacefully. 

The passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act shifted the idea of black people’s liberty; now, everyone who believes in justice must shift the idea of protest. Unlike in the US this coming November, in the UK there is no ballot box to air grievances that will be ignored by elected representatives. If we are committed to global transformation, we should once again embarrass the white imagination that is desensitised to the images of black and brown people suffering police brutality.

When protest disrupts the order that establishment prizes, we must remember that revolt — however it comes — is a struggle for freedom enacted by those who simply cannot breathe.

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