Who Is Stealing From Whom? Contextualizing The Protests

“..you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.” – James Baldwin

By

Haider Syed
Photo of George Floyd mural in Minnesota.

Disclaimer: every article expressed in our opinions section is that of the writer.

“Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying  screw you…He wants to let you know he’s there….you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.” – James Baldwin 

“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” – Frantz Fanon 

We didn’t just watch George Floyd die, we watched him being murdered. We all did. There is something absolutely harrowing beyond adequate expression about this moment that we are living through. George Floyd’s murder is symbolic of the plight of Blackness during our time. 

Floyd was suffocated to death by the knee of Derek Chauvin. As the first wave of protestors marched in Minneapolis, the police threw tear gas at the predominantly Black crowd, stifling their ability to breathe. This occurred amid a pandemic where the coronavirus (COVID-19) unrelentingly targets the lungs – and has killed three times as many Black people than White, in America. 

I recalled how in our Islamic theological tradition we’re told of a time before we came into this world when every soul found themselves in the presence of God in the sea of souls; where Allah breathed a part of his Ruh into us – Nafas Ar Rahman – the Breath of the All Merciful.

It was said that we were in distress in our state of non-existence and the Breath of the Divine bought us relief by bringing us forth into this dunya, bearing witness to his Oneness as we were entrusted with that part of Him inside of us. This sets us on the path towards birth and our coming into this realm, where we ourselves take that first breath still sustained and dependent on what was blown into us. Which is renewed with every breath we then ever take. 

And yet George Floyd had that breath choked out of him in every sense. His haunting last words of “I can’t breathe” still ring in the ears of so many; a phrase ever-demonstrative of the reality of being Black in America – of suffocation. 

 

The way in which the officer kept his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck makes you wonder what sickness of the heart blinded him to the point where he couldn’t hear a man’s gasps or pleas. How is it that he couldn’t see the excruciating pain he subjugated another life to? How was he so devoid of any compassion? That a grown father screamed out for his own mother – that is an anguish that is indescribable. How much hatred do you have inside of you that you can just rob another life with such disdain? As incidents of police brutality always do, Floyd’s murder speaks volumes of a larger phenomenon that goes beyond hashtags and isolated incidents. 

Suppressed and unable to breathe under the onset of violent policing and systematic brutalization from the state, Black people are not given permission to even merely live. Blackness itself is constantly scrutinized. Malcolm X once, when urging the necessity of revolt by any means, described the condition of Black America vis-a-vis the analogy of the foot of the oppressor on their necks. He was disturbingly correct.

READ MORE: George Floyd: Murder Of Unarmed Black Man Sparks Ongoing Protests In Minneapolis

Fifty years later and in fact nothing has really changed. This isn’t just about the past few days; it’s about the past 500 years. It’s about George Floyd but also about what is nothing more than an established practice in America. It’s about identifying and coming to terms with the socio-cultural roots of anti-Blackness and an apparatus that was built specifically to restrict Black freedom. And even more pressingly, an interweaving network of structures designed to sustain the privileges of whiteness.

You can’t separate the events of the past few weeks from the mythology of America. These are not instances taking place in a vacuum. The very idea of America cannot be separated from the toil and blood which assured that whiteness would ensure its superiority no matter what – built on the backs of Black slaves. A people who were never truly emancipated despite the many Black faces that have reached imperious positions in upper echelons of power. Slavery was not abolished, it was clearly reformed.

As the literal terror of slavery could no longer be practiced, a system just the same, to parallel that power dynamic of racial domination, was constructed. From chain gangs, convict leasing, and Jim Crow to the largest prison population in the world- America’s past is entrenched in its current reality and nationalist imagination. 

We have again seen the same sight of murder, protest, outrage and then eventual dissipation as we have every single time. Uproar and then calm. Until it happens again. Another name memorialized and a life summed up inside of a hashtag.

This narrative has become cyclical and repetitive because those same structures that were built to preserve the supremacy of whiteness are still intact today. Some were lauding the fact that the one of the officers in question was detained and charged within four days, yet this like much of the mainstream coverage- it diverges attention away from actually addressing the issues at hand. At the moment all four officers including those who watched their colleague commit murder have been charged. But what will this actually achieve? One of those guilty, has already posted bail despite it being set in excess of $1 million. He was able to crow-fund his release on bail even when it was set so high.

