“Please! I can’t breathe!” Those were some of George Floyd’s last words, as former-officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck.
The history of the United States is stained with the blood of African American people. Human beings were wrenched from their homes, packed into ships like sardines, and brought to America. Those that survived the journey would see themselves and 400 hundred years of future generations enslaved—reduced to less than human. On January 1, 1863, amid a civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that people held as slaves “henceforward shall be free.” While the proclamation marked the end of the brutality of slavery, the marginalization and maltreatment lived on. And African Americans remained far from “free.”
The legalization of segregation took over where slavery left off, depriving Black men, women, and children of the same opportunities given to white people. Black communities continued to remain marginalized, treated as less than human even though slavery had been abolished. Segregation became the modern-day form of discrimination and oppression. It was legal to ban “coloured people” from restaurants, stores, schools, and neighborhoods. Public executions by lynching were a regular occurrence.
And when segregation was made illegal with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, unequal treatment persisted, though subtly. It was not easy being Black and American.
For people of colour in 2020, an African American man dying at the hands of American police is nothing new. Even the community outrage following this event was expected: the protests, the riots, the demand for justice, and the call for reform. The only thing unprecedented following the killing of an unarmed Black man was the global outcry.
Even in Canada, growing up Black comes with trials, and it starts when you’re young. Well before the “birds and the bees” talk, our parents sat my sister and me down on multiple occasions to explain racism. We never learned what it was, what it meant, or why, but we were warned it was something we would face. Not if, or might, but would encounter many times in our lives.
My sister was eight when she experienced racism in her grade three classroom. She was the only black student in her cohort. Her teacher had deemed the carelessly drawn stick figures of other students as worthy of a higher grade than my sister’s carefully drawn out characters.
My sister didn’t understand why. She’d worked so hard, put in a lot more effort, and yet it didn’t seem to matter. During the parent-teacher interview, my mother said the teacher couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer as to why one student should receive a lower grade than the rest. The school principal stepped in, and even she was astonished, but she couldn’t say the words. Saying the words would’ve made it real. Saying, “This teacher is being prejudiced against her black student,” was too much for her. But my mom knew what was happening. She had told us it would happen.
As kids, we couldn’t understand. If we were good, remembered our please and thank yous, played nicely with others, and did well in school, what reason would anyone have to be racist toward us? We learned that it didn’t matter what we did or what we said; our skin would always come first. The colour of your pigment would determine how you were treated and how you should be treated. Merit, character, and personality, if ever considered, would come after. Or not at all.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States. His “Blackness” was debated throughout his campaign and over his two terms as president. Obama’s “Blackness” was questioned. Was he too Black to be president? Or was he not Black enough to be considered the first Black president of the United States?
It didn’t matter that he graduated from Columbia University and, later, from Harvard Law School. It didn’t matter that he represented the 13th district of Illinois for seven years. It didn’t matter that he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. I, and many others in the Black community, thought this was a turning point for Black America and our futures. We thought this meant that racism was dying. After all the sweat, tears, and blood shed by African American slaves, America had elected its first Black president. Twelve years later, not much has changed.
I’m still hyper-aware of the police. My pulse quickens and I sweat when an officer looks my way. I try to avoid anything that might cause them to look my way or be suspicious of me. I’d copy my white friends and try to act less Black when possible. I didn’t even know what “being Black” meant, but I didn’t want to take the chance. During adolescence, my mom warned me and my sister that we would have to work twice as hard as “them”—as white people—to get the same jobs, the same pay, the same recognition, and, the same respect. It feels like we’re always at war, and it’s because of the pigment of our skin. It seems like such a trivial thing, but it can mean the difference between life and death for Black people.
Floyd was not the first African American man to be murdered while in police custody. He was not the last. George Floyd’s death was not even the most shocking in recent years. But overnight, millions around the world were angry, something we have never seen before. And a new movement started with Floyd.
Not Breonna Taylor, shot 15 times as she slept in her bed.
Not Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down while exercising in his own neighborhood.
Not Trayvon Martin, a teenager walking home late at night.
Not Walter Scott, shot in the back five times as he ran away.
Not Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot while playing with a toy.
Though the above deaths were more egregious, it was George Floyd’s death that finally drew the world’s attention to the U.S. and sparked a wave of criticism toward unjust police practices and the unequal treatment of Black people. It was his death that inspired Black Out Tuesday. It was his death that inspired internet influencers and celebrities around the world to speak out and disavow racism and police brutality. It was his death that inspired individuals and corporations to set up charities and funds to help make bail for arrested protesters and help support the families of victims.
The declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic drastically disrupted the world as we knew it. Countries around the world went into lockdown. Individuals were forced to quarantine. Schools, restaurants, and movie theatres closed. Professional sports were cancelled, businesses suffered, and jobs were lost. And with nothing else to do and nowhere to go, people were glued to their screens.
