A message for NZ about racism

As protests sparked by the death of George Floyd unfold across the US, David Mayeda has a message for NZ: 'For those of you who don’t experience racism, be publicly anti-racist - support those of us who do'.

Monday evening in Washington D.C. shortly before a 7pm curfew and just before President Donald Trump made a White House speech, police “fired tear gas, flash-bang shells, and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors”. 

By now, most of us are aware of the protests unfolding across the United States, sparked by the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands (well, knee) of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin.

Floyd was an African American man. Chauvin is white, as are two of the officers who watched passively as Chauvin drove his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, ultimately killing him. A fourth officer who stood idly by is Asian American.

As has become increasingly common, bystanders captured on video another example of excessive police force inflicted upon African Americans turned lethal. Those of us who watch these events unfold from afar may watch with horror, anger, frustration, and a range of other understandable emotions. But none of us should watch with surprise.

To understand racism requires us to calculate a range of systemic power inequalities that fester over time, such that we come to accept – disparaging as this may sound – that tragedies like the death of George Floyd reflect an inexcusable social norm.

This ain’t nuthin’ new.

For literally centuries, African slaves and African Americans were subject to state-sanctioned violence. Slavery was not just legal, it was the accepted economic foundation upon which numerous countries operated. Following slavery’s abolition in the American South, the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence, functioning as an organisation that would keep African Americans under control. The Klan and its sympathisers unleashed violence as they wished, without intervention from law enforcement, unless that came as clandestine support.

Those of us who watch these events unfold from afar may watch with horror, anger, frustration, and a range of other understandable emotions. But none of us should watch with surprise.

One of the more stark examples of this happened in 1955 as our society also entered the age of television. In the state of Mississippi, a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till was falsely accused of making sexual advances towards a 21-year-old white woman named Carolyn Bryant. For his “crime”, Till was kidnapped, beaten and shot by Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant and his brother, J. W. Milam. Following their acquittal of Till’s murder, Roy Bryant and Milam confessed to their crime but faced no further repercussions. Decades later, Carolyn Bryant admitted her accusations of Till were grossly exaggerated.

What made Till’s murder so significant was not the fact that he was so young and innocent, that vigilantes perpetrated upon him sickening violence, or that the justice system failed to provide justice. Those outcomes were normal patterns for white and African Americans. What made this unique was that Till’s funeral was broadcast on American television, and viewers were forced to see the racist brutality thrust upon a young teenager.

But that was then, and now we are watching.

The age of surveilling police

I remember it clearly. I was a teenager, starting university at the University of California, Riverside. April 29, 1992, the verdict was released. Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Timothy Wind, the four white Los Angeles Police officers who struck African American resident Rodney King over 50 times with metal batons, resulting in 11 skull fractures, were found not guilty.

How could this be, after a Los Angeles resident filmed the assault with his VHS recorder and the footage was broadcast across the world? Finally, there was irrefutable proof of what African American communities had been saying for decades, that when it comes to African American suspects, law enforcement in the United States beats first and asks questions later. Once again, no repercussions. Once more, a so-called riot.

How we do solve this? Not by shooting rubber bullets into peaceful protestors. Not by admonishing peaceful protests turned violent after so many peaceful protests in the past changed nothing.

Getting out clunky video recorders to police the police isn’t easy. Fast-forward to the 2010s. Now society could quickly pull out digital technology, film police as they beat, shot, tasered and choked African American suspects. Police even got caught by their own technology, cameras attached to their cars and bodies that captured their actions.

But we know the story. Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling. African Americans, many more, killed by police, memorialised on video, no repercussions. We know wrinkles to the story that run in the same direction. Breonna Taylor, killed while sleeping in her own bed, as police raided her home, suspecting inaccurately it was a place of drug dealing. Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, killed by neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman because he looked dangerous in his hoodie. Only months ago, Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down and killed by a father-son pair. His crime? Jogging while black.

Police, power, and peaceful protests

Police are sworn officers of the state. They are emboldened with state-sanctioned power to carry and use weaponry, provided they will act responsibly, rationally, intelligently, without bias. And before anyone freaks out, of course there are good cops. No, not all cops abuse their power or are racist. But racism is clearly embedded enough in law enforcement and the courts, such that even with all our technological proof, too many officers can continue acting with impunity.

Look, I’m angry. Just thinking about these patterns infuriates me, and I’m not even black. So I can only imagine the frustration that people of African ancestry feel, knowing how racism just keeps sinking its teeth into the system, clamping down on the victims, shielding the racists. So how we do solve this? Not by shooting rubber bullets into peaceful protestors. Not by admonishing peaceful protests turned violent after so many peaceful protests in the past changed nothing.

Hey, at least here in Aotearoa, we don’t have to worry about this, right? Think again. Just five years ago, the New Zealand Police admitted they have a problem with “unconscious bias” against Māori (#racism). How do we fix this, by designing pirihimana cars for Māori language week (#tokenism)? By arming up special police units to patrol Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury (#militarism)? No. You want to problem-solve? Just like America, it’s time we communicate deeply about racism. And for those of you who don’t experience it, be publicly anti-racist, support those of us who do.

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