The Cheat Sheet

George Floyd, BLM, and the ‘butterfly effect’ on history

Venky Vembu | Updated on June 10, 2020

George Floyd, the black man who…

Yes, the African-American man who died at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department last month. His death — some would say ‘killing’ — has triggered street protests — and, some would say, ‘riots’— in the US (and in cities around the world) on a scale not seen in decades.

And BLM is…

The movement to assert that Black Lives Matter — particularly in the context of police brutality in US cities, which disproportionately targets black people, but more generally to protest against “systemic racism” in US society.

Yes, but what is the ‘butterfly effect’?

It’s an offshoot of what is called the chaos theory, as propounded by US mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, to account for the characteristics of climate-change.

What does climate change have to do with George Floyd?

There is a cosmic connection. But, first, you have to understand a little bit about Lorenz’ chaos theory model.

I’ll try.

At its simplest, Lorenz’s theory sought to explain the behaviour of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.

You’ve lost me already.

It sounds complex, yes, but mercifully, Lorenz made it easier for us to understand. In a December 1972 lecture, he summed up his theory thus: “a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas.” That is, small differences in a single variable have profound effects on a complex system’s later history.

I get it now, but what’s the BLM connection?

As you may have noticed, BLM protests have erupted in many cities around the world. They may have started off as expressions of solidarity with African-Americans, but they have since morphed and have triggered more foundational changes that can shape — and reshape — history.

How so?

In the US, the BLM protests have channelled a long-standing demand for US city councils to remove statues of ‘white supremacist’ Generals of the American Civil War, slave traders, and leaders of the segregationist cause.

More direct action led to the toppling of a Christopher Columbus statue in Richmond, Virginia (on the ground that he “represents the genocide” of indigenous communities).

That movement has spread to many countries of the Western world, which too have a history of colonialism and slavery. In recent days, BLM protesters in the UK have pulled down the statue of slave trade Edward Colston in Bristol, vandalised a statue of “racist” Winston Churchill in London, and initiated a ‘Topple the Racists’ campaign to have city councils bring down monuments that “celebrate slavery and racism”.

A statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was dismantled in London’s Canary Wharf. Over in Europe, a similar churning of history is under way: in Belgium, authorities in Antwerp dismantled a statue of King Leopold II, who had brutalised Congo, days after it had been defaced. More such action will likely follow.

Whoa, that’s a lot of action.

Yes, it’s the ‘butterfly effect’ at work: one black man died in police hands in a US city, and it has triggered tornadoes all around the world.

Is India immune to all this?

Many colonial-era statues in Delhi were dismantled in the 1960s and moved to the Coronation Park in the capital.

In symbolic terms, they were consigned to the garbage heap of history. But other movements at reshaping Indic history are, of course, under way.

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Published on June 11, 2020

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