As BLM protests and COVID-19 sweep through US, how each will shape the other, and the country, remains to be seen

The US is caught up in the twin tsunamis of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, each impacting the other in unknown ways, in an election year.

Kala Ranganathan June 25, 2020 10:35:56 IST
As BLM protests and COVID-19 sweep through US, how each will shape the other, and the country, remains to be seen

Eight minutes, 46 seconds. That is the length of time it took for a second tsunami to hit the US three months after the first one landed on its shores. It began with the COVID-19 virus, which infected more than 1,900,000 people and killed over 110,000. The resulting lockdown dealt a body blow to the economy. Businesses collapsed, unemployment soared, all forms of social contact were shut down. Even the definition of a normal life changed.

The second one started just when the country was gradually reopening and there was a new sense of hope despite the increasing vulnerability.  With strong restrictions in place, people could do simple things like shop, visit a dentist, buy a car or property, attend a religious service or get a haircut.  Even New York City, the worst hit in the country, began the first phase of reopening. It seemed to be onward and upward from this point on as restaurants and hotels were next, followed by schools, colleges, concerts and shows.

Then an alternate, unexpected and powerful reality surfaced in Minneapolis: a double-edged sword which could undo the hard-won gains made so far against the virus, while also providing a glimmer of hope that the broken criminal justice system could be reformed. On 25 May, an unarmed, handcuffed, 49-year old black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck, abetted by three of his fellow officers, while ignoring his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe”. Even when there was no pulse, the knee wasn’t removed for an additional, gut-wrenching two minutes. The graphic video unleashed a tidal wave of violence and protests against police brutality and racism. It also ended social distancing, key to keeping the virus in check.

The roots of racism go deep here — 159 years ago, a civil war had to be fought to end slavery. Racism has resulted in systemic injustice and lack of equality in education, housing, jobs and health care. Twenty-three percent of blacks accounted for COVID-19 fatalities, even though they make up 13 percent of the population. The relationship between the mainly white police and the black community has always been fraught — the list of black people killed by the police is long.

After Floyd’s death, there were peaceful protests in the daytime and widespread rioting and looting in the night throughout the country. In Minneapolis, a police station and businesses close by were set on fire. Some places in big areas like New York City looked like war zones with broken glass everywhere, police cars burned down and shops and banks looted in wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Many big cities introduced curfews, including New York City, which hasn’t had one since World War II. More than 2,500 people have been arrested in the city alone since the end of May and crammed into detention centers.

As BLM protests and COVID19 sweep through US how each will shape the other and the country remains to be seen

People pass "Black Lives Matter" graffiti as they walk along Broadway in New York, on Tuesday, 2 June 2020, in the US. AP Photo

The lack of leadership from the top worsened the situation. Unlike President George Bush, who became a healer after 9/11, Donald Trump has consistently widened the rift between the races. He did not acknowledge the murder, calling the protestors “thugs” and “terrorists” and threatened to call in the military. There was pushback when his security forces used tear gas to clear out peaceful protestors in front of the White House so that he could walk to a recently damaged church close by for a photo op.

Despite this, after many days of curfew, the looting and rioting were brought under control by the states, allowing the marches to continue. Tens of thousands have protested peacefully in 700 cities and small towns all over the nation and it has spread globally as well. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the rallying call, with many holding up signs saying, “I can’t breathe”. On 6 June, over 10,000 people congregated peacefully in Washington, with music, dancing and ice cream thrown into the mix. People of all ages and races, black, white and brown, are putting their lives at risk by marching cheek by jowl with others, to make their voices heard, demanding reform. Many, including some police officers, “took the knee” as a sign of respect for Floyd whose death has triggered the most important civil rights movement in the last 50 years.

And the protests show no signs of slowing down as it goes from strength to strength. In the past, after a black death there would be protests, riots and violence. It would soon peter out because the powerful police unions provide legal immunity to its members, with no transparency and no accountability. Besides, each city, state and county controls its own police force with differing policies — a true patchwork of rules. Congress had no will to buck the unions and to enact legislation at the national level. No longer.

The rallying cry of the protestors to defund the police has led to national soul searching and discussion on the very role of the police in maintaining law and order. There is a wide spectrum of opinions as to what this means or how to implement it. Minneapolis went to the extreme by planning to disband the entire police department without thinking through what would replace it. Others are more moderate. Reduce the responsibilities of the police and bring in other resources for situations that require different skill sets, such as social workers. Some want more financial resources allocated to community needs like housing and education, which would either come out of the collective police budget, $115 billion in 2017, or not, based on the viewpoint.

There is encouraging news. The four policemen involved in Floyd’s murder were fired and charged with murder. Individual cities and states have also made piecemeal efforts to change the system such as banning chokeholds and putting in place more transparency.

Best of all, Democrats in Congress have recently introduced sweeping legislation at the federal level for massive police reform to address the problems of glaring injustices, racist practices and excessive use of violence, and to hold police accountable for misconduct, while keeping police budgets intact.

Under normal circumstances, it would have little chance of passing in this highly bipartisan climate during election year, with Republicans controlling the Senate and a president who tweets constantly about supporting law and order. The US Attorney General William Barr has even said, “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”

And yet, Republicans in both the House and the Senate are hurriedly scrambling now to come up with their own version of police reform legislation and are surprisingly not attacking the Democrats for being soft on crime. There seems to be bipartisan support, something not seen in Washington for close to four years.

This is because there has been a sea change in public perceptions. Nearly 70 percent of the people, including whites, believe that Floyd’s death is not a random incident and reveals systemic problems. They are saying enough is enough and want reform. Still, there is no assurance that any bill will be passed, although there is a much better chance now than at any other time in the past.

It is not clear why Floyd’s murder became the tipping point for this global movement. Maybe the combination of the pressure cooker environment created by the pandemic and the gut-wrenching video created the perfect storm.

Meanwhile, against this backdrop of social unrest and absence of social distancing, the virus lurks insidiously in the shadows. Talking spews droplets into the air, tear gas causes coughing and sneezing, super spreaders are in the crowd, all of which will play a role in spreading the virus. If the pandemic worsens, it may put a damper on the protests.

Ultimately, both the tsunamis are intertwined, each impacting the other in unknowable and dangerous ways. How this will play out in an election year and what the future holds only time will tell in this historic period.

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