America can’t breathe in fumes of institutional indifference

Partha Chakraborty-


America can’t breathe in fumes of institutional indifference and corrupt ineptitude by a coterie. Neither can it breathe in indiscriminate acts of violence. Time to get rid of both.


George Floyd lay hand-cuffed and his neck pinned down under the knee of a Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin for almost nine minutes, three minutes more than it took to render him limp; he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Mr. Floyd, 46, a father of two girls, recently lost his job as a security guard at a restaurant in the wake of COVID-19. On May 25, he was alleged to have attempted to use a counterfeit USD 20 bill at “Cup Foods”, a deli in Powderhorn neighborhood, police were called in – Officers Derek Chauvin (44), Tou Thao (34), Alexander Keung (26) and Thomas K. Lane (37) participated in the arrest. The incident was captured on phone by bystanders and by security cameras, publicly available videos do not seem to show any visible attempt to resist arrest by Mr. Floyd at any point. Bystanders repeatedly voiced concern with no favorable response from the officers until paramedics arrived to pick up the unresponsive body.


Mr. Floyd was heard pleading with Officers till he could not. He used “please” 14 times, “can’t breathe” 10 times. Officers seem at ease as they either pinned Mr. Floyd down or stood idly by.


Among contemporary sins of American existence, cavalier attitude to people of color by law enforcement community is probably at the top. In the days that followed the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, 26, was killed in her home by officers looking for a man who did not even live in her building. Too many incidents jump out from living memory of last decade or so. It took less than 90 seconds between first encounter of Michael Brown with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO by the time Wilson discharged twelve bullets, six of them hitting Brown from the front; he may have already had his hands raised in surrender. Tamir Rice was just a kid, playing with a toy gun in a city park, killed almost immediately after police cruiser rolled in. Philando Castile was informing a police officer on a routine traffic stop that he had a gun, exactly as he was required to; he was shot on suspicion of having reached out for the firearm even when he was not. Eric Garner was cornered for selling loose untaxed cigarettes on a New York curb, was put on a choke-hold and pinned down by multiple officers in a fashion very similar to George Floyd’s. Just like Floyd, Garner was heard pleading “I can’t breathe” over 10 times in bystander recording. Even when not causing death directly, nonchalance to lives of color is unpardonably transparent at times – in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery, the complicity of Glynn County Police Department with the perpetrators is reprehensible. More cases may go unnoticed, though less likely in these days of instant replay.


If anybody claims the overwhelming force of evidence has anything but racist underpinnings, they are lying. That is why it is critical that we calibrate our response to these events.


In the six days that followed Mr. Floyd’s death America has been up in flames. From Los Angeles to Chicago, Minneapolis to Atlanta, New York to Washington DC, thousands, if not millions, spilled into the streets in open defiance of social distancing guidelines. Angry crowds confronted police barricades, ransacked police and other vehicles, vandalized storefronts, lit fire on police precincts, rubbished neighborhoods, hurled incendiary and non-incendiary objects across police lines. In response, police fired rubber bullets, liberally used pepper spray and tear gas. Sporadic reports of use of excessive force marred overall police restraint. National Guard was called in multiple locations, as dusk to dawn curfew orders poured in. Many large cities of the country look not much different from war-ravaged zones of carnage at night.


Medaria Arradondo. Minneapolis Police Chief, apologized to Mr. Floyd’s family on live TV, taking off his hat in a sign of respect. “Being silent or not intervening, to me, is being complicit. I do not see a level of distinction, any different”, he said of the Officers, not just Derek Chauvin. Officers in Camden, New Jersey, carried a banner – “Standing in Solidarity” – and walked alongside a crowd chanting “no justice, no peace.” In Santa Cruz, California, Police Chief Andy Mills took a knee with protesters “in memory of George Floyd & bringing attention to police violence against Black people.” Officers in Ferguson, MO – location of Michael Brown’s murder – participated in a nine-and-a-half minute kneel in Floyd’s memory.  Humanity lives on even when we are pushed to the wall as a nation.