 

It’s no longer about violent policing; it’s about the institution of policing itself. Arrests and charges being laid have happened before, and in the past some of those guilty beyond belief have still gotten off scot-free despite the evidence at hand. Our mentality as a society still being grounded in seeing these as isolated incidents means we don’t actually address it as an institutional problem, but as a case of a few bad apples. We see it as a need for improved training and further reforms; legislation to be passed and a few promises to be made. That there are some good amongst them because they kneel with protestors (moments before they attack them). Yet the very institution of policing has to be called into question just as the whole of the carceral state has to as well. 

When such institutions are inherently racist by default, reform becomes a facilitator of continuing oppression and not it’s eradicator. 

The systemic manifestations of dehumanization and racism denigrate and humiliate Black lives, expressing themselves in these “moments”. We should rightfully honor those who pass, but the fixation on individuals takes away from the fact that that moment of engagement between an officer and a civilian is the end-product of a whole system and culture in motion. 

These moments are the product of not only legacies of hate and vilification at work but the subtle microaggressions and causal racism we often overlook, ignore, and bypass as harmless. Hence complete abolition becomes a necessity, when policing is fixated in a clearly discriminatory attitude. Those patrols and night watches that surveilled and restrained slaves became modern day police forces, and the carceral state and the judicial system all collaborated efficiently to debilitate communities of color and the marginalized in a multitude of ways for decades.

As we live through this moment, America should know that it never actually held to account the wounds it carved. It merely forgave itself for its past rather than healing those wounds. And because it never truly acknowledged what it had done, it hasn’t accepted the actual progress it requires. Hundreds of billions of dollars a year on jailing and policing vulnerable populations is not progress. True progress means it can no longer rely on the same institutions that monopolize such logistics of brutality, marrying terror with anti-Blackness and mirroring policing techniques rooted in enslavement. Within this dynamic, how can it grow a conscience to its own brutality?

READ MORE: Non-Black Muslims Must Care About Black Liberation

The conversation shouldn’t be about banning chokeholds, de-escalation or interventionary practices anymore. 

You cannot expect a system designed to oppress a whole subsection of society to also heal itself through those same mechanisms. You can’t think that the legal machinery put into place to preserve the interests of the white and wealthy while depriving the rights of others to now hold those same individuals rightfully accountable. You can’t depend on a broken moral compass to suddenly guide you. You can’t look at the same match that lit the flame, to now put it out. 

What America – by which I mean privileged, white, middle America that dictates and is serviced by the mainstream – is encountering, is a reckoning that has brought it face to face with the same past it distorts in order to forget the injustice it commits. To overlook the truth, which allows for it to cloak itself in the language of democracy and equality. 

Even where justice seems to be delivered, where verdicts are cheered and legislation is championed – the same violence is ever-recurring – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and countless others.

The occurrence of police oppression is clearly beyond the realm of individualist actions but that of a disease that plagues the entire framework that produces these individuals. The very ideology that is allowed to fester and be given a chance to thrive as a normative and acceptable way to think, and to see others in a certain light and to act accordingly. That is what has to be confronted. It is as systematic as it is psychological. 

The way a woman clutches her purse when she sees a Black man approaching, the way a white person persistently asks you where you are from, the way some ascribe to “not seeing color” – these are the products of subtle assumptions that predominantly White people carry and project upon minorities, particularly upon Black people. Of suspicion and alarm. To let a person of color know that they are different, domineering to inhibit feelings of shame that allow for them to feel inferior. And these are the types of preconceived notions produced by dominant narratives that otherize minorities, which fuel these feelings of fear and paranoia – which lead to white women calling the police on a Black man bird watching or a shopkeeper to suspect a Black customer as he enters his store.

It’s all about the roles we are expected to play and the boxes that others put us in. They end up getting Black people killed. It’s about the policing we ourselves carry out on each other, rather than looking out for one another. Ultimately, as Malcolm X concluded after his trip to Mecca, racism can only be cured by addressing the diseases within our hearts.

Moments like these are a devastating reminder of the often-invisible structural violence which can become visibilized so suddenly. Floyd was brutally murdered in broad daylight. His execution was publicized, it was recorded and went viral. A dastardly rekindling of public lynchings in the Jim Crow South come to mind. Humiliating and brutal- for everyone to gawk and see. The world witnessed the horror. Had it not been filmed what would the response have been then? There are layers upon layers of intricately designed invisible violence consistently functioning, suffocating and killing Black people daily which the rest of us usually never see despite its persistence. 

