Mr. George Floyd’s murder is one in a string of murders of people of African descent in the United States. Like countries such as South Africa that have a long history of systematic, race-based oppression, the United States has only taken minimal steps to address institutional and individualized racism. Like past killings, protests have followed and reputable American institutions, such as non-government organizations (e.g., Southern Poverty Law Center) and universities, have issued statements. The African Union, some presidents, including Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, and organizations joined in solidarity on social media and in official statements:
Reactions came from a variety of activists, journalists, and thought leaders. Some officials at African universities lent their joint voice in solidarity alongside eminent personalities and grappled with the question of why the murder of Mr. Floyd and racial oppression in the US is a matter of concern for Africans. We take up this question about why we Africans should care about Mr. Floyd and what the fight for justice implies in our own context. But first, we share a little background.
What Happened to George Floyd
On May 25, George Perry Floyd Jr., a 46-year-old black man was arrested by Minneapolis police officers after a local store employee called 911, accusing him of using a counterfeit 20 dollar note to purchase cigarettes. Shortly after his arrest, Mr. Floyd died in police custody.
The videos of the arrest surfaced showing Derek Chauvin, a white then police officer, callously and aggressively kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while Floyd was handcuffed and pinned down on the street. Two other officers further restrained Floyd by kneeling on other parts of his body while a fourth stood guard, preventing bystanders from intervening.
Chauvin did not remove his knee even as Mr. Floyd pleaded for his life, saying “I can’t breathe.” By the time paramedics arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd had lost consciousness. An independent autopsy later revealed that he died from asphyxia, caused by restricted breathing and blood flow to the brain as a result of compression to his neck and back.
Following Mr. Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis Police Department fired all four of the officers involved in his arrest. Chauvin, the officer who was seen kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck, faces charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The other three officers are presently charged with aiding and abetting murder.
The manner of Mr. Floyd’s death mirrors the experience of Mr. Eric Garner, another unarmed black man who died after a white police officer pressed his neck for 15 seconds in 2014. Like Mr. Floyd, his last words were “I can’t breathe.”
As news of Mr. Floyd’s death began to circulate, demonstrations and protests developed in Minneapolis before spreading throughout all 50 American states and internationally.
The Legacy of the Struggle
The protests that erupted after Mr. Floyd’s death are at the same time familiar and unique to the American experience. The country has, in the past, seen uprisings in the wake of injustice, racism, and police brutality. The most famous being the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Similar to what we’re witnessing today, widespread police brutality against black people ignited the protests back in the 60s in addition to other forms of oppression, mainly racial segregation and the suppression of political rights. But, the reality is that the 1960s uprisings were just one chapter in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. People of color in the United States have been challenging injustice and police violence for over a century, and Mr. Floyd’s death has come at the backdrop of the recent killings of other unarmed black men and women by police, including:
2014 – Michael Brown, killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri
2014 – Eric Garner, killed in New York, New York
2015 – Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, Maryland
2018 – Botham Jean, killed in his own home in Dallas, Texas by an off-duty police officer
2020 – Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Brunswick, Georgia by a retired police detective and his son
2020 – Breonna Taylor, killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky
At the core of the anger witnessed through the protests is a legitimate fear many black Americans experience, that of being killed in their own country by law enforcement, simply because of the color of their skin. It is a feeling black Americans have carried, and have fought against for all of the United States’ history. But there are important differences between today’s uprisings and previous moments of unrest:
First, the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans disproportionately affected black communities. The Surgeon General of the United States acknowledged that health and healthcare disparities contribute to disproportionate outcomes. It is important to note that health disparities are already well-documented in other areas, including birth and maternal health. The pandemic affected everyone living in the United States and it highlighted structural inequalities. Against this backdrop, what’s striking is that even the threat of a deadly virus did not stop the wave of mass protests – a testament to the level of grief and anger experienced by many. The protests also challenged the view that governments worldwide would get away with behaviors that limit freedom of expression.
Second, today’s uprisings show that there is a lot more racial diversity in the crowds that have come out to protest than there was back in the 1960s, suggesting that the pain of Mr. Floyd’s death is felt by people of all ethnicities and that people everywhere want something new. The coalition for addressing underlying injustices is expanding and this is a hopeful sign.
The protests that have erupted globally are a reminder that police violence, systematic racism, and the legacy of slavery do not just affect black people in the United States, rather, they are a reflection of the longstanding inadequacies of our human society which have left people of African descent fighting for justice and racial equality for centuries.
Why Care? Why Now?
When racially motivated killings of people of African descent happen in the United States, it may seem remote to Africans living on the continent. However, it is imperative that continental Africans care. First, African people have a history of shaping black consciousness movements and have found common cause in the struggle for civil rights in the US, as well as the fight against Apartheid in Southern Africa and decolonization of the entire continent. Some of the solidarity has focused on eminent personalities both on the continent and in the United States. We believe that the present movement allows for greater democratization of solidarity.
