Many moons ago on an intersection in Brooklyn, I was pulled over by a traffic cop. He was white. He was polite and we went through the drill — license, registration, insurance. He then let me go.
But before he did, he asked a harmless question.
“Is this car yours”?
I am a dark skinned person of Indian origin. I had been living long enough in America and in Brooklyn to have known, seen and experienced racism. As a documentary filmmaker I had worked on several films about America’s deep and abhorrent history since slavery.
When I arrived in the US in 1992, the barbaric flogging of Rodney King had gone “viral” shattering my mirage of America.
On a campus in Ohio, I had my customary “go back to where you come from” moment.
So when the policeman asked me if the car I was driving was in fact mine, the first thing that popped in my mind was, would he have asked this question to someone who looked different and maybe had a name he could pronounce. If I looked darker and had an Afro would my treatment be different? The answer was obvious then as it is now and has been so for decades.
My moment of unease, pales in comparison to those my black friends and compatriots have narrated in casual conversations.
The public lynching of George Floyd began in a similar fashion. A fake $20 bill prompted a visit from the police. What happened next has been seared into everyone’s being, just as Rodney King’s lashing and the countless others before and after, since as long as I can remember.
The murder of George Floyd was more than just about racism. It was about a rot that has infected men in uniform, that has sullied their code to serve, respect and protect those who pay their salary. The militarization of America via the police has brought home a level of violence, especially against a certain group of people, which has never been acceptable, but has gone on unabated.
As Cornel West passionately put it, this has gone on for far too long even when we had “black faces in high places”. He frames America as a failed “social experiment” within which many have not had a chance to prosper and live decent lives. Where the inequities have become so stark, that as a society we have reached a tipping point.
The killing of George Floyd was certainly not the first to be caught on camera and it is not going to be the last.
The wheels of change move much too slow, and they move only when pushed with overwhelming peaceful resistance.
And so what got people of all shades to the streets across the nation, was shock mixed with empathy, exacerbated by an uneasy confinement the pandemic had imposed. People were glued to their social media feeds with no jobs, dates or bars to go to. And so their conscience was placed front and center, asking them, what are you going to do about this?
Disregarding all social distancing norms that were still in effect, they poured into the streets with purpose.
Having a president who has been spewing divisiveness and egging on his supremacist supporters added much needed fuel to the mostly young energized protesters of every hue.
Ten days into the protests with people across the nation chanting “black lives matter”, “no justice no peace” and “ I can’t breathe” people all over are having a moment of soul searching, on how to react to what they are witnessing.
Protests have erupted from New York to New Zealand, as police misconduct is not just an American phenomenon.
Any soul searching moment exposes complexities and the limits of one’s good conscience.
There are those who are religiously going down to rallies and literally pounding the pavement, braving tear gas, shoving, kicking and wearing white plastic cuffs.
There are others who are feeling guilt and are posting gratuitous images of themselves with their black friends/acquaintances on Facebook and are sending token “feel your pain” messages of support, while draping themselves in a kind of righteous indignation that feels misplaced.
Then there are those who are falling prey to a “victim complex”. Going as far as endorsing and supporting looting, making the argument that “looting” is not just the prerogative of the 1% tax evaders, bankers, politicians, and Wall Street speculators and that Target carries insurance to rebuild so it will just be fine.
Watching young men in hoodies loot and pillage high-end stores in Manhattan, it was not clear if the intent was to send a message to the 1% or act on an abhorrent kind of brand consumerism that has been insidiously promoted via a hip-hop culture, that has made many filthy rich riding off the backs of the poor.
Dr. King and his foot soldiers who fought for justice, equality and an end to racism, were very aware of this fact. They knew the dangers of consumerism, the militarization of America, internal and external, and most of all the precariousness of victim hood. They came from a place of faith and pride and demanded only that which was just and deserving of all fellow human beings.
Dr. King also eloquently said, which sounds as though it was uttered yesterday, “certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met”.
The moment we are currently in, certainly feels significant. While I heard people make speeches at George Floyd’s memorial, I could not tell if this could be compared to what had happened after Emmett Till’s funeral. Whether this will bring about seismic change in the mindset of people, is something only time will tell when the dust settles.
Whether there is momentum to push Washington and local governments to act to reform those in uniform, will depend on what powerful people in good conscience decide to do. And most importantly, will people come out in large numbers to oust a regime that is antithetical to all decency and justice, reamains uncertain.
This moment is more than justice for George Floyd.
This is about addressing violence that has plagued America since its founding. The violence that kills children in classrooms, black men, women and children in streets, people in foreign lands, unarmed immigrants seeking refuge and the brutality of incarceration and a failed criminal justice system that is eating away at America’s soul.
What will truly honor all those who have died in vain under a knee, in a choke hold or a tree hanging, is when there is a shift in the culture of the land. Lulled by consumerism, we have gotten too used to the “quiet” for way too long, thinking it is “peace”.
There is no place in the world that is devoid of racism and the violence of tribalism. But the basic responsibility of a human being, in uniform or otherwise, is to feel empathy — that is all.
Only genuine empathy can eradicate and evaporate guilt. If you are feeling guilt then turn it into action and bring about a change in your mindset. The rest will follow.