“They’ve had their chance,” remarks a visually frustrated black protester as he marches along with thousands of others in Minneapolis to seek the rights he has been denied for so long. Many marching along with him with their hands raised, rhythmically shout in unison, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” When the news of George Floyd’s death at the hand of heartless police officers first broke, it understandably sparked immense outrage. However, as Americans as well as the world tuned in to the news and social media during the days following his death, they were greeted with cries for justice, hellish landscapes from the orange glow of buildings set ablaze and seen against the pitch darkness of the night sky, clashes between police and citizens, and startling scores of individuals uniting in solidarity. Yet, as unpredictable as the sheer scale of the protests may be (which have now spread to around 75 cities across the USA), they represent an inevitable response to an ambivalent President who has empowered racists, and a broken police institution in dire need of reform. It has become a movement that rightly highlights the need for accountability at all levels of society.
Racial tensions began simmering in 2017, less than a year into the first year of Trump’s presidency, with the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally”. Assault rifles strung over shoulders, carrying an all too familiar crimson flag with a swastika emblazoned in the middle, incredulously marched a procession of white supremacist and neo-Nazi group members. “White Lives Matter!” they could be seen chanting on videos filmed by onlookers, and in doing so attempting to mock and undermine years of police brutality suffered by African-Americans. Soon there was much heated debate, with many wondering how the very ideologies the nation had once fought against could be freely perpetuated in public and on national television – that too nearly 50 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, a watershed moment in America’s social history which, at least in principle, established a truly equal society regardless of ethnicity and color. From residents of the city to college students across the country, thousands of people of all walks and races let their voices be heard against bigotry and racism.
And it’s not unusual that tensions have slowly begun to build up. The American people have numerous reasons to have lost faith in policy makers. The current political environment under President Trump has done little to quell the concerns of minority groups. In fact, in December 2016, Trump appointed Stephen Miller as advisor and lead policymaker on immigration related policies. A slew of emails publicized by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that Miller strongly felt that the United States was at risk of demographic change. In particular, he believed that the white population was being threatened into oblivion due to a rise in immigration. To curb this ‘problem’, he recommended ending or reducing non-white immigration as much as possible. Over the course of his emails, he cited from white nationalist websites including VDARE, whose anti-immigrant founder, Peter Brimleow once insinuated that there was an “ethnic specialization in crime”. Moreover, it became increasingly apparent that such hateful views were no longer limited to Trump’s cabinet. In August 2019, the President nominated Steve Manashi to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Having little judicial experience, Manashi worked as White House legal advisor and was close to Stephen Miller with whom he worked to reinforce racist immigration policies. Manashi was heavily criticized for his ethno-nationalist and xenophobic beliefs by groups including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which considered him a sharp critic of ethnic heterogeneity.
The Commander-in-Chief’s response too has been nothing short of comical and insensitive to the challenges faced by minority groups. His White House has remained undeterred in the face of such criticism. Perhaps this indifferent attitude is best illustrated by his absurd remarks during an address to police officers in New York. Recalling a conversation with an officer in Chicago, he commented how the official mentioned that if set free from authority, all violent crime could be brought to an end in “only a couple of days”. It’s a look into the psyche of a man who runs his government similar to a business. He describes the problem and sells an easily understandable solution. Though his empty and at times seemingly radical promises have little effect on calming nerves, such dangerous political rhetoric and choices have not been without consequence. A poll held by the Associated Press in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Centre (NORC) in 2018 found that 47% of Americans felt that Trump’s policies had been detrimental to African-American minorities, while 57% of all adults felt that the President was racist. More recently, a Quinnipiac University poll just last year disclosed that 80% of African-Americans felt that Trump was racist. The findings reflect that while the President has many a time attempted to sell political remedies to the population, simply selling does not translate into tangible change. It is also revealing of a fundamental disconnect that Trump has with the wider society, choosing to believe that he has performed admirably and crediting himself with the pre-pandemic record low black unemployment rate which he believes is the sole important reason why black voters would seek to keep him in power.
It could be considered that this disconnect has not just been limited to the White House but has also fermented itself in other branches of the federal government in recent years. Notably, in July of last year, an agitated Jon Stewart made a heartfelt appeal and called out Congress on their “callous indifference” and failure to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that had granted first responders with financial benefits and essential healthcare services. The very men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation went ignored by policymakers. When America’s greatest heroes could be forsaken by its legislators, why then must minorities struggling for their rights place their faith in this very group?
Yet, it is not just the failure at the center which people have grown disillusioned with. In the conversation around minority rights, and black rights in particular, police brutality takes center stage. As far back as 1992, people have been protesting in force. Even then police departments have been slow and almost reluctant to change. In 2012, the Department of Justice released a primer encouraging police departments to implement the use of body-worn cameras (BWC). They claimed that such equipment would prove vital to “help improve the accountability of police officers as well as reduce the number of complaints of police misconduct.” One study conducted by Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology suggested that BWCs could reduce the number of police complaints against officers by, in some cases, up to 90% compared to officers who did not wear the equipment. However, adoption of this technology has been slow and much more widespread among larger departments with the funds to afford them. Smaller cash-strapped police precincts simply do not have the funds to maintain video archives.
Still, there can be little doubt that BWCs are an essential accountability component but this is only if the body cameras remain on. In one such instance, 18 year old Paul O’Neal was shot dead by a police officer in Chicago whose BWC had been switched off. It has done little to improve the department’s frustratingly vague policy with regard to camera use. Without any established federal guidelines, how this equipment is used has been left to the discretion of police departments themselves. Even then, the grievances don’t just end there. Police departments have been accused of failing to act on complaints filed against officers.