For the first time, the presence and pressure of social media allowed people worldwide to have direct access to the horrifying footage of Derek Chauvin’s knee pressing the life out of George Floyd. Everywhere we turned or scrolled, there it was. It was shocking. It was disturbing. But most of all, for the first time, we all agreed: being treated like a human being should be an essential part of the interactions between those in power and those who have none.
But it is more than that. So much had to happen for Floyd’s death to have the impact that it did, for people who usually never thought twice about police brutality to be as outraged as they were.
Foremost, the growth and reach of social media are higher than ever before. The internet and the accompanying technological advancements have made sharing instances of police brutality and bias as simple as a few taps of your thumb on a device screen. Before social media and advanced technology, the instances between African American people and police would have been inaccessible to common folks. They would have gone unseen, swept under paperwork, administrative leave, and internal investigations.
It might be difficult to stomach; the idea that without the existence of smartphones, we might never have known the way Floyd was apprehended and consequently killed by police. How easy it would have been in the past to simply state: “Died in police custody.” Without video evidence, what proof would the average citizen have of an injustice that has occurred?
Social media has become a quick and efficient way of not only sharing information with others across the world but accessing it as well. In the world of social media, there are no boundaries. No one needs a passport. A couple of taps and you will have access to all the news and content you can consume. You cannot have a global outcry without a global reach.
Secondly, and thanks to the pandemic, many people were left with a lot of free time. Overnight, the pandemic removed the urban world’s many distractions. No school, no work, and no professional sports. No dinner and drinks with friends, no house parties, no gyms, and no music concerts. It is difficult to ignore something and brush it aside when there is nothing anyone can do to avoid it. And even if you could, you would not be able to do so for long.
Thirdly, internet influencers, celebrities, and corporations have made a point to renounce racism and promote the essentialism of Black lives. This might have been the product of the rise of “Cancel Culture,” a trend in which people are denounced or “cancelled” for acts or attitudes of racism or any other form of discrimination. No one wants to be associated with the side that has perpetuated Black people’s death at the hands of police.
Finally, and most importantly, the pandemic has forced us all into a collective vulnerability. For centuries, African Americans and other people of colour have endured fear, helplessness, and the hopelessness of being hated and discriminated against because of the pigment of their skin. They, and all other people of colour, have endured the all too common belief of their peers that “racism is dead” or “racism doesn’t exist.” But for the first time, on a global scale, everyone else feels the same way.
Lockdown and being forced into quarantine have left people feeling powerless over their lives and the present state of affairs. Futures feel uncertain. People fear for their lives and fear for the health and safety of their family and friends. This is a fear people of colour often feel. They fear for their children, parents, family, and friends in a society that does not value them as human beings.
The fear of disease cannot compare to the fear of death and persecution, but that fear does evoke compassion that has allowed the world to empathize with the plight and trials of people of colour. “I feel your pain” in the wake of this pandemic has never been truer for so many of us. “I feel your pain” now means “I not only understand that how you’re being treated is unjust, but I understand more than ever that your life and your rights haven’t been regarded as essential.”
You don’t get the chance to choose the body parts you’re born with. You certainly don’t get to choose the colour of your body’s largest organ: your skin—the one thing you could never change or control, the thing you were born with and will live with for the rest of your life. And yet the colour of your skin is the difference—the difference between a pass or a fail, of getting the job, of getting the promotion, of being killed.
The U.S. is on fire. Its people are angry, scared, and desperate for change. Their futures are uncertain amidst a virus that takes thousands of lives each day. They can’t rely on their leaders to keep them safe and informed of the reality of the difficulties they now face. And for Black Americans, they fear all of the above, and they share that fear for the lives of their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters, their husbands and wives, their friends, their siblings. You can’t appease that fear without real and honest change. And you certainly can’t appease fear by labelling Black lives as political. In 2020, if slavery and oppression and racism are dead, why are Black lives still labeled political? How can you politicize a human life? How can you politicize a human life by the colour of a person’s skin? Why should there be a debate about whose lives matter?
But change can happen, and it is happening. Organizations like the NBA and its members have taken to raising their voices. Players are wearing jerseys with statements in support of Black lives. “Black Lives Matter” is painted into the hardwood of the basketball court that’s broadcast to millions around the world. YouTubers, actors, and social media celebrities have published videos and statements in support of Black lives and to denounce racism. They’re joining protests, donating funds, and getting in the faces of those who have the power to affect change and develop reforms. I’ve never seen so many advertisements and endorsements to vote in my life.
I still fear for the lives of my loved ones, my friends, and those in my community. The change we need won’t happen overnight. We’ll have a Covid-19 vaccine before Black lives are truly seen as essential. But I draw some comfort in the belief that the world will be a different place for my children and my children’s children.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Junior delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Nearly six decades later, the world is finally listening. People around the world are not just hearing what we have to say, but they’re putting in the work to make change happen. They’re listening. They’re angry for us. They’re angry for me. And for the first time in my life, I believe there can be change.