The novel coronavirus has killed over 100,000 people in the United States, combining with the older, more lethal and more permanent virus of white supremacy to ensure that black, Latinx and Native Americans disproportionately die from COVID-19. On May 25, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, four police officers murdered George Floyd, a forty-six year-old black man. In full view of a gathering crowd, including the seventeen-year-old girl who filmed the murder and is now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, police officers handcuffed the unarmed Floyd, forced him to the ground, then pressed their knees into his neck for eight minutes. They blithely ignored his intensifying distress as he called for his dead mother and repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe,” until he was dead. “I can’t breathe.” These were also the last words of Eric Garner, murdered by New York City police and of David Dungay, an aboriginal man killed by his jailers in Sydney, Australia, both murdered in 2015, the same year that Minneapolis police officers killed Jamar Clark, and the same year that police in Waller County, Texas, arrested Sandra Bland without cause and later found her hanging in a jail cell. There was no penalty for these murders. In 2016, Minneapolis-area police murdered Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and her daughter. The police officer was acquitted for this murder. Tellingly, the only Minneapolis police officer to be convicted in a citizen killing was in 2017 when a black Minneapolis police officer killed a white woman and was subsequently sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison. The senseless claiming of innocent lives underscores the legacy of white supremacy on which the nation was founded: White lives matter. Black lives do not.
On May 25, in New York City’s Central Park, a white woman named Amy Cooper responded to the request of an African American man, Chris Cooper (obviously no relation), that she follows Park rules and leash her dog, with entitled and self-righteous rage. Viewing the police as a white womanhood protection agency, she weaponized her white privilege by explicitly telling Mr. Cooper that she was going to summon the police, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Repeatedly emphasizing that an “African American” man was threatening her, Amy Cooper faked an increasingly breathless hysteria to summon the police, who, for many African Americans, are state agents of death and destruction. She did so in the same Central Park where, thirty years earlier, the police had detained five black and brown boys that were falsely accused, convicted, and jailed for supposedly raping a white woman. She did so in the same country where white women’s claims of threatening black men have led to armed white men claiming the right to police black bodies and engaging in untold numbers of lynchings, the white supremacist race riots that led to the wholesale murder of black people and the destruction of their prosperous community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, and the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Since our arrival in 1619, Black Lives have not mattered in the U.S. and beyond.
The virus of anti-black racism, in the person of two armed white men, including a former police detective, murdered Ahmaud Arbery in late February. In mid-March, this virus, in the form of police officers invading her home, murdered Breonna Taylor. This past Wednesday in Tallahassee, Florida, the police killed Tony McDade, a transgender man. In April and May, armed, often unmasked, white protesters defied State stay-at-home orders and, with entitled, self-righteous claims of individual liberty stormed state capitals. They confronted police with a fearless ferocity perhaps borne from the knowledge that their whiteness would inoculate them from police violence. Instead of condemnation for flouting governor’s orders and endangering public health, Trump praised these armed protesters as “very good people” who “want their lives back again, safely.” Predictably, Trump condemned the protests of Floyd’s murder-and the larger socio-economic, educational, and health care disparities that routinely kill black people-warning ominously, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump’s provocative threat references the urban rebellions of 1968 in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s murder at the hands of another armed white man, James Earl Ray. In response to the 1968 urban rebellions, segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace, who ran for President on a “law and order” platform also championed by eventual President Richard Nixon, advocated that the supposed solution to “looters” was to “shoot ’em dead on the spot.” That same year, the Miami police chief exhorted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Channeling Wallace, Trump exhibited his pro-police “law and order” presidential platform by using the exact same words as that Miami police chief fifty-two years ago. Trump is clear: Blue lives matter. Black Lives do not. If the armed white nationalists who itch for race war ever get their wish, we need not wonder where Trump’s sympathies will lie. But as the country remained in chaos this past weekend, Trump was sheltering in his bunker with the lights off. But thankfully, we have more courageous leadership, like Andrea Jenkins, the Minneapolis City Council vice president and the first transgender black woman elected to public office in the U.S., who rightly identified racism as its own public health crisis. Thankfully, we have courageous visionary leadership within the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, joined by the thousands affirming that Black Lives Matter in such diverse locales as Brazil, New Zealand, England, Germany, Syria and Iran.
May 25th was Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day of twin meanings: a national mourning to honor deceased military personnel and the unofficial start of summer. But despite Trump’s claims to be a wartime President fighting a war against the coronavirus, and framing the reopening of America as a patriotic duty, there is no national morning for the over 100,000 (including the 25,000 black) lost lives to COVID-19. As this nation buckles under the intersecting crises of a viral pandemic, economic collapse, political unrest, and a glaring lack of national leadership, this is likely to be another long, hot summer of more state violence against protesters who refuse to breathe in the virus of white supremacy, who disproportionately die from the novel coronavirus. We cannot breathe in the United States of America, a land built on white supremacist looting, theft, violence, racial slavery and Jim Crow racial segregation. We cannot breathe in the U.S. We cannot breathe.
Robert Trent Vinson, President
On behalf of the Executive Board of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora