A howl echoes through the summer of 2020 in the United States. On May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a horrible deed tore the lid off the pressure cooker. George Floyd, a 42-year-old African-American lay on the ground imploring the white police officer: “I can’t breathe, Sir. Please!” Meanwhile, the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s throat until he died of asphyxiation. The video of this shocked the planet.
The multitudinous protests that sprang up to the cry of “Black Lives Matter” broke out at that moment, in the country and around the world. The moral slogan spread as rapidly as the enigmatic COVID-19 illness. The protests were a challenge in themselves, with a large part of the world on lockdown to avoid the lethal Coronavirus that can equally interrupt our respiration, until we die.
Sociological studies document that police brutality [in the USA] is “selectively” sharper with those who are African-American, followed by Latinos. Discrimination and racial inequality further impoverish the heart of this democracy, as it fails to resolve the monumental tasks that are pending.
A review of history reveals dark chapters of forced submission and privation of freedom based on skin color. Beginning with the end of the XV century, slavery provoked the greatest forced transfer of those of the African race from their native land to America. This involved the violation of all human rights for these men and women. They were claimed as merchandise, locked up, and obligated to do hard labor. A total domination was exercised over the women; selfishly and ungratefully they raped them and subjugated them for life. In addition, they were forcibly separated from their own children, a monstrous pain to a mother’s heart.
Four centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Emancipation Proclamation was finally issued, ordering the freeing of the slaves and conferring on all citizens, regardless of race, the same rights and privileges under the law.
Unfortunately, the patterns of humiliation and domination continued for more than a century, until 1964, when the Civil Rights Law forbade discrimination against women and US citizens of African descent and outlawed segregation in schools, jobs and housing. Nonetheless, violent racial injustice continued from that decades through the present, overshadowing the law’s intention. In that country of 325 million inhabitants, African-Americans constitute the largest racial minority, with nearly 37.6 million, 13% of the population. Such enormous and ancient pain can’t be ignored much longer.
Recent studies of employment conducted in Yale and Duke universities documented the disproportionate salary disparity between white and black workers. The disparities today were comparable to those from the 1950s. It’s easy to understand the frustration of millions of African Americans who form part of the unemployment lines in numbers that have been higher for them since 1980. Obviously, they go on to make up an immense nucleus of poverty in a cycle of misfortune that is difficult to escape.
“When will the inequality and racial violence end? Five centuries have already passed since the beginning of the slave trade; 157 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; and 56 years since the Civil Rights Law. When will the Afro-Americans obtain their constitutional guarantees? When will they get their human and civil rights? When will they be respected, and when will they finally be granted the liberties and opportunities confiscated for centuries?
Police brutality hasn’t ended, even during the protests. Perhaps it is a product of the historic prevalence of immunity and impunity for the police that has recklessly brought relaxed sanctions for this crime. Today, with the system under serious question, there’s an accelerated urgency to reform these measures.
Some of the recent actions leave a breath of air in that direction: for example, the closing of police stations that have been in conflict with their communities, and the opening of legal processes against some crimes in a newly inaugurated experience of justice and truth, democratic demands that must last.
Intolerance confuses and hinders. It’s dangerous to cover up indifference with deceit and threats, believing that violence can be quelled with more divisive violence. This is the way that some imprudent voices currently propose to defraud this challenge. The democracy of that republic would do well to exercise its own mechanisms to reverse the profound racial wounds with laws and policies of reparation and the creation of transformational opportunities.
I admire the relevance that the works of Toni Morrison (1931–2019) have now taken on. Morrison, an African-American US writer, won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993. She narrated with her wise pen the truth of the Afro-American experience and her own. The works are now transfigured by the population’s awakening of consciousness, a consciousness that has been put to the test by recent events in her country. Time runs out but hope and human dignity never do.
Down in Central America
In another geography, that of Nicaragua with its 6.6 million inhabitants, prolonged episodes of government tyranny and police repression have worsened over the last 84 years (1936–2020). Too much time has been divided between the dynastic regime of three Somoza’s and different facets of Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian power, with a brief pause for the democratic governments of 1990–2006, which were also injured by disturbances promoted by the latter during his time in the opposition.
Following a damaging repetitive pattern, in April 2018, the Ortega-Murillo regime intensified the brutality of their model through a submitted and corrupt police that was then reinforced by another parallel structure, “the paramilitary”. This force was armed for war and charged with repressing the peaceful demonstrations of students and the civilian population which had spontaneously risen up before the abuses of power.
On April 18, 2018, a fifteen-year-old high school student named Alvaro Conrado was felled by a bullet to his neck while he was carrying water to the students who were cornered by the barbarity. “It hurts to breathe,” he repeated with fatigue at the entrance to the public hospital where they denied him medical treatment. He lost blood until he died.
What conceit marks the power in such a disturbed Nicaragua? From opposite corners they measured their distance, the oppressor’s rage against the moral logic of the multitudes. The result was a “massacre” fully documented by the national and international human rights organizations.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently reviewed this history in her report in Geneva. “[We view] with great concern the disproportionate use of force on the part of the police to repress the social protests and the commission of violent acts by armed groups”… “denunciations of constant cases of illegal detention and arbitrary prison sentences, harassment and torture since April of 2018.”
The Ortega regime ignored the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to disarm the paramilitary and those of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts to create a Special Prosecutor’s office.
In their Final Report (December 2018), the latter advised investigating Ortega for crimes against humanity as the supreme head of the police, as well as police chiefs and assistant chiefs. The Nicaraguan police was recently catalogued in World Population Review as among the most violent in the world. Important tasks are still pending: respecting justice and reparations for the victims of so much pain.
We’re gasping for air, which has been so thin for so long. Alvarito Conrado gasped for air due to a murderous bullet; George Floyd did so when the racist police asphyxiated him, and thousands of people in the world have gasped for air and died from the pandemic – a pandemic that they’ve so often had the gall to politicize.
Cruelty has been encouraged by aggressive discourses from cynical governments, while the rest of the people, on permanent alert, perceive a very high danger of death. The world is saturated with sad testimonies. In our countries it’s urgent that we embrace a new political ethic sheathed in humanity, starting right now, this very year 2020 of the twenty-first century.
*Isolda Hurtado is a writer and poet.