George Floyd’s death: Holding up a mirror to institutional racism

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on May 31, 2021

Lives that matter: Anti-racist protests in the US and elsewhere signal a larger cultural change   -  REUTERS/CHRISTINNE MUSCHI

The grotesque murder of George Floyd has brought people to the streets at an unprecedented scale and led to a widespread desire to confront the long, tangled histories of racism undergirding many Western societies

* Protests are not just taking place in the US

* Many of those in the streets in the US and elsewhere are not black, but white

* The anti-racist protests in the US may succeed in winning some concrete measures

From my window in previous weeks, I watched ambulance after ambulance racing to our local hospital as novel coronavirus cases spiralled in New York City. The city has since flattened the curve, with new case counts and deaths plummeting. But another noise has descended over our neighbourhood: The non-stop drone of police helicopters and sirens. The US is now the epicentre of not just the novel coronavirus pandemic but also of a growing global protest movement against institutional racism. Every night for the past week, helicopters have circled overhead, following groups of protesters who are demanding justice, an end to police violence, and a real reckoning with abiding racism in the US. The helicopters have hovered over our building late at night, prompting residents to lean out of their windows and bang on pots and pans in solidarity with the many thousands in the streets.

Such protests are not new. I’d marched in several demonstrations here after police killings of other black men earlier. But the grotesque murder of George Floyd — a frankly unwatchable nine-minute video of his killing provoked the unrest — by police in the northern US city of Minneapolis has brought people to the streets at an unprecedented scale. As Tom Sugrue, a historian of US social movements, said: “I am hard pressed to think of any time in the past when we have had two straight weeks of large-scale protests in hundreds of places, from suburbs to big cities. The breadth and scale of the Floyd protests are staggering.”

And those protests are not just taking place in the US. In cities in other Western countries with long histories of racism — often tethered to imperialism — people have marched in huge “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations — from Madrid to Melbourne, Bristol to Brussels. Initially, many of these rallies merely expressed solidarity with their American counterparts and convened around American embassies or consulates. But soon they took on a more introspective character, railing against ingrained racism in their own countries. Protesters in Brussels climbed the statue of King Leopold II — the Belgian monarch whose brutal rule over the Congo from 1885 to 1908 killed 10 million people — and draped it with the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Australians highlighted incidents of State and police abuse of aboriginal people. Protesters in Scotland drew attention to the imperial history of their cities, holding signs that read “Glasgow Was Built By Slaves”. In a now viral incident, protesters pulled down a statue in Bristol — an English port town that grew wealthy from the slave trade — of the slave trader Edward Colston and flung it into the river.

Whatever you think of the toppling of that statue — many think it an act of justice, others an act of vandalism — the last few weeks have revealed something rather remarkable in the West: A sincere, widespread, and even courageous (given the risk of contracting the coronavirus) desire to confront the long, often tangled histories of racism that undergird so many Western societies. Many of those in the streets in the US and elsewhere are not black, but white. It’s unclear how long these protests will last, but they already have a generational, defining quality. Ideas — about the workings of institutions such as the criminal justice system, about false mythologies of national greatness, about how literary canons should be more inclusive, and so on — that were once only entertained in universities or on the margins of Western societies are now mainstream.

There is, of course, plenty of opposition to this turn of events and to the protests. Sporadic and counter-productive incidents of looting have allowed critics to deflect from the mostly peaceful movement’s claims and urgency. With the toppling of the statues in the UK, pundits have complained that the protesters are trying to “erase history” — as if one could only learn history from public memorials. And many conservative and centre-right writers complain about the pieties of the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that free speech is under threat from a new “politically correct” orthodoxy. One can only understand this last quixotic strain of critique as the gasps of an old order that is unwilling to broaden its frame of reference and grapple with how racism continues to shape Western societies.

The anti-racist protests in the US may succeed in winning some concrete measures that make the killings of black men by the police less likely and rein in overzealous, militarised police departments. But they signal something larger and more amorphous — a cultural change. A growing number of people in many countries in the West are willing to reckon not just with the abiding force of racism, but also with the way long histories of power and the abuse of power have constituted their societies. At a time when countries grapple with the pandemic, rising inequality, and the threat of climate change, we should cultivate that probing, critical spirit in navigating these crises toward a fairer, more dignified world.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on June 10, 2020

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