Nivedita Varadarajan nivedita.v@thehindu.co.in

Sub-editor at BusinessLine, with a passion for politics from around the world, Liverpool FC and memes.Sub-editor at BusinessLine, with a passion for politics from around the world, Liverpool FC and memes.

Nivedita

#BlackLivesMatter: Is America on the road to justice?

| Updated on June 16, 2020 Published on June 16, 2020

American ‘I Voted’ stickers (File photo)   -  Bloomberg

Will the Black Lives Matter live up to the legacy set forth by Martin Luther King Jr and others?

Over the past many weeks, the protests demanding justice for George Floyd, who was brutally killed by a police officer in Minnesota, have rocked the United States (US). These protests have since morphed into a movement to demand accountability from police and racial justice, not only in the US, but all over the world.  

This is not the first time that people have protested against police brutality against African Americans in the US. There have been several shocking incidents of policemen shooting unarmed men and women -- and sometimes even children -- over the past decades.

Biden's controversial remark

Politics in the nation has always had racial undertones in it, and it has resurfaced yet gain this election cycle. Just a few weeks ago, Democratic party's  (then presumptive) nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden made a controversial remark in which he questioned the "blackness" of African Americans who did not vote for him. He said that African-Americans who were yet to decide who they will cast their votes for (between him and President Donald Trump) were not black.

As expected, Biden faced a lot of criticism from both his party and the Republicans about his remarks. The essence of the backlash was this: Biden's words were racist and that he considered the African American voters as a vote bank. To give the former VP credit here, he later said that the remarks were "really unfortunate".

It would be naïve to think that Biden, who is a veteran politician, doesn't know that a backlash from his support base, would be bad for him politically. He was staring at a very early end to his presidential campaign before the winning South Carolina by a huge margin, thanks to the black community there that voted for him. Also, it is naïve to think that he can take his large support-base for granted and that people of colour would vote for the Democrats by default.

Voting as a block is not necessarily a bad thing in democracy, as you - as a voter - can enforce your will on the political establishment. The problem comes if the establishment takes you, the voter, for granted. Stereotyping voters on the lines of a community and/or gender questions their ability to choose based on issues.

For a political party the job becomes easier -- appeal to issues of identity instead of talking policies. Take this election in the US for example, Biden has talked about putting an African-American in the Supreme Court if elected as the President. He has already made a commitment to select a woman as his Vice-President. But, when it comes to addressing issues about racial tensions that sparked the ongoing protests across the nation, all he can say is that he would help lead this conversation "and more importantly, I will listen."

Even though his website lists multiple ways to reform the police system or the criminal justice system, they have not been a major talking point of Biden's campaign. He constantly talks about his past record - taking on domestic violence and criminal justice - but his critics say that the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 1994, lead to more incarceration in the 1990s, especially hurting black and brown Americans, who are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated.

The 'law and order president'

President Trump too is guilty of pandering to his voter base on many issues. He actively encouraged armed men and women, who were mostly white and were his supporters, to force various states to ease lockdown restrictions, despite a rising number of coronavirus cases just last month. Now, when African-Americans, who mostly Democrats, are protesting against police brutality, he is threatened to employ the military to quell the riots that has swept the nation. He called himself the "president of law and order", "an ally of all peaceful protesters" and banning ANTIFA, an anti-fascist left wing organisation.

By positioning himself as the law and order president, Trump is trying to use a successful message employed by his Republican predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H W Bush. 'Law and order' has been used by leading GOP figures to reassure suburban white voters, their vote base. In the past, Republicans have law and order as an euphemism to suppress racial justice and reforming the criminal justice system.

The agenda

When both parties take their voters’ support for granted, they can even work against them. Take the massive $1 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed by the Congress and signed by Trump recently, as an example. When millions of Americans were filling for unemployment benefits, both parties ignored providing healthcare for those lost their jobs.

Instead, they were trying to score points by fulfilling ideological agendas. The Democrats tried to push in a section that will force companies to hire more women and people of colour in top positions, while the Republicans tried to provide more money to big corporates oil and aviation sectors. But, both parties ignored the services and hospitality sectors, that  bore the brunt of the lockdown and laid off millions of workers.

This could also be aiding the anger that many Americans are feeling right now, without hope or a means to make ends meet.

So, what can the voters do? They must now demand that their needs are met. They should use their power to vote as a block to get what the need. African Americans are no strangers to civil protests. They fought  against segregation in the Jim Crow era. Who can forget the peaceful protests lead by Martin Luther King  Jr in the 1960s which led to civil and voting rights? The time is certainly ripe for change, the coronavirus pandemic will definitely lead to change.

Will the Black Lives Matter live up to the legacy set forth by Martin Luther King Jr and others? Will revolution come because of the ballot this time around? Only time will tell.

Published on June 16, 2020
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