2020 has been quite the year so far hasn’t it? These past few months have been a whirlwind of worry and all kinds of emotions. I mean from threats of World War III, the Australian wildfires down to the most game-changing of it all; the global COVID-19 pandemic. Nations around the world have been on lockdown for what now feels like forever. In our own different ways, we have all been social-distancing from our loved ones for their safety as well as ours.
To put it mildly, it’s been a tough couple of months and I appreciate all efforts being made to ensure that humankind survives and continues to thrive. But just when some cities seem on the verge of making their ways out of the pall cast by the pandemic, yet another sad event has appeared on the horizon. The latest in these “series of unfortunate events” in 2020 is yet another case of police brutality against blacks in the United States, the wrongful death of George Floyd and the ongoing protests around the world about same. Now this particular string of protests might have gone on for only a few days but we all know that police brutality against black Americans and racism has lasted for far longer.
By now, I’m pretty sure you must have heard of it, seen it, and watched the wrongful killing of George Floyd by one policeman, while his colleague stood by doing nothing. He did not resist arrest; as a matter of fact, his hands were cuffed behind his back while the police officer knelt on his neck, and ignored his pleas till George stopped breathing. The emotional toll of having to watch such gruesome murder on video is one that will stay with most of us for a long time to come.
The African-American communities as a whole and Blacks all around the world have been thrown into mourning intensified by the realization that it could have been any one of us begging for our lives in that city and in that manner. What has followed has been a babble of debates on how people should respond to their grief and the most prominent of these displays of emotion, of course, has been the near-global protests. Americans have taken to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd and protests have been sparked across the world. From Canada and France down to Syria and Nigeria, people have been protesting as loudly as possible. In Australia, tens of thousands recently took to the streets to demand an end to Indigenous deaths in custody (over 434 deaths since 1991). “Same story different soil!” a Melbourne activist’s placard reads.
Now as is typical with black protests against police brutality in the United States, while a lot of people take to the streets to protest, a good number of others take to social media to disagree with the violence protests. Some people have gone as far as making insensitive comments about the issue. But one of the most prominent of such anti-humane responses so far has been the lack of response or the silence from certain quarters of the community. There are politicians, celebrities, brands and platforms that have been accused of curiously falling silent at this time but I’ll let it be for now. These words are about my feelings on this matter; not theirs.
The first thing I have to say to these people is that you must not talk about the ongoing protests against police brutality in America if you choose not to. It is true that this issue is central to our shared humanity but the fact that you have not made any posts about it does not make you a bad person. I mean, most people have not commented in any form on the Syrian civil war, allegations regarding the fate of Muslims in China or the ongoing issues in Venezuela. Personally, I had no intention of saying anything because I felt unqualified to talk about it.
For one even though I am black, I am not an African American, and I am not on the frontlines. For another, geographically speaking, I am as far from the situation as one can get. And I live in the poverty capital of the world with more than my fair share of problems.
Your reason for not talking about this issue could be that you are white and the situation isn’t your reality. It could be that you come from money as a result of which policemen generally defer to you. It could also be that you have not experienced police brutality or any other forms of racism in your entire life. So while it is desirable that you speak up against these wrongful killings and it is ideal that you show up in any way you can – it is not compulsory that you do so.
Having said that, I will point out here that if you choose to be silent in all these, then you need to take responsibility for your own silence. For context and as stated, I am a black Nigerian living in Africa and while I am not currently being discriminated against in America, I know now for certain that I will be. I am already being discriminated against in so many ways that I can’t even put into words for the crime of being African. For instance, just last month, two French doctors on live television casually suggested that coronavirus vaccines should be tested in Africa first. That’s a whole continent, subjected to such insidious racism that the doctors might not even realize the deep ramifications of their words.
So yes, I might not be domiciled in the United States but make no mistake about this. As a black man, I know that I am more likely to be roughly cuffed on American streets like a common criminal if my dreams lead me to that country someday. I know I am more likely than my white American friend to be gunned down in the streets on my morning jog by a father and son duo for the crime of being black. I also know that save for the blessing of living in my homeland – poor as it is – it might have been me on that slab, begging for my life while a police officer kneels on my neck and watches me die.
This is not just another American problem; it is a question of your right to live as well as mine. So, if I don’t speak up, I have to bear responsibility for my silence and believe me that day will come. If you choose silence at this time, then understand that you have to bear responsibility for your choice as well, one way or the other. Mine manifests as racism. Yours might manifest in other ways. Be sure not to fret when we point at you and say you went mute when it mattered in the coming days; because you did. Calling you out on it would not be any form of shaming or bullying because it’d be the truth.
And if you do decide to speak up, if you summon the courage to wade into these waters that have been muddied by centuries of injustice, remember that there are no trophies for “speaking up”.
Now a lot of people don’t even know what to say or how to say it. This is a very delicate issue and you might have good intentions and end up saying or doing the wrong things. The greatest harm sometimes comes from the best of intentions so if you truly want to help, learn how to do so. It won’t exactly be a walk in the park but you can find out ways you can genuinely help. Your good intentions might be admired by all but no one owes you the responsibility of teaching you how best to express it.
It is easy to point to the violence of the protests. But I think it is even more important to remember and point to the silence of yesterday as the reason for the protests of today. So, tomorrow when the violence erupts and the property you loved so much becomes the collateral damage of your silence today, own it. Take responsibility for it; it is the pension of your silence today.
And if you know it would be a tough pill to swallow, speak up. Be loud. Lend your voice to these protests against racism and police brutality physically, through social media or in whatever other form you can.
Because we are human just like you.
And because if not now, when will our lives finally begin to matter?
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Cover photo of participants in George Floyd protest march in Los Angeles, May 30 by Hayk_Shalunts.