Racism, Inequality and Institutional Terrorism: The Origin of Mass Unrest in the United States

Misión Verdad
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage / AFP

On Friday, May 29, Derek Chauvin, the policeman from Minneapolis (Minnesota, United States) who was seen on a video pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck, was arrested, according to Public Security Commissioner John Harrington.

Chauvin had been fired along with three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and murder and it is unknown what charges they might face.

The murder of Floyd, an African-American citizen, occurred after he was arrested last Monday, the 25th, for alleged “ongoing fraud”. During the arrest, Chauvin pressed on the detainee’s neck with his knee for at least eight minutes, even though Floyd was handcuffed to the floor and complained that he could not breathe. Shortly thereafter, he was declared dead in a hospital.

Police officer Derek Chauvin strangled George Floyd to death with his knee. Photo: Twitter

The event was recorded by a witness in a video that was broadcast on social networks and unleashed a wave of immediate outrage.

The agents involved were fired, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) moved to address the issue in the face of a possible civil rights violation. The fact that Chauvin was fired and not arrested provoked violent protests and riots in Minneapolis and other U.S. cities.

Hennepin County Prosecutor Mike Freeman had announced that he had no intention of “charging or arresting” this former officer because “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge. We need to weigh all that evidence to make a consistent decision, and we’re doing that to the best of our ability”.

However, the cop was found guilty of third degree murder, i.e. not voluntary, which increased the outrage of the African-American population in the United States.

Racial Terrorism, “Causal” Deaths

A long history of racial segregation survives in a country that, despite abrogating the right to impose democracy on other countries, is unable to overcome the impunity of the “Red Summer” of 1919. In a span of 10 months more than 250 African Americans were killed in at least 25 riots in the United States by white mobs that never faced punishment.

The Red Summer era began with the deaths of more than two dozen African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917 and extended until the Rosewood Massacre in 1923, when a Black town in Florida was destroyed.

In all, at least 1,122 Americans were killed by racial violence during those six years, according to the account of William Tuttle, retired professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919.

A study published in 2015 by Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based human rights advocacy organization, reported that nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched between 1877 and 1950 (more than one per week) in the U.S. South, where slavery and segregation were most persistent, which is considered “racial terrorism.

As a result, more than six million black Americans had to flee the southern states between 1910 and 1970, taking refuge in urban ghettos in the cities of the northern and western United States.

Some figures

The “deaths” of Americans involving law enforcement have remained almost unchanged since 2013, but the website mappingpoliceviolence.org shows particular statistical patterns:

  • There were only 27 non-continuous days in 2019 when police did not kill someone.
  • Between 2013 and 2019, 6.6 black people per million were killed, 3.8 Hispanic-Latinos per million, and 2.5 whites.
  • The percentage of unarmed black citizens killed by police was 1.3 times that of whites.
  • Levels of violent crime in U.S. cities do not determine rates of police violence against citizens. Cities like Buffalo (New York) and Orlando (Florida) have similar percentages of black people, population, and levels of violence, and their numbers differ widely (0 vs. 13 people killed by police).
  • Ninety-nine percent of police murders between 2013 and 2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.
  • According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014, almost 3% of the black male population in the United States was in prison, compared to 0.5% of whites.

Graph showing no relationship between violent crime rates and police killings in the 50 largest U.S. cities. Photo: mappingpoliceviolence.org

Blacks accounted for 24% of the deaths despite being only 13% of the population. The profile is almost similar: men, many under 30, from poor neighborhoods, killed by white police and the cases often go unpunished.

It is different when the roles are reversed. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther, was accused of killing a white cop and sentenced to life in prison. The same cops who accused him persecuted him during his days as a Black liberation activist in the U.S.

