By Greg Oxley (La Riposte, France)
In the United States, the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, at the hands of the Minneapolis police, has sparked a massive protest movement. Hundreds of thousands of protesters in more than 350 cities have expressed their anger at this gratuitous police violence. The policeman most directly responsible for the death of George Floyd - his three colleagues participated in the attack and did nothing to stop the murder - is called Derek Chauvin. He kept George Floyd pressed to the ground by kneeling on his neck.
For almost nine minutes, George Floyd repeatedly said he couldn't breathe. Then he stopping moving. He no longer spoke. And for almost 3 minutes more Chauvin maintained the pressure on his throat. During those 12 minutes, passers-by implored him to let go, telling him that he was going to kill him. Chauvin ignored their pleas.
Initially, the charge against Chauvin was only for "third degree" murder, that is to say "manslaughter"! No charges were brought against his three colleagues. Furthermore, the official autopsy report claimed that the death was not a direct result of the behavior of the police. According to the statement from the medical examiner in charge of the autopsy, there was no "physical evidence supporting a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation".
The victim's family immediately disputed the charge of manslaughter and ordered a second autopsy - independent of the judicial authorities this time - which determined what was already obvious to everyone: George Floyd was killed by asphyxiation and as a direct result of the way Derek Chauvin pressed his head to the ground. On Wednesday June 3, after a week of protests, the charges against Chauvin were finally reclassified as intentional homicide, and his three accomplices are accused of manslaughter. This is a first victory - at least from a legal point of view - but the basic problem, much more difficult to solve, remains intact. This problem is the brutal and racist behavior of certain elements of the police force in the United States, behavior which is clearly linked to a more general political and historical context.
The circumstances before the police came to arrest George Floyd are perfectly ordinary. In a store, he presents a 20 dollar bill which the cashier considers to be a forgery. According to the protocol in force, the cashier calls the police. George Floyd is outside the store. A surveillance camera and videos made by witnesses to the scene clearly show that he offers no resistance to arrest. He was quickly handcuffed and - without the slightest necessity – thrown to the ground. Did he know the bill was a fake? Maybe, but maybe not. In any case, even if he knew it, it didn't deserve the death penalty for it.
The American police have killed many people, including a very high number of blacks, and for a long time. The Black Lives Matter movement, created in 2013, has drawn public and media attention to the problem of racism in law enforcement and the high number ofs black people killed by the police. In 2014, several months of protests followed the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.
And yet the number of victims is still increasing from year to year. In 2018, 228 civilians were killed by the police. In 2019, the number of victims rose to 1,099 and just the first three months of 2020, the number of deaths at the hands of the police was already at 228. On average, over this whole period, 24% of victims were blacks, who represent only 13% of the population. The number of blacks killed by the police is 250% higher that the number of whites. Over the 2013-2019 period, 17% of blacks killed by the police were unarmed, compared to only 12% of whites. While the death rate for murder, for the entire American population, is 5 per 100,000, it turns out that the number of blacks killed by the police exceeds this rate in 8 American cities: 12.1 per 100,000 in Reno , 8.5 in Oklahoma City, 8 in Santa Ana, 7.0 in Saint Louis City, etc.
National statistics also indicate that the number of people killed by the police is not related to crime rates. For example, in Buffalo, New York, where 50% of the population is black and the violent crime rate is 12 per 1,000, police did not kill any civilians between 2013 and 2019. In Orlando , Florida, with a population almost identical to Buffalo, a crime rate of 9 per 1000 and a lower proportion of blacks (42%), police killed 13 people over the same period. [See https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/] The difference in results between these cities is explained by policy differences and police mentality. For example, some local authorities require that all means of restraint be tried before using a firearm, while others require only a single warning before opening fire.
Donald Trump has threatened the deployment of "thousands of heavily armed soldiers" to end what he calls "riots". Also denouncing what he calls "internal terrorism", he demanded that state governors act quickly to regain control of the streets, adding: "If a city or a state refuses to take the necessary decisions To defend the lives and property of its residents, I will deploy the United States military to quickly resolve the issue for them."
