By Dr. Zekeh S. Gbotokuma
May 25, 2021 marks the first anniversary of George Floyd’s “I Can’t Breathe” moment, that is, his brutal and unjustified murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while three other officers watched the crime without doing anything. That tragedy resulted in global mass protests, most of which were peaceful. The tragedy also resulted in the transformation of Black Lives Matter (BLM) into a global movement because of its leading role in the protests. Inarguably, the global protests – despite COVID-19 restrictions on super spreader gatherings – have been precious endorsements that gave additional visibility and momentum to and legitimized the USA-originated movement.
In commemoration of the United Nations 75th Anniversary last year – as global protests went on – I wrote an invited essay for the Federation of World Peace and Love (FOWPAL). In that essay, I invited my fellow ‘cosmocitizens’ to seize the “I Can’t Breathe” moment – 9 minutes 29 seconds to be precise – and use it as a teaching and learning moment. There was no excuse to miss a moment that shook the international community’s and humanity’s conscience. Undoubtedly, Floyd’s murder was a typical example of the flagrant violation of basic human rights by those who are supposed to enforce them. The Moment has led millions of people worldwide to react without delay. Protesters carried and displayed colorful and multilingual protest signs signifying their sympathy, solidarity, moral outrage, and the global nature of the protests that were reminiscent of the ones that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Signs read, among others, I CAN’T BREATHE; JE NE PARVIENS PAS A RESPIRER (in French); WE SHALL BREATHE; BLACK LIVES MATTER; LES VIES NOIRES COMPTENT (in French); LAS VIDAS NEGRAS IMPORTAN (in Spanish); PROTECT BLACK LIVES; RACISM IS THE PANDEMIC THAT HAS BEEN KILLING BLACK PEOPLE FOR CENTURIES; RASSISMUS TÖTET (in German, meaning RACISM KILLS); STOP DEHUMANIZING BLACK PEOPLE; STOP SYSTEMIC RACISM; CONTRA EL RACISMO (in Spanish, meaning Against Racism); LATINOS FOR BLACK LIVES; I AM NOT BLACK BUT I WILL STAND AND FIGHT FOR YOU (From London); ONE RACE: HUMAN; WHITE SILENCE = VIOLENCE; DEFUND POLICE; LA POLICE PARTOUT. LA JUSTICE NULLE PART (in French, meaning POLICE EVERYWHERE. JUSTICE NOWHERE); THIS IS A MOVEMENT, NOT A MOMENT; NO JUSTICE NO PEACE; WHEN INJUSTICE BECOMES LAW, RESISTANCE IS DUTY; THEY RARELY SHOOT OLD WHITE GUYS LIKE ME. #WHITE PRIVILEGE; SKIN IS AN ORGAN, NOT DEATH SENTENCE; EQUALITY AND NOTHING LESS; REGISTER TO VOTE; WE ARE BETTER TOGETHER; YOU CHANGED THE WORLD GEORGE; IF YOU ARE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION.
These overwhelming global responses are positive signs of a caring humanity that has legitimized BLM. Moreover, these responses are positive signs of a humanity valuing the contents of our character more than the color of our skins; a humanity that is doing its very best to decry and hopefully end the virus known as racism; a humanity that is committed to overcoming ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and the violence of silence; a humanity that has embraced universal brotherhood and sisterhood as well as “universal humanism” à la Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), and a humanity that is calling for the respect of human rights for all.
May these voices be amplified and heard everywhere. May they inspire world governments, parliaments, the United Nations General Assembly and Hague’s International Crime Court in a concerted effort to make the world a better place to live. May George Floyd’s “I Can’t Breathe” moment and the subsequent tsunami of global outrage become a global sustainable movement for the quest, request, and conquest of lasting peace through socioeconomic, distributive, and racial justice.
The Nobel Peace Committee paid attention to last year’s global protesters to whom I also happened to dedicate my book, Democracy and Demographics in the USA (2020). In the nomination letter, the Norwegian MP Petter Eide stated, among other things, that he nominated BLM “for their struggle against racism and racially motivated violence.” He believes that “BLM’s calls for systemic change have spread around the world, forcing other countries to grapple with racism within their own societies.”
In the USA, many people felt a big relief after the guilty verdict in Derek Chauvin’s April 20, 2021, trial. The feeling was even greater when three other police officers were indicted for their complicity in Floyd’s murder. Justice was done. However, the best possible way of handling the case at hand would have been the enactment of George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This comprehensive legislation passed the House of Representatives in a partisan fashion in early March 2021. According to Alex Gangitano and Brett Samuels, “The comprehensive legislation being negotiated seeks to reform key policing practices: racial profiling at every level of law enforcement would be prohibited; chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants would be banned at the federal level; qualified immunity for officers would be overhauled; and a national police misconduct registry would be created so that officers who are fired for such violations could not be hired unknowingly by another police department” (THE HILL, May 24, 2021).
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the legislation remains bogged down in the senate despite the only black Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s “competing plan” and despite President Biden’s suggested May 25 deadline that he expressed in his first joint address to Congress last April. It is worth reiterating what I stated elsewhere (see Democracy and Demographics in the USA), that is, as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden acknowledged the problem at hand and promised that he was committed to ending “the injustice of the knee on the neck.” Undoubtedly, his selection of an Afro-Asian American woman as his running mate was part and parcel of that commitment. It was thoughtful and kind of President Biden and VP Kamala Harris to call and talk to the Floyd family right after the Chauvin Trial guilty verdict. It is certainly thoughtful and wonderful of them to meet with that family at the White House to commemorate the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder. But I am afraid that meeting cannot, should not, and will not be a substitute for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
One of the aforementioned protest signs is an invitation to “register to vote” as another way of dealing with systemic racism, southern strategy, and police brutality. Unfortunately, the proliferation of big lie-based “Jim Crow 2.0” and voter suppression laws intended to supposedly preserve “the purity” of the ballot box, the like of which we have witnessed in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and several other states constitutes serious threats to democracy even in the post Decision 2020, post Trump-incited insurrection, post-Trump America. To breathe or not to breathe, that is not the only question. All depends on the quality of the air one breathes. This air has been increasingly polluted by bigotry, racism, sexism, pretend populism, big political lies, and ridiculous conspiracy theories.
Dr. Zekeh S. Gbotokuma is Founder, Polyglots in Action for Diversity, Inc. (PAD) & Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morgan State University. He is the author and editor of numerous publications, including but not limited to Democracy and Demographics in the USA (2020: Paperback: https://amzn.to/2KbcOUV eBook: https://amzn.to/35BsCbN); Global Safari(2015); A Pan-African Encyclopedia (2003)