George Floyd died in police brutality in Minneapolis on May 25. His death triggered widespread protests, some violent and many peaceful, across every city in America. Such has been the public outrage in US that tens of thousands of people continued with their demonstrations throughout last week, as the Floyd case reignited deep-seated anger over police killings of black Americans and racism. Demonstrators took to the streets not only to express their outrage at the treatment of Floyd but to condemn police brutality against black Americans more widely. What began as a local protest in Minneapolis soon became a national indignation and cut through global consciousness in a way not seen since the police attack on Rodney King in 1991. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations have taken place in public squares from Paris to London to Amsterdam to Sydney to Auckland.
The worldwide protests against the visceral horror of Floyd’s slow public execution under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and frequent cases of police brutality and fatal use of force by law enforcement officers against African-Americans shows that racism and police brutality are not specific only to US but is a global phenomenon by its very nature. It is not uncommon to see similar dynamics in Brazil, or Australia, or Britain, or even India in its different manifestation. More generally and at a larger level, the violence and protests that followed Floyd’s killing have called for an end to deep-rooted racism and discrimination against Blacks in the US, which is said to be worse than in Europe. It is also said that in the US, Black deaths are not a flaw in the system. They are the system. For many the outrage over Floyd’s death reflects years of frustration over socio-economic inequality and discrimination.
The protests also echo those of the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years ago, which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. and sought to challenge white supremacy and the segregationist policies that were commonplace at the time. The current unrest is the most widespread racial turbulence America has experienced since Martin Luther was gunned down by a sniper in 1968. No wonder, it sparked global outrage and even the Pope issued a call for racism not to be ignored saying, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism.” While American cities were convulsed by protests, riots and looting, President Donald Trump made matters worse with his words and deeds. His tweet against the protestors, calling them ‘thugs’ and threatening to have them shot, were disapproved by majority of Americans who were sympathetic to people who were protesting.
Floyd’s death is the latest in the number of high profile incidents in the US involving the needless deaths of Blacks at the hands of white police officers. The long history of oppressive police tactics against African- Americans spawned the Black Lives Matter movement seven years ago. While the BLM movement lives on and has become a rallying platform for protestors in the US as also in Europe, America’s systemic racism which started with slavery and the various slave codes, has nothing to do with immigration or nationality. There is no country for African-Americans to connect to. Instead it is essentially a status quo of domestic alienation, discrimination, dehumanisation, criminalisation and terror. Data around crime and justice in the US shows that the incidents in which the police shoot and kill people, there is a higher chance of African-Americans of being fatally shot relative to their overall numbers (14 percent) in the US population.
African-Americans are also imprisoned at five times the rate of white Americans and almost twice the rate of Hispanic-Americans. While imprisonment rates have dropped for Afro-Americans over the last decade, they still make up more of the prison population than any other race. They are also arrested for drug abuse at a much higher rate than white Americans, although surveys show drug abuse at similar rate. Whether it is education, jobs or living standards, black Americans are worse off than their white counterparts. They continue to face systematically higher unemployment rates, fewer job opportunities, lower pay, poorer benefits and greater job instability. Inequality is a persistent issue in US, which makes it the richest but most unequal nation.
If Floyd’s death has reignited conversations around systemic and disproportionate violence against African-Americans by the police, in India police brutality and blatant state violence against citizens, particularly minorities and the backward castes, is often accepted as normal and barely provokes a ripple. Police excesses and custodial deaths are not infrequent in India. In the times of smartphones and vibrant social media, it is not uncommon to come across videos of police using excessive force against hapless citizens, which invoke outrage on social media but as a society we remain unmoved. Take the case of a widely circulated video of policemen beating up four Muslim young men, one of whom later died, during the communal riots in Delhi in February. There are striking similarities of police brutality between the Delhi victims and Floyd, but it didn’t even create a ripple in India, leave alone an outrage or protests, much less of the kind witnessed in the US.
If institutional racism exists at every level of America’s criminal justice system, from who gets stopped and searched, to who gets arrested, to who gets charged and to who gets convicted, it is not difficult to find its parallels in India. In the recent past, India has seen a spate of violent incidents like hate crimes, police brutality against students, communal violence against minorities and lower castes, mob lynchings and blatant discrimination against Dalits, Muslims and people from the North-east. However, those incidents didn’t trigger anger, outrage or protests as Floyd’s murder did in the US. If police brutality in the US has been covered in great detail in mainstream media, debated passionately and disapproved strongly, in India we end up having a different narrative in media, particularly television, which often labels protestors as anti-nationals. This was seen during the anti-CAA protests.
The US and India are both democracies but the difference between the two democracies is quite stark. In US, the world’s oldest and most liberal democracy, the civil society is very vocal and freedom of speech and individual rights are respected. In India, the world’s largest democracy, civil society is not vocal enough, dissent is suppressed and individual rights are violated. If democracy is an invitation to protest, disagree, participate in argument and debate, American democracy, despite its flaws, is far ahead of Indian democracy. Civility, tolerance, courtesy, honesty and equality before the law have been undermined in India where stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government has been turned into ‘the people’ against each other.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.