Moreover, the African Union has included the diaspora in their structures with the existence of the “sixth region.” One clear example of the African Union interest in the diaspora was the appointment of Ambassador Arikana Chihombori-Quao from Zimbabwe who had lived in the United States for many years and was a citizen of the United States. This unique appointment indicated the interest in fostering a relationship between the American-based diaspora and the continent on many levels.
Second, the global concern of racism is shared by all peoples of African descent. By not confronting racism in the United States, it sets a dangerous precedent for the menace and its ugly effects in contexts where people of African descent are equally vulnerable, such as the United Arab Emirates and China. As countries become increasingly interconnected and global, this means that studying at overseas universities may not be safe. In doing our business with international partners, we need to ensure that there is equality and dignity in all interactions.
We also face issues of identity-based divisions at home. In countries like Kenya, where many people wear the Kenyan flag bracelets proudly, we know that below the surface is anxiety and the politics of exclusion that is heightened during elections. It is important to interpret the discussion of lives mattering in the context of emphasizing the dignity of our communities, particularly where economic and political inequalities exist.
Parallels and Differences
The causes of the ongoing struggle in the US against racially charged killings of black people by the police find parallels elsewhere, although with some differences in the underlying drivers. The tragic murder of Mr. Floyd evokes the memories of how Adama Traore, a black French citizen, who when, in 2016, was pinned down by three French police officers complained that he could not breathe. The dehumanizing treatment allegedly induced the heart attack that has been attributed to the eventual death of Adama in custody. A study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that between 2013 and 2017, Toronto Police Service (TPS) was 20 times more likely to kill a black person than a white person. Akin to the US, the report also found that, compared to whites, black persons in Ontario were more likely to be shot at (36%), indiscriminately searched, and unjustifiably subjected to the use of lethal force, for reasons attributed to systemic racial biases within the TPS.
In the United Kingdom, between 2009 and 2019, it was reported that black people were twice more likely to die in custody compared to white people. The situation is not any different in Malaysia, where the normalized and generalized toxic characterization of Africans as criminals explains why they often are subjected to dehumanizing treatments by the Malaysian police. A study on the construction of African immigrants in China, which reported endemic racialized stereotypes against Africans, concluded that the treatment of black people “mirrors stereotypes of African Americans in the United States.” According to the study, the Chinese considered black people as inferior, lower-level race, lazy, dirty, problematic, violent, and as evil people that deserve to be violently dealt with, a widely held view, including by the police.
As observed by Hana Al-Khamri in an opinion article published on Al Jazeera, the Gulf Region is no exemption to the racialization of black people, with a recent example being the depiction of black people in an Egyptian comedy series as, “servants who speak in broken Arabic and practice sorcery.” Equally, and similar to the stereotypical portrayal of black people in China, Africans from Sudan were racialized as lazy and cynical in Block Ghashmara, a Kuwaiti comedy series. As concluded by Hana Al-Khamri, “the portrayal of black people in Arab cinema reflects the widespread anti-black sentiments and racism that exists across Arabic-speaking countries.” In sport, FIFA has struggled to prevent black football players from being pelted with bananas or jeered with monkey chants while playing on the field in Europe.
The Plague of Police Brutality the World Over
Similar to the United States, police brutality is the norm in India, a country where the police are above the law and notoriously famous for giving their citizens horrendous treatment without fearing any repercussions — in much the same way as Mr. Floyd. One example that typifies this ignominy is the gory death of one Mr. Faizan from police brutality during the Delhi Riots that happened this year. As shown in a viral YouTube video, Mr. Faizan was savagely beaten on the roadside by some Indian police officers, following which he was taken to custody, where he died, with neither national outrage nor prosecution of the police officers. Brazil also rates high on the ignoble list of countries where police are licensed to kill on encountering perceived threats. As reported by Manuela Andreoni and Ernesto Londoño in 2019, no fewer than 1,814 persons died in Brazil from police brutality. Furthermore, predatory policing is the norm in Russia, a country that is infamous for incidences of police beating up their citizens including women during protests.
When police brutality is unchecked in all forms it often is used to repress and oppress minority groups. There is an intersection between policy and security forces brutality and repression of people of African descent. It highlights the concern of racism as well as state-sanctioned repression often associated with authoritarian regimes, but commonly found in so-called democratic regimes as well.
The Problem of Adopting the “Killology” Approach in the US and Elsewhere
As we deal with the systemic racism and discrimination that underpin the killings and maltreatment of black people as well as other minority groups, one area that requires greater attention is police training. We particularly call attention to killology, a warrior-like and fear-based training that orients police to see and respond to the streets as a war zone. A police officer trained and conditioned to act based on the ideals of killology may lack the empathy that is required to improve police relationships and reactions to communities, distress calls, people of color, minority groups, and the streets. We observed a lack of empathy in the refusal of Chauvin to yield his knee‘s chokehold on Mr. Floyd’s neck, despite the latter distressfully saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times. The reactions of the three other officers who supported officer Chauvin to knee-restrain Mr. Floyd also exuded an absence of empathy towards the latter.
