Gabrielle Heal is a second year International Relations student at KCL and a staff writer for IR Today.
With the words “I can’t breathe,” and the murder of a man by the name of George Floyd, American society has erupted. An epidemic of police brutality, racism, and inequality—which has festered continuously throughout American history—is reasserting itself as the most dangerous internal adversity the country faces. Ongoing protests across the nation are demanding change to a flagrantly unjust system, and Americans are faced with a simple question: will they remain quietly non-racist, or will they rise and take action to defend those suffering in their country?
On March 13th of this year, Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by police erroneously executing a search warrant in her home. On the 23rd of February, Ahmaud Arbery went out for a jog in Brunswick, Georgia only to be pursued and fatally shot by two, white residents . On the 25thof May, George Floyd was pinned down by a police officer for nearly nine minutes until he died of asphyxiation . They are not the only ones. They are not alone. Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Samuel Dubose, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Terrence Crutcher were killed in similar situations and have been withheld justice by a system that not only tolerates racism but was built upon it.
Protests witnessed across the country today in cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago demand justice and, most importantly, change. They endeavour to bring power back to the black lives that have been unfairly stripped away, refusing to let their names be forgotten. While many maintain peaceful protests, others have seen their anger, fear, and heartbreak drive them to looting and rioting. Whether violent or non-violent these protesters are ensuring that their message is profoundly heard and impossible to ignore. The Black Lives Matter Movement, originally founded in 2013, has been thoroughly re-energized by these demonstrations. The movement has even reached beyond its birthplace in America, having inspired foreign cities to raise their own voices and organize protests in solidarity with the passionate efforts taking place in the United States.
Lack of accountability plays a major role in the American criminal justice system’s failure and underpins much of the motivation to protest today. Mapping Police Violence—a project that utilizes public databases and law enforcement records to create statistics on police brutality in the US—found that 99% of deaths caused by police officers from 2013-2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime . Furthermore, they find that black people are 3 times more likely to be the victims of these murders than white people, despite black people comprising merely 13% of Americans . Most strikingly, black Americans are 1.4 times more likely to be unarmedin fatal interactions with the police than white people . These shocking statistics carry a clear message, one that exposes the systemic racism deeply embedded in the criminal justice system.
This system, if left to its own devices, has proven itself incapable of ensuring equality and justice to protect the black community. In the case of George Floyd, the four officers involved in the murder were merely fired from their positions following the fatal incident . After outraged protests began, the officer filmed directly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter . This charge has since been elevated to second-degree murder . Following further demands from protestors and activists, the three other officers involved in the case will now also be held accountable, facing charges for aiding and abetting murder . A tragic similarity can be drawn between this case and that of Ahmaud Arbery; More than two months passed following Ahmaud Arbery’s murder before his attackers Gregory and Travis McMichael were charged for their crimes . In both instances, it took widespread media attention and ensuing activism to pressure any justice into being brought to these cases.
On a hopeful note, outrage over these events is beginning to have concrete impact. As of June 12ththe Minneapolis City Council has unanimously voted to disband the police and replace the department with a community-led public safety system . This endeavour is ground-breaking and is a testimony to the tireless efforts of BLM activists in the United States and around the world.
Nevertheless, the painful reality of George Floyd’s murder reflects an unacceptable lack of progress that has been made in terms of African American rights, and there is still much work and reform needed to be done. Year after year, the black American has been denied their human rights in a myriad of ways—especially by the criminal justice system. A lack of accountability for crimes related to police brutality has been and continues to be pervasive in the United States. This moves us to contemplate the role we, as individuals, play in this system of inequality, racism, and violence. It moves us as allies to actively seek ways to listen to the stories, the emotions, and the experiences of the African American community and to amplify their voices. Silence on behalf of Americans, particularly of non-black Americans, can simply no longer be tolerated if progress is to be made.