Furthermore, while law enforcement agencies have come to be seen as institutions that have internalized racism, new allegations have also come to the fore with a 2015 FBI report affirming that white supremacist groups have breached into law enforcement agencies. These issues outline that it is not only administrative and departmental procedures that law enforcement agencies must review – they must also finally confront and put an end to their dark histories. Nonetheless, the slow progress of change has equated to an unequivocal loss of trust in law enforcement as an impartial institution.
But, there is still hope. With the age of social media, a new change is brewing on the horizon. People are now increasingly standing up to bigoted behavior and using their fundamental rights to calling out racism. Two years ago, Aaron Schlossberg, a New York attorney, was fired from his job for making threats to deport a Spanish speaking restaurant employee. And only recently, Amy Cooper was sacked from her job at an investment management company after she was filmed in Central Park while calling the police on a man who had requested her to leash her dog in accordance with park policy. Such incidents have demonstrated the powerful influence of the media as a tool to hold those people responsible for their actions and with it is being sent a clear message: there is no longer any room for white privilege or any other forms of discriminatory attitudes within society and that such hateful behavior has real consequences. The George Floyd protests further exemplify the influence of social media, where thousands have now come out to protest after watching the heart-wrenching footage of an arrest leading to death.
Ironically, it may very well be President Trump who has most enjoyed the benefits of social media and whose presidency has thrived on them, though in light of recent events he has been less than sympathetic by threatening to shoot rioters and warning protesters in front of the White House regarding ‘ominous’ weapons waiting to confront them. This indifferent behavior from a President, who has remained controversial since his appointment, has constantly betrayed the sentiments of not only the minority groups but also the principles and freedoms of American society. Indeed, in the landmark ruling in Whitney v. California, Justice Brandeis wrote that the Founding Fathers held the principle of free speech in high regard as they knew “that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.” It is this very belief in the ideals of the American society and the pursuit of justice that has seen marvelous displays of humanity across the country with officers kneeling and at times even walking with protesters. This much needed show of solidarity, after a bleak pandemic, has captured the world’s imagination and highlighted the need to continue the conversation around black rights across the globe.
Nearly two centuries ago, Abraham Lincoln with his Emancipation Proclamation endeavoured to deliver the freedoms enshrined in the American Constitution to all coloured people. Indeed, in what many have come to recognize among the bloodiest conflicts of history, a determined Unionist Army fought valiantly to not only to unite the nation but also extend the Constitution’s unalienable rights to all individuals. The fruits of this struggle were perhaps the biggest relief to the disenfranchised and enslaved population of Texas. On the 19th of June, 1865, these men and women were finally to hear the announcement of their freedom in what is now known as the ‘Juneteenth’ holiday. While it is a day that marks the significance of the establishment of an equal society, it represents today the undying dream and struggle for the emancipation of black people. This great holiday is a reminder to the American society, as well as the global community, to be sympathetic to the members of a minority who for much of their history have suffered for the colour of their skin. With tools of the digital age at our disposal, it is now as easy and essential as ever to lend our voices to the cause as members of the global community.
As the age-old adage attests, the pen is mightier than the sword. In the same spirit, we must unite regardless of ethnicity, class, gender or even borders in the hopes that we may one day stand together and say as Martin Luther King proclaimed on a fateful day in 1963, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”
Mykal McEldowney () What Charlottesville Changed, Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/08/12/charlottesville-anniversary-supremacists-protests-dc-virginia-219353
Michael Edison Hayden () Stephen Miller’s Affinity for White Nationalism Revealed in Leaked Emails, Available at: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/11/12/stephen-millers-affinity-white-nationalism-revealed-leaked-emails#Miller
() Planned Parenthood Calls for Withdrawal of Trump Nomination for Second Circuit Court Nominee “Ethnonationalist” Steven Menashi, Available at: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/planned-parenthood-calls-for-withdrawal-of-trump-nomination-for-second-circuit-court-nominee-ethnonationalist-steven-menashi
() AP-NORC: Poll finds most Americans say Trump is racist, Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ap-norc-poll-finds-most-americans-say-trump-is-racist/
John Haltiwanger () More than half of Americans say Trump is racist, including 80% of African-Americans, a new poll found, Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/half-of-the-us-80-percent-african-americans-trump-racist-2019-7
Alice Speri () THE FBI HAS QUIETLY INVESTIGATED WHITE SUPREMACIST INFILTRATION OF LAW ENFORCEMENT, Available at: https://theintercept.com/2017/01/31/the-fbi-has-quietly-investigated-white-supremacist-infiltration-of-law-enforcement/
U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice () A Primer on Body-worn Cameras for Law Enforcement i, Available at: https://www.justnet.org/pdf/00-Body-Worn-Cameras-508.pdf
Anthony A. Braga William H. Sousa James R. Coldren, Jr. Denise Rodriguez () The Effects of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Activity and Police-Citizen Encounters: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7632&context=jclc
Maggie Haberman () Trump Threatens White House Protesters With ‘Vicious Dogs’ and ‘Ominous Weapons’, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/us/politics/trump-threatens-protesters-dogs-weapons.html
Quint Forgey () Trump threatens to unleash gunfire on Minnesota protesters, Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/29/trump-threatens-to-unleash-gunfire-on-minnesota-protesters-288406
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