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US History Shows That George Floyd’s Murder Isn’t An Exception

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Innocent brothers and sisters, it’s time to wake up, wake up, wake up
Brothers and sisters, it’s time to say something, do something, make ’em
Mmm I wonder, how many Blacks lives, how many Black lives
How many heartbeats turned into flatlines
– “How Many” by Miguel

Just when the news about the way African-Americans were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus could get no worse, just when you thought that the United States was consumed with battling the virus, came sickening, familiar news, one after another, of a kind that had not hit public notice for a while now.

Wall Graffiti from George Floyd Protests
Most recently, we had to bear witness to the horrific murder of George Floyd when a police officer pinned his neck down with his knee.

First, we heard of the senseless shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man out for a run in Georgia. Then came the incident where a white woman in Central Park, New York, called the police on a black man who had asked her to put a leash on her dog. Most recently, we had to bear witness to the horrific murder of George Floyd when a police officer pinned his neck down with his knee.

All three incidents involved the common figure of the black person perceived as a threat.

The scenarios above are familiar ones too—white folk suspicious of black folk in their vicinity either taking action themselves (Arbery) or immediately calling the police for intervention (Cooper); a law-enforcement officer using excessive force to restrain and punish a black man suspected of some wrongdoing (Floyd).

The second scenario is commonly labelled as “police brutality”. In the context of racism, it describes situations in which police officers, often white, bring to bear excessive force on black suspects. This could be in the form of either employing a physical restraining force as with George Floyd in Minneapolis most recently and with Eric Garner in New York in 2014, or shooting at them if sensing even the slightest threat, as in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014—and hundreds of others over the years!

The August 2014 Michael Brown incident, close on the heels of the July 2014 killing of Eric Garner, set off massive protests in Ferguson (Missouri), which later spread throughout the United States. The state of Missouri had to employ heavily militarized additional forces to bring violence under control.

Even though there was a lot of soul-searching and analysis resulting from the manifestation of public anger in Ferguson, from trying to understand the socio-economic divides to think of the issues with police biases and training, not much change was observed. It was not able to put the brakes on racist police behaviour throughout the US, even in the same year.

In November 2014, police in Cleveland, Ohio, shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing in a public park. He was reported by someone, in a call to the police, as carrying a weapon, “probably fake”. Indeed, it turned out that Rice had a toy gun in his hands. Rice was, however, shot within seconds of the police arriving on the scene.

The list of unarmed black victims of police violence for 2014, for example, as maintained by the website Mapping Police Violence is depressingly long, and it is the same for years before or after. That not much has changed in the years following Ferguson is evident as also detailed in this recent piece from The Guardian.

As former President Obama was quoted in the article recently, “We have to remember that for millions of Americans…being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ – whether it’s while dealing with the healthcare system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in the park.”

Obama should know—Ferguson erupted during his presidency.

blm 4
Protests by the African-American community over police action, such as in Ferguson or in Minneapolis currently, have a long history in the US. Here is a photo from protest in Times Square in response to the recent fatal shootings of two black men by police, July 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

Earlier, in 2013, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American boy, was shot by a local security officer on suspicion of being an interloper in the neighbourhood he was in. When the security officer was later acquitted by the courts, the Black Lives Matters movement was conceived of as a platform to rally around. The movement gained strength following the 2014 incidents of police killings.

Protests by the African-American community over police action, such as in Ferguson or in Minneapolis currently, have a long history in the US. These have included the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, the Newark riots of 1967 and the protests following Rodney King’s murder in Los Angeles in 1992. Other more recent protests were triggered by Tim Thomas’ murder in Cincinnati Ohio in 2001, Oscar Grant’s shooting in Oakland in 2009, and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 in Baltimore.

The much-celebrated and emulated Black Panther Movement in the late 60s and early 70s also took off after constant run-ins with the local police in Oakland, California. It was the Hunter’s Point riots that followed the killing of an unarmed black man, Matthew Johnson, that saw the emergence of the Black Panthers who took it upon themselves to monitor the police while openly carrying arms themselves.