In 1967, in a case involving violence against civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Supreme Court ruled that police officer should not face legal liability for enforcing the law “in good faith and with probable cause”, giving rise to the doctrine of “qualified immunity”. The Highest Court made it difficult for plaintiffs by requiring further that any violation of rights be “clearly established” – meaning another court must have faced a substantially similar case and ruled that police is not immune. This brings a chick-and-egg situation where the dice always rolls in favor of the police. The Supreme Court is again considering more than a dozen cases to hear next term that could make it easier for the courts to hold police more accountable; there may be hope.


Institutional indifference to the plight of the minority is exemplified by no less than the President who parroted either former Miami Police Chief Walter Headley (“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality”) or Eugene “Bull” Connor, former Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, AL, who routinely used police dogs and fire hoses against civil rights protesters. He is, of course, echoing his favorite bullhorn, where any protest by communities of color are to be ridiculed and labeled “anti-national” or “anti-American”. It is the mindset that routinely blames cries of injustice arising in inner-city on the individuals’ inability to navigate a lawful land, while misfortunes of many others are attributed to the system working against them. If aliens were looking to find examples of real-life racist bigots, 1600 Pennsylvania is a good place to start.


Rage against the machine of these days is a fulmination of the masses who can take it no more. We live in times where institutional ineptitude, coupled with a deliberate denigration of science, already caused more than a hundred thousand deaths, where the administration uses any and all pretexts to line pockets of the favored (who only squander it away playing markets, and, not, creating productive resources), where obligatory bow in front of the dynast is required even for career technocrats, where a rank liar, pervert and semi-literate crybaby rules because he could manipulate public sentiments like nobody ever believed possible. We are tired of having no recourse as the institutions that we thought had their own legs, those supposedly co-equal branches, are groveling in feces of his majesty peacocking nincompoop impotency in all matters of import. We want to rebel, and we let the nights bear testimony to that.


Let not the evil rule us, not today. Memories of discriminate destruction during riots will live long after we have managed to pick up the pieces. Allegations of out-of-town, even out-of-state, operators taking advantage, looting, and inciting others to start a “race-war” are already rife. It is very likely that a complete breakdown of social distancing as COVID-19 rages on will worsen a second wave, when. Law enforcement authorities are going to take abuses hurled indiscriminately at them only for so long. Any hopes of gradual reopening after lockdown are stalled now that curfews are rolling in. Urban neighborhoods not see progressive policies helping them cope with the damage as a regressive backlash against scars left by these riots rules the aftermath.


As tensions run high it is imperative that we re-read the works of Rev. Marin Luther King. If “victims of oppression succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for justice, unborn generations will live in a desolate night of bitterness, and their chief legacy will be an endless reign of chaos” – Dr. King wrote in “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” (1957).  “Hate cannot drive out hate… The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil” wrote King in “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”  Even when fellow activists embraced violence as a method, he reaffirmed his own commitment to nonviolence: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence”.


Protesters today are raising their fists echo Dr. King in saying any injustice anywhere is “caught in in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” They’d also do well in keeping to the Reverend’s preference for peaceful acts while keeping up the pressure through visible presence, just as they are doing on the periphery of The White House. Just like Dr, King, they must wield their influence at the hustings, throwing out the cabal of slaves to his highness, and their enablers who mortgaged their own dignity and civic sense for a 15% tax cut but are about to get a 1/3rd drop in economic activity, the worst ever. Civil disobedience and nonviolent action are to keep up chokehold on machines of repression while making choices abundantly transparent in the minds of the electorate.


America can’t breathe in fumes of institutional indifference and corrupt ineptitude by a coterie. Neither can it breathe in indiscriminate acts of violence. Time to get rid of both.


[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Water technologies, Blockchain and Wealth Management in US and India. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission].