“I can’t breathe.” The final words gasped by George Floyd are now a global meme. They were recorded on the mobile phone of a bystander while Mr. Floyd was being suffocated to death by a police officer in Minneapolis. We have seen this horror movie before. Over 1,000 people — many of them young and black — are killed by US police every year. For years, the Black Lives Matter movement has channeled the outrage and indignation felt by many Americans about police brutality, yet the system reproducing such violence has resisted change. Few police are held to account for their crimes, much less prosecuted or jailed. This time may be different.
The murder of Mr. Floyd has ignited a raging bonfire of anger and despair across America and around the world. In the midst of a pandemic, demonstrations, protests and looting broke out in more than 350 US cities. The brazen killing of an unarmed black man was the spark, but the fuel for this week of rage and anguish includes decades of racism, injustice and inequality. Instead of calling for more unity and compassion after a week that rocked America, a fearful president castigated state governors for being weak, urging them to crack-down. His answer was the same as populists everywhere: a closed fist.
The world is looking on in shock and dismay. The US, so often considered an exception and looked at as an ideal, appears to be on the verge of a melt-down. Faced with a stunning absence of national leadership and looming economic deficits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, governors and mayors are scrambling to respond. While it is true that many police and national guard publicly expressed solidarity with the protesters, others are using excessive force, attacking peaceful marchers and journalists. This could make a bad situation even worse. It will take tremendous courage and hard work to mend this divided country.
In the US and around the world, COVID-19 is exposing and exacerbating the inequalities that strafe virtually all countries, rich and poor. Everywhere, it is minorities who are more at risk of dying of both the coronavirus and police brutality. They are also more likely to be front-line workers, live in low-income and under-serviced communities, and suffer from chronic disease and ill health. The difference in the middle of 2020 is that they are dying live, on cable television and social media feeds, while much of the world’s population is confined indoors and glued to their screens.
The outbreak of protests and social unrest across the US was not unexpected. Racial tensions have simmering for decades and weaponized during the 2016 and 2020 election campaigns. Making matters worse, since the 1980s, income inequality has risen faster in the US than almost any other part of the planet. The much vaunted “American dream” where anyone can climb the social ladder with hard work, is a fiction. More than ever, destiny comes down to one’s zip code. Most middle and lower income Americans are experiencing “reverse climbing”, with younger generations earning less than their parents and falling into debt.
The US exhibits an alarming number of the risk factors commonly associated with the outbreak of mass violence. The combination of rising inequality, increasing unemployment, deepening polarization between identity groups, political disenchantment, and slowed economic growth are a powder-keg. In such situations political entrepreneurs often stoke the embers of discontent. Criminal organizations may expand their operations. Legitimate grievances among the left-behind can be more easily manipulated both online and off. For the first time in over 150 years, there is talk of civil war in America.
There are few stronger justifications for civil disobedience and protest than police violence. Police abuse of civilians constitutes a rupture of the most sacred obligation of the state: to keep citizens safe before the law. The demonstrations spreading across the US are not just a sign of the failure of police reform and criminal justice. They are a reaction to the broken social contract that is supposed to bind governments and citizens together. Leaders need to recognize this. It is their responsibility to help rebuild it.
Rising social civil unrest in the US is a flashing red light, but it is also an opportunity for renewal. It is a powerful reminder of how the political, economic and social relationships in all nations are not static — they must be constantly re-negotiated and upgraded. This requires capable and competent leadership at all levels, not reactionary bombast. Real transformation ultimately occurs at municipal and local levels, and often as a result of sustained pressure from civil society. The New Deal in the 1930s did not come about spontaneously. Organized civic groups, including trade unions and faith-based groups, paved the way and forced political change.
As uncomfortable as it feels for the elite, social protest and civil disobedience are an essential part of democracy. They are often the only tools available to the poor and marginalized, for politicians to react and pay attention to those who are treated unfairly and left behind. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Junior wrote that everyone has a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than wait forever for justice to be delivered through the courts. As America’s streets are taken over by largely peaceful protest, his words ring more loudly than ever.
If the ongoing demonstrations can help force lasting change to strengthen police oversight and criminal justice, then the country will emerge stronger than before. The future stability of US democracy depends in part on how its institutions manage and respond to social unrest now and in the coming months. People have the right to peacefully protest. In a politically polarized and racially divided country, managing tensions with dialogue, tolerance and a willingness to compromise is of utmost importance. Relief for communities in despair is crucial. An intensified battle against racism, the same.
The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies has documented the many ways positive pathways for peace can be enabled and engineered. These must be both top-down and bottom-up, powered by local agents of change. At a minimum, it requires listening to the excluded and investing in inclusive and representative institutions. In short, the looters must be stopped and protesters protected and given space. Their righteous anger about racism and police violence must be addressed with a true reform and justice agenda.
There is an opportunity in this social unrest for the US to emerge stronger than before. This will require adopting a much bolder focus on community policing and people-centered justice that addresses racism and the legitimate problems people are facing in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Fostering dialogue, reconciliation, and concerted investment in rebuilding trust is the only way forward. Silent acceptance of police repression, stiffer sentencing, mass incarceration and the dangerous rhetoric of “us versus them” will only keep the flames burning.