What makes this such a critical moment is where it allows for us to go from here. When we speak of defunding police departments or abolishing policing as a whole,  it extends far beyond past reforms such as implementing body cameras on on-duty cops or demanding better training. It’s about reimagining a radically different and new world. It is about confronting the world we have inherited and undoing the lived traumas that many are forced to contend with. Abolishment isn’t about harm reduction, it’s about creating a properly equitable society.

 

 

By defunding police departments and closing down prisons, those resources and budgets that spiral into the hundreds of billions, can be repurposed towards addressing societal inequality and systemic discrepancies in the form of universal basic income, healthcare, free education, and providing community care to build better living conditions rather than endlessly investing in repressive policies and drastic militarization. The abandonment people experience from the state in the first place is what primarily drives the powerless and vulnerable to take matters into their own hands. To not only fend for themselves in order to survive or seek avenues out of the pain and poverty which engulfs them, but to express the rage of discontent. 

To foster systems predicated on care and compassion instead is of paramount importance. We must finally move away from furthering militarial expansion overseas, domestic surveillance and aggression, which only breed poverty and the hostility that divisive ideologies thrive upon. This must open up larger conversations exploring the interdependencies between capitalist modes of production that prioritizes profits over life and well-being.

The same faculties could be better applied to prioritizing low-cost mental health resources or investing in building mutual aid networks within communities based on accountability, de-escalation and conflict resolution instead of punishment and harassing the most vulnerable amongst us. 

Our broader perception of public safety has to change, in a way that doesn’t revolve around terror. What we define as good or bad, as criminality itself- must change. Locking people in cages doesn’t address or resolve the multi-plex forms of continuous oppression and exploitation people were victim to. Because they are extracted and removed from society, doesn’t mean the problem is gone too. Justice isn’t defined by time served. We must get to the root of what necessitates people’s behavior in the first place, in order to uproot it. A society that prioritizes supporting and caring for one another, where no one is left alone or behind, is not impossible despite what we are led to believe. 

Yet within the mainstream, the conversation around the structural violence Black and marginalized people are victim to, is rarely presented through the lens of poverty and incarceration. It is decontextualized and narrativized around disorder and absurdity. . 

And as we watched large parts of the US endowed in what has been no more than an uprising, we should hold the mainstream media and political establishment accountable for having the nerve to bring up orderly conduct now. To have the audacity to speak of rule of law, of tone and to urge calm over people expressing their frustrations after decades of being unheard and every peaceful offering proving futile. 

Did the officer who turned judge, jury and executioner give any semblance of regard to the tone in George Floyd’s voice as he pleaded? Rubber bullets which cause terminal brain damage shot at the heads of protestors or tear gas fired into massive crowds which can cause severe long term respiratory ailment – was that not violence? 

What of the violence of corporations accumulating obscene amounts of capital and resources at the disposal of workers everyday? Those refused a living wage or humane working conditions. What of the violence of landlords who refuse to cancel rent in the middle of a pandemic? What of the criminalization of those who can’t afford to ride public transit but still have places to reach? What about those left hungry and desperate out on the streets? The fact that more people are in jail in the United States than the entire population of Philadelphia says it all. The U.S. spends $182 billion a year to keep millions in cages. The criminalization of poverty and color. That is violence. $750+ billion on national defense in a country where 13 million children don’t have enough food to eat and not one to provide them with it. That is violence.

And let’s not pretend as if America hasn’t been on fire, at war with itself since the moment it bought the first African in shackles onto its shores. As if merchandise and shop windows are worth more than the lives that were taken? In a place where for millions of people, their existence is informed by the inheritance of the trauma of their ancestors being commodified and chastised on that very land? Where for many their lives are made absolute hell every day just because of the color of their skin? 

On land that itself was stolen. Where every day there are those stranded on reservations without clean water? Where is the 24/7 media fixation for them, where is the moral outcry from pundits to alleviate their plight? It seems disingenuous for many to scream ‘All Lives Matter’ when America is a story of constant abandonment. 

Nothing is more despicable than the fact that the mainstream defines poor and marginalized people solely through their rightful retaliation to the systemic violence which they are subjugated to every day. No one bothers to ever contextualize or humanize Black suffering in particular. Because that would legitimize it. It is painted as barbarism and senseless lunacy but it is the full disclosure of the hurt and pain that Black America is told to bottle up and contend with. But when people lay carnage to monuments of those who trampled over their ancestors and destroy the tools of oppression that terrorize them, they are speaking to all of us about just how necessary their liberation is. How unbearable their condition has become.

READ MORE: Black Lives Matter Is Not A ‘Feel-Good’ Instagram Challenge