Are Americans running in circles? A glance to Civil-Rights Movements in the United States
Article by Laura Governi | Illustration by Viola Bartoli
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
(Martin Luther King Jr.)
It was December 10, 1964, when Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced these words at the Nobel Prizes ceremony in Oslo. Many improvements were made since that day, even if Civil-Rights progress was a tortuous road full of ups and downs.
Racial segregation has been abolished, interracial marriages have been allowed, the right to vote is granteed to everyone as well as the right to be politically elected. These achievements were not easy, activists were often attacked or threatened and three of their leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, were murdered. Many people died during the civil rights movement, including children.
Nowadays, the atrocities which took place under Jim Crow Laws luckily seem pretty far back in the past, at the same time, it is not rare to hear about discriminations, racism, and police violence against African-Americans.
When in 2008 Barack Obama made it to the White House becoming the 44th President of the United States of America, many of us thought it was the final turning point. Choosing to nominate a Hawaiian guy with a Kenyan father, whose full name is Barack Hussain Obama was a long shot, but America was ready to move forward.
As the former first lady Michelle Obama said during the Democratic National Convention of Philadelphia in 2016 “That is the story of this country,[..] the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Sadly, the tragic consequences of racism and discrimination did not disappear, they kept happening, followed by protests and mobilizations.
During the last few years, the entire world saw an escalation of populism and far-right movements, which affected also the United States where, in 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential election. Trump’s speeches have often been widely criticized for its misogynous, racist, xenophobic and islamophobic contents. The dissatisfaction and frustration of his opponents raised and regularly reached high picks following the president’s bully attitude shown on twitter or during his speeches. On the other side, the president’s supporters felt legitimate to act and speak in the same reckless way as their leader does.
The climax of this tense situation was reached on May 25, 2020, when George Floyd an African-American man was killed by the police in Minneapolis during an arrest.
Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Four white police officers were involved in Floyd’s arrest, he was handcuffed faced down on the street while two officers kept him down, one of them chokehold him and the fourth one kept people from approaching the scene. George Floyd died after that officer Derek Chauvin pushed a knee on his neck for 8.46 minutes, while Floyd was crying out for help, repeating the notorious sentence “I can’t breathe”.
Soon after the arrest, a shocking video shot by a witness went viral worldwide. Reactions arrived quick and strong, the Black Lives Matter movements immediately mobilized protests that spread across the country. The requests were clear: justice and equality. The hashtag #Icantbreath was disclosed and also became a slogan shouted on the streets, many solidarity demonstrations arrived from famous people from all over the world.
In various cities, police officers, in charge of containing the protesters, kneeled to show their solidarity to the cause and in a few days, the manifestations reached Europe and spread worldwide.
US President’s inability to handle the complexity of the situation was clear from the beginning, and the result was an exacerbation of it, which often lead to violence and vandalism. Trump accused mayors and governors of not doing their job to quell unrest, threatening to use the 1807 Insurrection Act. Soon after the announcement, Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly disagreed with President Trump, explaining that the use of military forces in a low enforcement role must take place only in extreme and urgent circumstances, as a matter of last resort, and claimed that this is not one of those situations.
The Insurrection Act of 1807 is a US federal law which “authorizes a U.S. president to deploy the military in times of domestic emergencies. The law was updated in 2006 to include natural disasters and terrorist attacks as grounds for sending federal troops to restore order.” (D. Welna – Npr, 2020)
During the last few days, the protests took a step forward, asking for the removal of confederate statues and flags, and the defunding of police departments.
New York state governor Andrew M. Cuomo was the first one to sign a police reform package that outlaws the use of chokeholds, requires police officers to wear a camera, and allows the release of disciplinary records without their written consent. Meanwhile, in Europe, London’s mayor Sadiq Aman Khan revealed that far-right groups are organizing counter-protests, aiming to provoke disorder and violence.
The situation in the US deteriorated further after that Rayshard Brooks, a 27 years old African-American, was shot to death by a white police officer in Atlanta. Following the fatal episode, demonstrators set on fire the fast-food in which parking lot he was killed, Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned, and officer David Brosnan was arrested.
Brooks is the latest African-American person killed by police in a country still shaken from the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, both of which triggered protests against racial inequality and police brutality.
The circle of violence which is taking place in several continents has resulted, in the US, in a remarkable collapse of Tump’s pooling numbers, paving the way to the possible end of the ‘populism era’ and a new beginning for Civil-Rights achievements.