The time for half-measures and contingent concessions are past, Nina Fortune argues that it is long since time that black lives mattered.
June 3 2020
Langston Hughes, in his poignant poem ‘Harlem’, asked, ‘What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?’ Hughes wrote this long before Martin Luther King Jr. had ever come upon the scene, to give his seminal address, on a dream of equality, one where people were judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. This notion of equality was commonplace yet profound, one that dared America to leave behind its long history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and recognise African Americans within the remit of its own declaration of independence, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
As I watch the mass mobilisation of people across America and the world over in reaction to the horrific daylight lynching of George Floyd, I am at once heartened and cautious; I am cautious, because, we have been here before. The American Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was not the first of its kind even if its magnitude and chronology would trick us into believing it to be a solitary beacon. The centuries of slave revolts, black struggle and reconstruction, were histories largely erased from the popular books on white-centred curricula; they wouldn’t want us to get any ideas.
On May 25 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed in downtown Minneapolis, United States. During his arrest, he was handcuffed while lying face down. Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kept his knee on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd pleaded with the officer, uttering that he couldn’t breathe, and did not want to die; he reportedly lost consciousness around the 6-minute mark. It would be nearly 3 minutes after this, with bystanders pleading with the officer to remove his knee, before Chauvin responded, and by that time, it was too late. Floyd was dead. It is an event that rings all too familiar. In 2018, Eric Garner, a black man, died in the New York City after Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City Police Department officer, put him in a chokehold while arresting him. His last words, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Watching the harrowing video of George Floyd’s last, desperate struggle, I feel caught in a perverse cycle, an eternal recurrence.
‘One hundred years later, the Negro is still not free,’ cried Martin Luther King Jr in his 1963 speech in Washington DC. How he might have wept tears of despair, so see that over half a century later, his dream too, has been left to fester like the rotten wound long left untreated by American intransigence. Police brutality is still a mainstay of law enforcement’s interactions with the black community. It is a legacy of a long, unbroken history of violence; one that started with chattel slavery, morphed into Jim Crow laws and has yet again preserved itself via the prison industrial complex. After the civil rights movements, braying mobs of white people lynching black bodies on a tree was considered somewhat less acceptable, so this monopoly of violence was transferred to the state, where police officers were granted the role of keeping black people in their place, and reminding them that what liberty they believed they’d won, was always at the mercy of white enforcement.
The system of white supremacy has helped to retrench the separation of white working classes from black working classes, and has been deployed by the establishment to keep these two from uniting to fight exploitation under the current system. It has never gone away, but has merely changed façades to hide its virulence. We have been here before. During Reconstruction, the twelve year period after the American Civil War, a politically mobilised black community ‘joined with white allies to bring the Republican Party to power, and with it a redefinition of the responsibilities of government.’ This period was geared towards redressing the injustices of slavery and its legacy. However, a reactionary wave, not unlike the one we are currently living through, brought about a counter-revolution that ushered in the era of Jim Crow and the fresh round racial violence it spawned.
And so it stands that the groundswell of rebellion represented by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, is once more reversed in the wake of political regression. The momentum has been lost, as the interests of capital, which remain wholly intact and sees large segments of the black population as surplus to requirement, retrenches a narrative of ‘the enemy within’. White Americans have been given a false sense of security in an empty status predicated on being ‘not black’, regardless of one’s actual material circumstances. And in this way, the demonisation of black communities has been ignored, if not largely tolerated, and used to justify social exclusion and outright murder.
Once again, we are at a juncture, where after centuries of racial struggle, black Americans battle for the right to life and dignity. As I watch the protests enter the sixth day and spread across the country, I feel this is a kairotic moment, a moment to finally allow an idea that has missed several turns, to have its time. The perfect storm of discontents brought about by the blatant racialised violence, economic destabilisation, pandemic, looming climate catastrophe and a far-right push, has stripped white people of the illusion of safety afforded by racial distance, and brought the reality of marginalisation much closer, especially for a younger generation whose futures are being stolen. As many more become surplus to capital, the same rhetoric used to subjugate African Americans in a post-Jim Crow world, is turned on white Americans too.
It is unfortunate that 157 years after the emancipation proclamation, we are only for the first time seeing something close to a unified front across the different races, pushing for equality for black lives. What black people have endured for centuries is becoming a reality across the divide as the centre collapses and the hope of reform, which was always a wedge for future necessary gains, has been denied to the younger generation. In the context of mass unemployment and racist, repressive state violence, with no alternative but moving further and further to the right, the young (and especially the oppressed, and in this context foremost black Americans) find that they have nothing to lose but an orange fascist. In the context of this crisis, capitalism itself must be overcome, not improved, or we will be back here again, as we have seen so many times, after the dust of the initial gains settle.
This current fight for equality cannot brook minor concessions, and dreams of equality, long deferred, must now be allowed to explode.
Nina Fortune is a West London author and activist.