On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd, 46, was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. George Floyd is just the latest in a long list of Black people who have been murdered at the hands of police, and it seems like this list will never end.
As of June 7, 2020, 463 people have been murdered by the police in the United States this year. Statistically, Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by the police than White Americans. The reason the whole world knows about George Floyd’s death is because it was captured on film. The deaths of Eric Garner, 44, who was choked by police officers in 2014 in New York, and Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was killed by two white men while jogging in Georgia weeks before Floyd, were filmed. Walter Scott, whose 2015 murder was one of the few police killings that has resulted in a wrongful death conviction, was also filmed in his dying moments.
Deaths that are captured on film represent a painful catch-22 for Black people in America. In order to get justice, we have to have proof that we were being “good negroes” that weren’t doing anything wrong or illegal that would warrant us being killed. These violent videos that capture these deaths are our proof, but we have to relive the trauma that comes with the videos every time they are played just to get the justice we want and deserve. And still, justice rarely comes.
As a Black woman, the mental and emotional impact of all of this, on top of dealing with a global pandemic, has been brutal. Before COVID, I was studying in London but am now back home in the US until things return to whatever new “normal” we will have post-COVID. I have the experience of being a Black woman in both the US and UK. I have not found the experiences to be any different because the racist structures that exist in the US are also in the UK where they were created.
I have tried my best to keep working on my doctoral dissertation (shoutout to SOAS Development Studies!) but maintaining focus has been challenging. I’ve been channelling my feelings about our current global situation into my Ghana history platform, The Nana Project. I’ve used our social media accounts to show the connections between what we are witnessing now and what has happened throughout Black history. In doing this, I’ve discovered a lot of similarities between the movements of the past and present. But as many people have noted, something about the moment we are in now feels different from what we’ve experienced in the past.
The video of George Floyd’s death has caused an unprecedented reaction in the US and around the world. Since his killing, the US has seen almost 12 continuous days of protests across the country. For the first time in US history, there have been protests in all 50 states. Historians are saying that the US hasn’t seen this level of protesting since 1968, the year Martin Luther King was murdered. Outside of the US, there have been protests in over 50 countries including Iran, Pakistan, South Korea, Ghana, Jamaica, Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK. Initially, I thought the solidarity protests in Western countries were very ironic. Non-US Western countries will often highlight the racial sins of the US while neglecting their own legacies of racism, imperialism, and colonisation.
However, I soon learned that these solidarity protests were being used to highlight the deaths of Black people in these nations, such as Belly Mujinga, Shukri Abdi, and Sarah Reed in the UK and Adama Traoré in France (the Paris march was organised by his family). These global displays of Black unity illustrate that our struggles are interconnected and that none of us are free until we all are free. This collective uprising is also forcing nations who have long-ignored their systemic racism to confront the demands of their people directly, lest their monuments and racist rule of law be thrown into the harbour.
While these displays of global Black solidarity are encouraging, there are some things that concern me. The outpouring of love for George Floyd has been beautiful to see, but we need to also remember those whose names have not been as prominent during these times. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman who was killed by police while she was asleep in her home in Kentucky on March 13, and Tony McDade, a 38-year old Black trans man from Florida who was killed by police on May 27, two days after George Floyd was killed, did not receive the same amount of attention. If we are saying Black Lives Matter, then we need to show and assert that all Black lives matter by remembering the lives and stories of Black women, Black trans people, and Black non-binary people who have suffered violence.
The second thing that concerns me is the “hashtag-ability” of this global movement. Major brands across all industries, along with politicians, athletes, and entertainers have made statements and social media posts saying #BlackLivesMatter. This was unfathomable 7 years ago when the phrase was first used by Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter organization.
While these statements are nice on the surface level, I wonder what will happen if people stop posting Black squares, the numbers at the protests start to dwindle, and #BLM stops trending on Twitter. Do these brands and people truly value Black lives or are they simply capitalizing on the moment? Don’t get me wrong. Stating Black Lives Matter unequivocally is important because there are so many examples in our societies that state otherwise, from education, healthcare, and employment. But if these statements are not followed up with structural change, then they are simply hollow actions. Anti-racism must be a lifestyle, not a trend.
Perhaps you are wondering what you can do to support this global anti-racist movement. This blog post by fellow SOAS student Rut Einarsdóttir includes practical actions that can be taken including reading anti-racist literature, signing petitions and making donations. These actions are crucial to the work that is happening now, but if we want long-term, lasting change, then we need to change the way our institutions are run. Think about ways you can change structures and processes at your workplace, religious spaces, and universities.
These changes will not make you feel good nor will they be comfortable, but if we want to see real change beyond internet conversations then these changes need to happen. Last week, Alexis Ohanian, Serena Williams’ husband and founder of Reddit, stepped down from his role at Reddit and told the board to replace him with a Black person. While there are fair critiques to be made of Reddit and their handling of racist content, what Alexis did could be viewed as an example for other organisations to follow. I do want to note, however, that Black people are capable of maintaining the racist status quo, so having a Black face in a White space isn’t enough. All parties in these spaces must be committed to creating structural change.
There is much to be said about how this collective action will end, but right now it is pure conjecture because the story isn’t over yet. What I can talk about is how I plan to keep living in these tumultuous times. I know Black Lives Matter, but I also know Black Life Matters. Black Joy Matters. As Toni Morrison said, “A serious function of racism is distraction”, and I will not allow racism to distract me from experiencing joy. That’s why seeing people dancing in the streets, the memes related to the protests, and #GetThisDance trending on Twitter make me happy. Because regardless of our circumstances, if Black people will do anything, we will live.
Kirstie Kwarteng is a PhD candidate at SOAS University of London in the Department of Development Studies. She’s also founder of The Nana Project, an online platform dedicated to preserving Ghana’s history through the stories of Ghanaian elders.