‘I Can’t Breathe’ – Race Conflict in the USA 2020
2nd June 2020
For American historians, and particularly those who focus on African American history and civil rights, the feelings felt in the last six days are a mixture of sorrow, anger, .. and also déjà vu. How often in the past have we written of acts of violence against black Americans (mainly men) at the hands of the police – and the consequences? The Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943 both began following violent arrests of black men, and the images on our television screens seem oh so familiar, reminiscent of the 1960s and the “long hot summers” that seemed a feature of those years from about 1964 on and reached a crescendo following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.
Hopes that Civil Rights Acts and a greater acceptance of black Americans in society had brought an end to such violence did not last long: the riots following the death of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of police officers in Miami in 1980 or in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King by police in 1991 and the acquittal of the officers concerned in 1992 demonstrated the ingrained racism particularly in law enforcement and judicial institutions. Sadly, the list goes on. In more recent years riots broke out following the shootings of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA (2009), Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO (2014), Sylville K. Smith in Milwaukee, WI (2016), Keith Lamont Scott, in Charlotte, NC (2016); there was the death in 2014 of Eric Garner, who was held in a stranglehold by a member of the NYPD crying “I can’t breathe,” and now the terrible death of George Floyd as a result of choking by a police officer in Minneapolis.
It may seem that history repeats itself, but as Mark Twain suggested, it would be more accurate to say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Police violence often triggers the resentments of those who are still the bottom of the economic and social order, even if many of the worst ghettos may have disappeared; the death of George Floyd has occurred in an exceptional time with the Covid-19 pandemic that has not only brought massive economic suffering for working class Americans, and therefore especially African Americans, but also revealed the racial fault lines in access to health care and the cruel death rates among members of BAME population as a whole. A recent report by Reuters revealed these stark inequities. In Illinois for instance, while African Americans make up 14.6% of the state’s population, they accounted for 30% of cases and 40% of COVID-19 related deaths.
But since 2012 there has been a powerful movement of protest too, perhaps more interracial than the earlier civil rights movements, and that is the Black Lives Matter groups, reminiscent in many ways of earlier Black Power groups, but also reflecting other concerns. The protests this weekend in London, Cardiff, Berlin, Copenhagen, and elsewhere demonstrate the international aspects of this movement. And we all must hope that the slogans and peaceful protests have some effect and that perhaps historians will be able to stop saying “we have seen this before.” There have also been lots of peaceful protests, many which have seen police taking a knee and showing solidarity with the protesters. We must therefore live in hope.