When the absence of empathy combines with systemic racism in policing, tragic incidents such as Mr. Floyd’s may be inevitable. It, therefore, becomes imperative that greater attention is paid to police training that may have been inducing and contributing to the perception of the streets, minority groups, and people as threats that must either be taken out or dehumanized. Improving security sector training is equally important in African countries, where due to little or no provocation, police officers could unleash bullets on harmless citizens. Reports and studies have also shown that the attitudes of the police and their response in African countries are either short or devoid of empathy.
Separating the Looters from the Aggrieved
As we condemn the systemic racialized discrimination against black people and other minority races in unmistaken terms, we are saddened by the lootings and vandalization that have characterized some of the protests. Looting businesses is against the spirit of the struggle to stamp out discrimination. It is a disservice to the genuine quest that justice is obtained for all martyrs who have died from police brutality and racial discrimination. It is even more concerning to learn that white supremacy groups have used the protests as an opportunity to create chaos and air their inflammatory anti-state rhetoric. One of the fears is that violence and looting may be exploited to discredit the protests and could also demotivate peoples’ continued support for the on-going struggle in the United States and worldwide.
A Call to Action
Racial injustice and discrimination have been perpetrated against people of African descent and people of color since the inception of slavery and before. What happened to Mr. Floyd and other African-American men and women who lost their lives in the hands of law enforcement is the consequence of the toxic system that enslaved and treated black people with contempt from the beginning. The problem of racism is not only an American or United States problem, but a global one. Today, the cry for justice for Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr. is a cry for racial equality, the eradication of racism globally, and the recognition that people of African descent and people of color broadly speaking are equal like any other. To do this, we call for following positive actions:
First, in the United States, we call upon Congress to enact the H.R.40 bill that seeks to create a commission to examine the impact of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. The enactment of this legislation will pave the way for a deeper conversation on structural racism and discrimination facing the black community in the United States and hopefully provide the support for a policy discussion about how to confront the negative effects of systemic racism, as well as provide a way for healing and reconciliation.
Second, we call upon presidents, elected officials, political parties, and organizations globally to take a strong stance against racism and xenophobia and implement and enforce a zero-tolerance approach towards racism and xenophobia. We believe that a zero-tolerance approach to racism will help to combat racial injustice in our societies. This extends to making positive international relationships, including between African countries and Western countries, contingent on assessments of racism and institutionalized race-based oppression. We urge African governments to create and capacitate public monitoring institutions and issue reports akin to the United States’ approach to monitoring human rights globally. Evidence-based monitoring and reporting may provide conditionalities for positive relations and encourage Western countries to improve their human rights records. These monitoring capacities will also allow our countries to reflect more deeply on our own shortcomings.
Third, public officials should commit to educating their people on issues of racial discrimination, implicit bias, and xenophobia against black people to do away with the negative stereotypes meted out against black people worldwide. Public officials should take pragmatic steps to eradicate racism and xenophobia through educating their people on issues of racial discrimination, implicit bias, and xenophobia against black people to do away with the negative stereotypes meted out against black people worldwide. For instance, the Chicago Public Schools are using the “1619 Project” to educate their students on real Black America History (not the whitewashed black history) to understand the connection between slavery, police brutality, and racism. An education on black history will be a first step in the right direction to help enable people to have honest and deep conversations about race and racism and help to combat it.
Fourth, we also call upon the African Union to continue to speak loudly against individuals and organizations that discriminate against black people in specific terms. On May 29, 2020, the Chairperson of the African Union issued a statement condemning the killing of Mr. Floyd and tasked the United States authorities to ensure total elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. Although this statement is commendable, the African Union must become a staunch defender of the rights of black people worldwide, especially African migrants and people of African descent in other regions of the world, who continually face violence and racial discrimination, and not just in the United States. The African Union should not be afraid of making demands on the United States and other countries in the face of private and public threats to stop funding and support for projects. The African Union must show that it can be an independent voice on the world stage.
Finally, the heavy lifting should be the work of African citizens across the continent. We, the citizens, are leaders of Africa in our own right and that must be shown in our education on subjects of equity, social justice, and selfless service. Our education must allow us to act effectively together against years of inequity and systemic racism. As the American civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” The struggle is not only in the United States, but also in our own countries. We must realize that we have power ourselves to challenge the status quo and as difficult as it may seem, we are together in solidarity.
#JusticeforGeorgeFloyd #JusticeforAhmaudArbery #JusticeforBreonnaTaylor #BlackLivesMatter
By the Leaders of Africa Core Team