Black Lives: Who Cares?

Unidentified Navajo Artist, Serape, ca. 1865–70. (The Met collection)
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By RAFAEL R. IORIS*

Any ambitious reform of the US police structure and justice system runs up against the conservatism of American society.

Last May 25 marked the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by police in the city of Minneapolis, amid a profound debate in American society. Thanks to a cell phone video taken about a year ago by a girl who witnessed the white police officer Derek Chauvin choking the neck of the Afro-American Floyd for almost ten minutes, the Black Lives Matter movement has reignited street demonstrations in the midst of pandemic of Covid-19, leading millions of people to mobilize for a reform in the police system, which disproportionately arrests, mistreats and kills black people in the USA. The commotion of the video was, in fact, so intense that in April of that year Chauvin was convicted of the crime, something rare in the country's judicial system, which, in general, tends to acquit police officers even for crimes committed on duty.

But although they were victorious in obtaining the conviction of one of Floyd's killers (three other police officers present at the crime scene are awaiting trial), and in putting pressure on current President Joe Biden – a politician with a moderate profile and even conversationalist regarding 'the issue of treatment racial minorities police and judiciary – to make an electoral commitment to seek to reform police departments (something he really cannot do much as they are all local authority bodies); mobilizations against structural racism and the police violence associated with it express open wounds in that country. In fact, on the same day as the announcement of Chauvin's conviction, the black teenager Ma'Khia Bryant was killed by the police in Columbus, in the state of Ohio, and several other young black men have also been killed by different police officers since last April.

Still, it is undeniable that the tragedy involving George Floyd helped to redefine the profile of mobilization for racial justice in the US, having effectively served to bring a broad level of recognition in society on such issues, including among white Americans; something perhaps previously seen only in the era of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In addition to the thousands of marches that took to the streets of cities most varied in size and location across the vast territory of the USA, for successive nights in June of last year , many companies have pledged to do more to promote the diversification of their workforce and create mechanisms to attract and promote more people from racial minorities among their workforces, and games in the country's top professional leagues have seen demonstrations of support for such causes among its players. In the same sense, although it has not been possible to maintain the level of street demonstrations over the last 12 months, especially given that at the end of last year, there was a very strong resurgence in the numbers of the pandemic, the mobilization became more institutional but not less intense.

Many Police Departments have implemented reforms in the procedures allowed to their members, although many of these do not meet the strongest demands of the grassroots movements, such as, in many cases, the complete elimination of the departments themselves and their replacement by social service agencies. and promoting basic education programs in high-risk communities. The Ministry of Justice re-established task forces and programs for the supervision, prevention and punishment of crimes of a racial nature (and therefore of federal jurisdiction), eliminated by the Trump administration. And more forward-looking, the issue of racial injustice has become even more integrated into the daily conversations of the media, schools, churches and people in general, although there is still, of course, much division on this topic (among many others) in society at large and which is today in the midst of a strong ideological polarization.

In fact, as a traditionally conservative society that it is, it is already clear, especially among supporters of the Republican party and, even more so, of Trump, that the outcry for caution is starting to grow in any attempt at a more ambitious reform, whether of police structures or of the justice system in general. Many parents have resisted the more explicit incorporation of racial issues into school curricula, and many politicians have strongly resisted the idea of ​​reducing, if not eliminating altogether, the budget for police districts, especially as homicide rates are seen to rise. in several cities over the past year. In the same sense, the rates among those who see the need to improve interracial relations in the country are vertiginously contrasting since while three quarters of Democrats perceive this need, only a quarter of Republicans agree with this position.

So even if the murder of George Floyd helped galvanize the fight for racial justice in the US, there is certainly still a long way to go. This path will certainly be marked by the pain and, perhaps even, death of other African-Americans until the country manages to improve its treatment of its so-called racial minorities who, effectively, continue to be treated as second-class citizens in the supposed land of democracy.

*Rafael R. Ioris is a professor at the University of Denver (USA).

 

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