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OP-ED: A Minneapolis maelstrom

  • Published at 07:46 pm May 31st, 2020
WEB_Minneapolis protest

America is once again slipping into the darkness of systematic racial inequality

Every time an African American dies due to police brutality or savagery perpetrated by white supremacists, the images of Kunta Kinte from Roots come to mind. 

In the early 80s, Roots, a TV series adapted from the book by Alex Haley, was shown here in Bangladesh, receiving widespread acclaim since the core theme of racial prejudice and subjugation resonated so well with our own history -- first under the colonial juggernaut and then under the control of West Pakistan.  

While the TV series showed the plight and suffering of the Africans forcibly brought to the new world to work as slaves, the ending had an optimistic note which seemed to send a message that in the modern-day US, black people are free from repression.

Unfortunately, in recent times, the racial divide in the US with its ugly dimensions has been laid before us with several incidents where the law enforcers were seen to resort to unwarranted force in dealing with people from the African American community. 

Police tactics under question

As per the Statista Research Department, the trend of fatal police shootings in the US is on the rise, with a total of 228 civilians having been shot, 31 of whom were black, as of March 30, 2020. In 2018, there were 996 fatal police shootings, and in 2019 this figure increased to 1,004.

In 2014, an 18-year-old man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, and reportedly, the man had raised his hands and asked the police officer to refrain from shooting. 

However, the FBI investigation report did not find any evidence to suggest that Brown had actually capitulated but the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” became a rallying cry for protesters who came out to underline the need for a less aggressive approach by the law enforcers. 

It was also found that Brown has sustained six bullet wounds, all of them on the front side. At that time, there was uproar in Ferguson and the response from the authority was denounced by many as being militarized and insensitive. 

Now we come to the recent death of George Floyd who died, not by gunshots but due to a highly objectionable choke hold using the knee. 

The image of the incident where Floyd is pinned to the ground by the police officer is viral and shows clearly that desperate pleas from Floyd about breathing difficulties are totally ignored by the officer. 

The first question to ask: Were these tactics taught to the police and if yes, then by whom, because it’s common sense that putting pressure on the neck can result in fatal accidents. Unfortunately, the method used has not been directly condemned by anyone, not even the president of the US. 

Trump called the incident “sad and tragic” in one of his tweets but, honestly speaking, the words sad and tragic are far too mild in denouncing such an act. The president should have condemned in clear language the usage of the chokehold which causes asphyxiation. 

Simmering anger erupts

The death of Floyd sparked outrage and backlash across the country, triggering riots, arson, and disorder. Obviously, the looting and vandalism should never be condoned but if the initial reaction from the US authority had been strict and proportional to the abominable transgression that had been committed by the police officer, the outburst would not possibly have been so severe. 

Several times the word “unfortunate” was used by authority figures in Minneapolis as shown by news channels, but this is again a very mealy-mouthed reaction. Whether the US government admits or not, the unruly outburst of the public going on the rampage indicate to a simmering social rage that was waiting to erupt. 

While the current US government is seen handing out prescriptions to other nations about how they should deal with vexed issues, it appears that it has ignored major social aberration within its own borders. 

Race relations is the fault line in the US and the government needs to acknowledge it along with the urgency to revamp the police which often acts like thugs. I saw the statements made by the police high-ups of Minneapolis after the incident which did not have a direct apology for the tactics adopted. 

In such a situation, where it’s clear that Floyd died because he failed to breathe, the police should have issued a statement outlawing such techniques or any other measures that have the potential to kill. 

Why Bangladeshis should be concerned

Both the US and UK provide training to our own police and the adoption of such tactics by the police in the US may raise questions about the moral plus ethical dimension of these training. If such savage tactics are being taught, then this training must be redesigned. 

The failure of the US authority to severely criticize the methods adopted in arresting Floyd sends a wrong message and this may embolden law enforcers elsewhere to resort to the disproportionate use of force.   

Also, the senseless comments by the US president saying that shooting will start when violence begins is hardly a rational reaction, tilting more on the lawlessness of the wild west. 

Language is crucial in defusing tensions, comforting people, and ensuring that a rational system is in operation. Adding fuel to a raging blaze is hardly a solution; guns will not be able to silent people in the long run and with elections not too far away, President Trump may just think twice before unleashing tirades in Twitter.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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