Trump personally carried out this threat of violence on June 1, against the peaceful protest against police violence. The gathering was in front of the White House, on the square between Saint John’s church and Lafayette Park. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, the National Guard and the park police began to violently repel the demonstrators, with batons and tear gas. It was only later that the reason for the attack became clear. Trump wanted to walk over to the church, followed by a group of journalists. Stopping briefly in front of the church - and the cameras - and holding up a Bible, he said only a few sentences: "We have the greatest country in the world. Let's keep it safe !” The attack on the protesters took place immediately after Trump's speech at the White House, a short while earlier, in which he described himself as "the president of law and order” and demanded that governors use law enforcement forces to " dominate the streets".
Like everywhere in the world - including France, of course - the looting and degradations that are sometimes perpetrated on the margins of the demonstrations are exploited by the American administration to discredit the movement. Some political groups have applauded the looting, on the pretext that it is capitalist chain-stores that are targeted. But this is an insane attitude, from the point of view of the protest movement. Among the police, there are certainly racist elements close to the ideology of the American far-right. Like Trump, they seek the slightest pretext to use violence against the protesters. Looting provides them with this pretext. Even for the police who have nothing against the demonstrators or who feel in solidarity with them, the looting and vandalism puts them in a very difficult position. The right to demonstrate, the right to assembly, is a clearly defined constitutional right in the United States, and the police are supposed to protect those who exercise it. But when there is looting, they have no choice but obey orders to intervene, in what is often a very confusing situation.
In recent days, police and even police chiefs have publicly declared their solidarity with the protests. On Sunday, May 31, in Lexington, Kentucky, police officers dressed in riot gear knelt before protesters, in some cases going so far as to embrace them to show their solidarity. The fraternisation scene was filmed and many videos concerning the event are available on the internet. The demonstrators' attitude was an example to follow, even if these tactics probably will not necessarily work in all cases. Instead of assuming that all the police are racists or "fascists", they extended a brotherly hand to them, inviting them to join them. Lexington police chief Lawrence Weathers was one of the first to kneel.
Young activist and hip-hop artist Devine Carama, who was among the protesters, interviewed by CNN, described the scene: "It was a beautiful thing to see. Obviously, the demonstraters were there to protest against police violence and show the value, in their eyes, of black lives. It was as if the Lexington police wanted to show their solidarity with the demonstrators, instead of going into a battle. I don’t think it’s necessarily what the protesters expected.” Fraternisation between police and protesters in Lexington is far from the only instance of police support. In Camden, New Jersey, police chief Joseph Wysocki never imagined doing anything other than walking shoulder to shoulder with citizens: "It's a community. We are part of it. It's not the police on one side and the community on the other. We are all together. During the march, Wysocki carried a banner which read: “In solidarity!" Similar events occurred in Santa Cruz, California, Norfolk, Virginia, Houston, Texas, Coral Gables in Florida, and many other cities.
This huge wave of protest and anger at police violence is unfolding against the backdrop of a deep economic recession which inflicts another form of violence against American workers. Since the beginning of March, the number of registered unemployed has increased at the rate of two or three million per week, reaching currently more than 40 million, that is to say one in four American workers. This figure - already huge - is considered an underestimate, because many workers, not entitled to benefits, do not bother to register. The official unemployment rate is 14.7%, but could yet reach higher levels. In most cases, those who have kept their jobs have suffered some loss of income. The Covid 19 virus created a health crisis, but its transformation into an economic and social catastrophe is the consequence of capitalism, that is to say of a society where profit is the only justification for economic activity and employment. While the Federal Reserve buys securities and bonds for 2,000 billion dollars in order to maintain stock market values, the capitalists throw workers into the streets by the millions in order to protect profits.
The racial question is above all a social question that goes back a long way in the history of North America. Slavery, abolished in 1865 at the end of the civil war, nonetheless casts its shadow over the entire subsequent history of the country. Blacks formally obtained the right to vote in 1870. But in practice, the various obstacles set up to prevent the exercise of this right were not removed until 1965, and with the persistence of discriminatory practices, real social equality still doesn't exist to this day. Today, reactionary prejudice against blacks, Latinos and other minorities is formulated, encouraged and legitimized by President Trump. But the opposition is growing in strength. Young people are already largely drawn over to the ideas of "socialism". Blacks are in revolt against discrimination and police violence. Under the devastating impact of the social and economic crisis, these trends will be take their place within a more widespread and more powerful social and political struggle, which will only be able achieve its goal of social justice by ending the grip of large capitalist corporations on American society. A Socialist America is not just a dream. It is a pressing necessity for the well-being and social emancipation of the American people.
(Fotos: Victoria Pickering / Flickr)