Saturday, May 30, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS RIOT AND THE QUEST FOR AMERICAN RACIAL JUSTICE

By Lily Hikam*)

A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A city-wide riot has broken out in Minneapolis, Minnesota in response to yet another police killing of an unarmed African-American civilian. George Floyd, the victim, died on Tuesday, May 26th, after a former police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck, cutting off Mr. Floyd’s airflow. Chauvin and three other officers responded to a “forgery in progress” call made by the grocery store where Mr. Floyd purchased groceries. In short, Mr. Floyd lost his life because he was suspected of writing a fraudulent check to pay for his purchases. Even if this accusation is proven correct ultimately, the punishment outweighed the crime tremendously. And the reality that another unarmed, innocent civilian of African American descent lost his live in the hands of police officers, yet again, continues to highlight the systematic racism and classism in the American Criminal Justice System that are criticized by many: People are afforded a presumption of innocence only if they bear a certain skin color or have an appropriately sized wallet.

Since then civil unrest and riots have broken out throughout Minnesota in response to Mr. Floyd’s murder. Catalyzing this undercurrent of anger, despair and resentment in the community was the fact that after the murder which was caught on camera and have spread far and wide, the police officers involved were only fired from the police department, without any criminal charges against them. The Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, previously even declined to press any charges, saying that he didn’t see anything in the video that could be used as evidence to support a criminal charge. However, as of the writing of this piece, the former police officers involved have been charged with third-degree murder, in contrast to the heavier sentence of first-degree murder demanded by George Floyd’s family. Compounded with the fact that in America, police officers were almost always acquitted of any wrongdoing in officer-related deaths, it came to no surprise that the civil unrest and rioting broke out in response to what many perceive as a lack of accountability and justice in the murder of an innocent man.

The riots and protesting in Minnesota have spawned many more protests around the country, from Los Angeles, California, to Louisville, Kentucky. All demanding the same thing: justice for George Floyd and a complete and total overhaul of the criminal justice system that has for far too long oppressed and victimized communities of colors. All are reasonable demands to make and something that has been a long time coming in America.

Let me be clear that I am in no way glorifying or condemning these protests. What I am, however, is sympathetic.

Imagine you’re living in a country where your ancestors were once thought of as sub-human. That the success and the wealth of this country rested heavily in the enslavement and the subjugation of the peoples of your race. And that even after slavery was abolished, you are still subjected to dehumanizing treatment by people around you and systemic biases designed to disenfranchise you, to make you have as little of an influence as possible in society, to keep you down. Imagine living in an inner city where there are no jobs, where poverty is endemic, and there is no hope for a better life or future. Imagine living in a community where you are five times more likely to be incarcerated than the majority of the population and learning that you are kept there because you are more valuable behind bars than you are out in the world because they can exploit your cheap labor. Finally imagine living in a country where you and people who look like you are three times more likely to die from an encounter with the cops than any other race. Imagine committing no other crime than for being born black and dying because of it. If one were to take all of these realities into consideration, the only thing left to ponder is: how come these civil unrests didn’t happen sooner?

These riots and mass protesting could not have come at a more incendiary time. The Coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the American working class, with 40 million people losing their jobs, translating to a 30% unemployment rate, rivaling that of the Great Depression. One hundred thousand deaths due to Covid-19 have been reported recently, the highest in the world and surpassing the number of American service members killed in both the Vietnam War, America’s second longest war, and Iraq War put together.
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Furthermore, since in America healthcare is tied to employment, the skyrocketing number of unemployed people also means that there is an increasing number of people who are losing their health insurance during a pandemic. Losing your healthcare anytime of the year is bad and anxiety inducing but losing it during a pandemic is horrendous. What if you get infected by the coronavirus? What if your kids get infected by the coronavirus? How are you going to pay for treatment? Can you afford it without insurance? And in a country where medical debt is the most common cause of bankruptcy, these are all frightening realities that, at least, 40 million Americans are facing.

The current United States government’s response in handling this pandemic can be described as lackluster at best. There has been no paycheck protection program, no mortgage or rent freeze, and no universal basic income, as other developed nations have established and enforced to stymie the spread of the virus. Instead bailouts have been given to banks and large corporations, as evidenced by the surging numbers in the stock market, while leaving the working class with the short end of the stick once again. The economic despair and helplessness felt by at least 40 million Americans, who have lost their jobs, plus the two police-related and racially-motivated killings, that preceded George Floyd’s murder, provided the perfect catalyst for the rage and frustration felt by Americans in these trying times.

Initially, President Trump responded to George Floyd’s murder by promising an independent investigation led by the Department of Justice and the FBI. However as the riots continued he threatened to deploy the National Guard and said that “…Any difficulty and we [federal government] will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This
statement, by many, was seen as an incitement of violence by the President of the United States on unarmed civilians.

On the other side of the aisle, the presumed Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, criticized Trump’s rhetoric, citing it as “thoroughly irresponsible” and said that if he were president, he would order a “full blown civil rights Justice Department probe”. However, forgive me for taking what Joe Biden says about criminal justice with more than a grain of salt, seeing as how he’s the chief architect and proponent of the 1994 Crime Bill that has been responsible for the mass incarceration of millions of Black and Latino people. Another person worth noting is Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota and recently announced as one of the potential candidates for Biden’s running mate in the general election. Senator Klobuchar was once upon a time Hennepin County Attorney before her tenure in the Senate. It was recently discovered that in 2006, as District Attorney, she refused to criminally charge Derek Chauvin, the same police officer who murdered George Floyd, and six other officers, for the death of a Native American man. So far, she has not rescinded her name for consideration for the VP position, but these are damning evidence and a window into her track record as a prosecutor: one that prioritizes career advancement over the pursuit of justice.

I can’t say what will happen with the pursuit of justice for George Floyd. I do want to be hopeful, and say “This is it! This will be the time that justice is served!”. But I have been burned too many times. Ever since police killings become widely reported, I only recall one case where the officer was successfully charged with a crime. Every other case has ended with an acquittal by the Grand Jury and the officer quietly resigned from their current post, only to be reassigned to another police department.

I do hope justice will be served for George Floyd and his family. It is the least this society can do to ease their unbearable pain. No one deserves to have this tragedy befall them. I hope this will be the last case I will ever have to hear about police killings, but I have a feeling that this won’t be the last, or even second to last. Until that day comes, we shall have to be vigilant, stand in solidarity with the Black community and speak up against injustice and oppression.

*) PhD candidate
Department of Biological Chemistry
School of Medicine, the University of California, Irvine, CA,
USA
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