Meditations on the murder of George Floyd
I watched about 20 seconds of the video of George Floyd before I had to turn it off, the overwhelming sadness and injustice of the incident was too much for me. I was pulled in several directions. First I was filled with guilt as I recognize my immense privilege at being able to turn away from the murder and not engage when it got too heavy, I was also emotionally heavy at the magnitude of pain George Floyd must have felt, as well as anxious to think this may be another statistic, another dinner party tidbit that is brought up to add colour to conversations on race politics in the United States.
Over the course of the week I saw a flurry of social media posts about the murder, as well as a call to action to address the broader historical injustices against Black Americans in the United States. I sat in silence, thinking the best thing I could do is leave space for the people who were fighting. To let Black Americans own the narrative without being someone who was trying to speak on their behalf about their struggle.
I did some research. I donated to a few grassroots causes. And I ruminated on the socio-political-economic factors that led us to this moment. I thought about the institution of justice, and the systemic entrenchment of brutality against Black Americans. I reflected on capitalism’s divisive power along racial and ethnic lines. I remembered Du Bois’ and the spectrum of privilege and power that is articulated along the Colour Line.
But I was especially drawn to the body itself. The question that rang over and over in my head was, “How insignificant must you believe this man to be, for you to violently, barbarically, choke the life out of it?”
I was reminded of Paul Alphonse, a 67 year old Aboriginal man in Canada who died in a hospital after being stomped so hard, it left a boot print on his chest as well as several broken limbs. No charges were laid against the officer.
Clearly, just as the police in Canada can incite such an extreme level of violence against Indigenous people without repercussions or remorse, the police in the United States can do the same against Black Americans. In The Spaces of Difference, Sherene Razack refers to them as “too damaged to be helped.” Is that what the police officer, who choked the life out of George Floyd thought? That this man was too damaged to be helped, or as Razack calls them, homo sacer — the body that can be killed but not murdered.
How else can another human being incite such degrading violence against a black body without remorse unless they see it as a body that is too meaningless to lead to an accusation of murder.
Over the past week I have felt a hopeless sense of injustice. I spent years thinking deeply, doing research, and examining power dynamics across social, cultural, legal, political and economic contexts. But I have no answers or hope to mitigate the deeply flawed and dangerous way Black bodies are viewed through institutions.
If the problem is that police officers in the United States see Black Americans as bodies that can be violated, and see no repercussions to the incitement of harm, how do we move the dial? How does the life contained inside a Black body begin to mean as much as the universal life that has been a privilege held mostly by white males up until this point?
I have little answers. But I believe laying charges against the police officers moved the dial. Minneapolis’ and the call to action to defund the police moved the dial. Protests across all 50 states and several countries outside of America moved the dial. Social media solidarity by corporations and individuals moved the dial.
But I still fear the deep seated historical roots of racism that plague the United States, as well as Canada. These roots go beyond the conscious psyche and show up in our unconscious bias, our microagressions and our unexamined beliefs. It is hard work to confront these things on an individual level and I wonder how a large organization, how our entire political system, as well as our historically unchanged judicial system can do the hard work. I wonder if it’s ever possible to get to the level of destruction and rebuilding required.
I feel overwhelmingly sad when I remember the sheer volume of Black Americans who have died at the hands of the police. And I wish I had more solutions. But I have a small glimmer of hope whenever I think of Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.
“The very forms of organization of the struggle will suggest to him a different vocabulary. Brother, sister, friend — these are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie, …Henceforward, the interests of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred — or everyone will be saved. The motto “look out for yourself,” the atheist’s method of salvation, is in this context forbidden.”
If there is anything the sheer magnitude of the activism displayed by all people around the world has shown me is that we might be close to this ‘different vocabulary’ Frantz mentions. We have in fact come together and shown that the interests of one are the interests of all. And we are, openly, actively, angrily, with love — looking out for others.
Sherene Razack — The Space of Difference in Law: Inquests into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 2011
W.E.B Du Bois — The Souls of Black Folk 1903
Frantz Fanon — The Wretched of the Earth 1961