I woke up to a message from a dear friend who was rightfully disturbed by the death of George Floyd. On 25 May 2020 another black man’s life was senselessly snuffed out by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who probably thought he was doing his duty. Modern day technology meant that footage of the police officer kneeling on George’s neck for well over eight minutes, when he was pinned to the floor, went viral and angry protestors took to the streets demanding justice for black lives.
George Floyd worked as a bouncer in a club, but lost his job with the onslaught of Covid-19. It is alleged that he used a counterfeit $20 bill at a shop, which prompted the employee to dial 911. That simple call spiralled into a rough intervention and it led to the death of a man. While it is understandable that colour becomes centric to most debates in America, in effect, it takes away any real chance of change. Black lives matter, indeed. Yet, how many rich and privileged black or coloured lives have been at the receiving end once they are lucky enough to benefit from social mobility? No doubt there is still all kinds of discrimination given the vast mix of peoples, but the myth of the American dream is truly busted by the stories of the have-nots in the land of the haves.Those who manage to jump into the zone of haves benefit from this inequality and ignorantly contribute to it.
Back in 1994, the black American footballer, O.J. Simpson, known as ‘the Juice’, was first welcomed in privileged white clubs by certain factions of American society, and he barely cared for his coloured brothers. However, the minute he was charged with murder, the black community jumped to his rescue. His live car chase was perhaps the most excellent example of the privilege a rich black man could enjoy in the United States. On the bright side, fame had finally trumped colour. Had he been a poor black man, he would have been shot dead on sight. With the wisdom of hindsight, the O.J. story educated all of us on America’s hysterical relationship with colour long before the Obama hysteria. No doubt Barack Obama’spresidency was a landmark moment for colour politics, but apart from the superficial feel good, what did it really do for the underpriviliged black Americans? At the time of Obama’s historic 50th Anniversary Salem March in 2015, it did not seem to bother Americans that almost 30% of Alabama’s black male population had lost their right to vote. Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary,13th, addressed the issue, but the self-respecting American majority lost little sleep over it. And while the Democrats seem to pin the problem on the Republicans, the fact of the matter is that the legislation that affects black lives the most was passed by their charming Clinton.
In truth, the American dream was built on injustice and inequality and that philosophy still runs surreptitiously through their systems. The myth of their founding fathers is trumpeted around the planet, but in a nutshell it translated into freedom for themselves at the cost of others. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson pushed his ‘Indian removal policy’. At this point, I apologise for the digression because I cannot resist borrowing a standing joke of the fiery Slavoj Žižek who comically tells a story of how he encountered a ‘native American’ man who insisted on calling himself as simply Indian because that truly exposed the white man’s stupidity. When they landed in South America, they were convinced it was India. While the Indians in the real India escaped genocide, the native American tribes were wiped out by the invading paradigm of power. President Jackson’s policy was aimed at relocating the native groups from the east of the Mississippi to the west. The army sprang into action and by the middle of the 19th century, they had erected 60 major forts west of the Mississippi river and 138 army posts in the western territories. The fertile lands of the Mississippi were given largely to white European farmers, but the labour was provided by black slaves. In fact, the town of Natchez was second only to Algiers in New Orleans in terms of trading slaves.
But that was then and many may write these off as sombre chapters of history and just something that bores them to tears. However, it is time to take a look at the power structure that America has created in their modern democracy. It is hardly surprising that the democratic process in today’s America is massively manipulated by private funding. The Americans have gone from PAC (Political Action Committee) to Super PACs, making the sky the limit when it comes to spending money in order to influence elections. Although money cannot be handed directly to the candidates, unlimited funding can be poured into groups and organisations who can take up their causes. A closer look at those who are funding these projects will reveal that their policies rarely emancipate the poor – many of whom happen to be black. America is driven by the principle that great ideas come from individuals who pursue their self-interests and the Super PACs are very much in tune with their core philosphy. It was Prof. Frances Fox Piven who pointed out that the definition of freedom for some people means economic license and those who control property and capital have been a threat to equality and freedom of peoples all over the world. It is this paradigm that Democrats and spirited activists refuse to tilt, but their verbal and vocal support for minorities or black lives extends into the feel good sentiment.
Back in 1978 Vaclav Havel penned his essay, ‘The power of the powerless’, which gave the world an insight into the genesis of the communist culture. Havel’s work ought to serve as a reminder of how regimes – or those in power – can turn ordinary people into dissidents. And since property and power go hand in hand, it is unlikely that poor lives – many of whom are coloured – are likely to matter.
Yet, what makes the US model attractive for the world, and is perhaps its one redeeming quality, is its Constitution. Every voice in the wilderness has access to their courts, and their First Amendment gives them the right to speak up or speak out. God bless America for descending onto the streets; may Havel’s hope of the powerless spear into power not just for black lives but for powerless lives that ought to matter.
Bradley G. Bond, Mississippi: A Documented History
David Vine, Base Nation.
Vaclav Havel, The power of the Powerless (Moc bezmocných)
Ava DuVernay, 13th Documentary