In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Martin Luther King Jr. said in Oslo in December 10, 1964, “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”
There was nothing new in King’s description of fire, torture, burning and murdering of black people in the USA. These had been regular events in the USA then and have been going on without any sign of decline in near future. These events are linked by a chain rooted deep into a cruel system of human exploitation.
Black Lives Matter
Black lives matter less than white lives in the USA. Apartheid is deeply ingrained in their daily lives, cultural practices, social system, state affairs and every sphere of their lives. Discriminations against blacks pervading the system often end into their deaths.
On a rainy night of February 26 in 2012, in Sanford, Florida, a 17-year old African-American high school student Trayvon Martin was returning home from a local shop with some candy and iced tea when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, fatally shot him. On 19 July 2013, six days after Zimmerman’s acquittal in the court, then President Barrack Obama said in a passionate speech in a White House program, ‘He could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago.”
ABC News showed two pictures of Obama and Martin of the same age side by side. The similarities between them are striking. In that speech Obama further said, “There are very few African-American men in this country who have not got the experience of being followed when they are shopping in a department store. That includes me.” He said these experiences gave only one sense that if it was a white boy the whole story would have been quite different from the beginning to the end.
Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s release sparked the social media-based movement called Black Lives Matter in 2013. On August 9 in 2014 an 18-year-old black boy Michael Brown was shot dead in the city of Ferguson in Missouri. This shook the city and protest movement brought the Black Lives Matter activists to the street. Now Floyd’s death has fuelled this movement to an unprecedented height across the world. Blacks, whites, browns and people of any color and all faiths, races, nationalities and any other identities have come together demanding equality and justice for all.
On May 25 this year 46-year-old black man George Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit 20 dollar bill for buying cigarettes from a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having him handcuffed and put down on the ground, a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for more than 8 minutes. Before he died, Floyd said 16 times, “I can’t breathe.” The police officer’s response was that he was talking so he could breathe.
On 29 December 2015, 26-year-old David Dungay was killed in the same way in a prison cell in Sydney, Australia, for his refusal to stop eating a biscuit. He was an indigenous man and he also repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” under the knee of a police officer. In this country 436 Indigenous people died while in police custody since 1991. (Aboriginal Deaths in Police Custody Are Fueling an Australian Black Lives Matter Movement, by Daniel Lopez & Babs Rapeport, Jacobin, 27 June 2020).
Before him, on July 17 in 2014, Eric Garner was arrested for selling illegal cigarettes and was choked to death by a white police officer in New York City. The black man said 11 times “I can’t breathe” before death snatched him away.
These are a few examples only. It happens in America, also elsewhere, on a regular basis. Usually protests break out after such murders of black people. But this time it has spread like a fire, which has engulfed not only cities of America, also other cities across the globe. It is because this type of chokeholds is not confined only in the American police force. Many people in other countries have also such cruel experiences at the hands of their police forces, too. People in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America can see their images in Garner, Dungay, Floyd and others.
So the Black Lives Matter movement has spread like fire all over the world. This movement is no more confined in only the question of skin color. Colonial legacy, police brutality, social disparity, wealth inequality and other broad issues have come to the fore through this movement. Under this and similar banner now many people deprived of their basic rights have stood together and they are shouting at the top of their voice: Enough is enough, O plunderer, O Policemen, O State; we can’t breathe.