More Cases, Less Guilty

Although there are many more, some cases had great resonance:

  • Eric Garner, 43, father of six, died of asphyxiation on July 17, 2014, on Staten Island, New York, after police arrested him on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes on the street. In a video of the incident, Garner can be heard shouting “I can’t breathe!” as he is subdued.
  • Michael Brown, 18, was gunned down in August 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson. Although the incident provoked strong protests both outside St. Louis, where the majority of the population is Black, and in other cities, a grand jury (consisting of nine whites and three blacks) decided not to bring charges against Wilson because they felt there was not enough evidence to prosecute the cop.
  • Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old with psychiatric problems, died in August 2014 after being shot several times in the back, arm and abdomen by police officers while walking near his home in Los Angeles. A commission of inquiry concluded in 2015 that the officers violated department regulations and that there was no valid reason to shoot the young man, but that the shooter was right to use his gun when he saw Ford fighting with his partner.
  • Tamir Rice, 12, was carrying a toy gun in 2014, which caused a police officer to fire twice at the boy, who died. A grand jury refused to indict because Rice was pulling what appeared to be a real gun from her waist when the police arrived. Her family filed a lawsuit against the city of Cleveland that was settled for $6 million.
  • Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury in 2015 while in police custody. On the way to the police station, which lasted about 30 minutes, the police car stopped and the officers handcuffed his legs because according to the police version the arrested man went into a rage. He was later transferred to a local hospital where he went into a coma and died a week later. A judge acquitted three other officers, including the driver of the van who was considered by prosecutors to be the most responsible for the death.

Under Presidents Obama and Trump, nearly 2,000 black Americans have died at the hands of racially motivated law enforcement violence. Photo: Clemente Llinas

With Gray’s murder in Baltimore, thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate their anger against racism and racial segregation in the United States. In New York City, the streets were filled with outrage and rage, yet the police in this city, known to be one of the most violent in the country, arrested over a hundred people for blocking traffic.

Positions encountered… in the same place

In this week that is ending, Minneapolis was the scene of peaceful protests against police brutality but they soon turned into direct and violent confrontations with the police, with acts of looting and vandalism being recorded. The riots quickly spread to other U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump, who had previously promised justice for Floyd’s death, urged the mayor of Minneapolis to retake control of the riot-ravaged city, saying he would otherwise send in the National Guard to “get the job done,” labelling the protesters “thugs”.

Protests against impunity clash with the same statements and positions of government spokesmen as the U.S. seeks to give lessons in democracy around the world. Photo: The Independent

On Thursday 28, Omar Jimenez, a “Latino” reporter for CNN, was arrested by police in the midst of the protests in Minneapolis and later released. He was standing next to a white comrade who was not even remotely treated in a similar way.

The House Judiciary Committee, led by the Democratic Party, urged the Justice Department to investigate police conduct in cases of African Americans killed by agents, to see if they acted in a “pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also said she urged the United States to take action in the wake of Floyd’s death, which adds to “a long list of killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers”.

Trump said in a tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a message that the social network marked with a warning of “glorification of violence. Meanwhile, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz activated the National Guard to respond to the protests, and declared a state of emergency in Minneapolis, St. Paul and surrounding areas.

After three consecutive nights of heavy unrest, Minneapolis City Mayor Jacob Frey decreed a mandatory two-night curfew starting Friday, 29th.

That same night thousands of protesters arrived outside the White House in Washington demanding Trump’s resignation and justice for the crime against George Floyd.

They tore down barricades and threatened to enter the seat of government as police tried to contain them. They also broke into the Treasury Department complex and spray painted the area.

In Brooklyn County, New York, about 200 protesters were arrested after a protest group set fire to a police car and injured several police officers trying to enter Bedford-Stuyvesant police headquarters on Friday night.

In Atlanta, Georgia, protesters set fire to a patrol car in front of CNN’s facilities, painted its logo and smashed the windows without any demands being reported by the media.

Apparently Trump tried to put out an old fire with gasoline and resurrected the perennial outrage with a perennial practice; even Obama, who did nothing about the police killings of African-American civilians, has declared to see if this election year favors his candidate. The racial issue in the United States is still on hold.