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When can I breathe?


Surya Deuja, 7 June  2020

Police brutality and cruelty of George Floyd’s death, captured in a horrific video that shows the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin casually kneeling on the victim’s neck, has spurred a national uprising in America.  This isn’t a separate isolated event as Floyd’s death followed those of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot at least eight times inside her Louisville, Ky., home by plain-clothes police executing a no-knock warrant, and Ahmaud Arbery, killed in a confrontation with three white men as he jogged through their neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. Even Floyd’s anguished gasps were familiar, the same words Eric Garner uttered on a Staten Island street corner in 2014: “I can’t breathe.”

Since Floyd died on 25 May 2020, demonstrations have erupted and expanded   across the country followed by series of rallies to the cause of racial justice. The protests have also triggered civic unrest in America at a scale not seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Most of the protests have been peaceful, with simple demands handwritten on torn pieces of cardboard. Enough is enough. Stop killing us. Justice for George Floyd. Black lives matter. Those pleas have resonated around the world, producing expressions of solidarity from Europe to Asia-Pacific.

COVID-19 pandemic has already adverse impacts in America for 3 months pushing further the nation’s broader racial inequities. It is estimated that about 13% of the U.S. population are African Americans. But according to CDC data, 22% of those with COVID-19, and 23% of those who have died from it, are black. Some 44% of African Americans say they have lost a job or have suffered household wage loss, and 73% say they lack an emergency fund to cover expenses, according to the Pew Research Center.

The response from the government is bleak as  the Floyd protests spread, Trump called demonstrators “thugs,” threatened them with “vicious dogs” and borrowed a phrase popularized by the Miami police chief Walter Headley in 1967: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

On June 1, a line of nine military trucks carrying National Guard troops in helmets and tan camouflage uniforms slowly rolled onto the White House grounds and down a narrow alley near the West Wing. The trucks’ canvas tops passed just below the windows of the offices of the President’s chief of staff, Vice President and National Security Adviser, and turned along a fence line typically filled with tourists snapping selfies before the building’s iconic North Portico.The rare display of military might outside the seat of American power was only the beginning. “I am your President of law and order,” Trump declared in the Rose Garden, just before curfew descended on Washington on the seventh night of national unrest. Trump threatened to deploy “thousands and thousands” of “heavily armed” military personnel to quash the protests.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelethas urged the US authorities “must take serious action to stop such killings, and to ensure justice is done when they do occur. Procedures must change, prevention systems must be put in place, and above all police officers who resort to excessive use of force should be charged and convicted for the crimes committed.”

Black Lives Matter began as a protest cry and bloomed into a political force: activists won convictions and shaped federal policy, seeding their message across college campuses and popular culture, in legislation and presidential platforms. The Movement for Black Lives has generated some positive development including public acknowledgement of wrong and initiatives for needed policy changes such as enactment of new legislation and policy strategy to address the issue of police brutality and accountability.Perhaps future activism will determine on how much impact the movement provides to answer a common question: “When can I breathe”?

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