There have been constant struggles and investigations in different areas to address the issues of the socio-economic disadvantages of African-Americans, from biases in allocation of state resources for basic social goods to the mass incarceration of black people to instil fear in the community and remove its working adults to prison.

But alongside all this, the confrontation with law enforcement has been a constant. Terms like “Driving While Black (DWB)”, which point to the high incidences of black folk being pulled over while driving without adequate reason, have long been in mainstream parlance.

In many cases, a simple instance of being pulled over can turn fatal, as in the case of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015. She protested being stopped for what seemed like a minor infraction, and the exchange with the police officer quickly escalated such that he had her arrested and sent to prison. Three days later, she was found hanging in jail.

While the black community has had a fraught and fatal relationship with the police over the years, the white community has generally trusted the police implicitly. According to a Pew Center report, “A survey conducted in mid-2017 asked Americans to rate police officers and other groups of people on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100, where 0 represents the coldest, most negative rating and 100 represents the warmest and most positive. Black adults gave police officers a mean rating of 47; whites gave officers a mean rating of 72.”

Whites and blacks have very different experiences when dealing with the police. Blacks, in fact, often end up being victimised when they seek police intervention. But the experience the white folks have is markedly different.

As an article explains, “Whites calling the police… do not endure long response times, treatment that negates their victimization, or the slide from victim to suspect in the eyes of the police… even when whites have involuntary contact with police, they overwhelmingly experience the police as helpful, benevolent, fair, and efficient problem solvers.”

As the article goes on to say, “This mismatch in experience equates to powerful incentives for people of one racial group to call the police on others who could be seen as breaching ‘white space.’”

Jim Crow Laws poster
A discriminatory regime of laws promulgated after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1865), called the Jim Crow laws, put into practice legalized racial segregation in the US.

Many people have tried to understand the history behind the recent cases of police targeting of the black folk. In the US South, a lot of the early policing was linked to maintaining the system of slavery, as an article explains. In the US North, even if the police started out as a municipal force, they were expected to control “a “dangerous underclass” that included African Americans, immigrants and the poor.

According to the same piece, “controlling disorder, lack of adequate police training, lack of nonwhite officers and slave patrol origins – are among the forerunners of modern-day police brutality against African Americans.”

A discriminatory regime of laws promulgated after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1865), called the Jim Crow laws, put into practice legalized racial segregation in the US. It was the police who were often called in to enforce the specifics of the laws, further entrenching the biases against the black population.

The police are not separate from the larger beliefs and attitudes in a society. A historical stance of African-Americans as second-class citizens, as dictated by the politics of disposability, dominates the common attitudes and public policy: “It is a politics in which the unproductive (the poor, weak and racially marginalized) are considered useless and therefore expendable… in which entire populations are considered disposable, unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves.”

Consider the Washington DC mayor’s recent comment on how the federal government looks at the risk of reopening the economy after the COVID-19 lockdown while considering the possible fatalities, especially among blacks: “There is this kind of a callous calculation happening that surprises me… It’s kind of like, ‘Well, this COVID is killing old people and, Oh, well. It’s killing black people, and poor people and essential workers. Oh, well.’”

To such deeper and older accounts of systematic neglect and marginalization of African-Americans and their targeting by law enforcement, is joined the more recent story of America’s notorious “war on drugs.”

As Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of the book, The New Jim Crow, explained in an interview, “So, you know, after the drug war was declared… crack hit the streets and really began to ravage inner-city communities, and… a wave of punitiveness really washed over the United States… The drug war was a literal war. It has been, it continues to be, a literal war waged in poor communities of color complete with SWAT teams and military-style equipment and tactics…”

This greater police presence in black communities increased the chances of violent encounters, and in many cases, resulted in black folk being swept up into the mass incarceration system, as Alexander explains above.

Other historians push the increased policing and surveillance even further back to the mid-60s into the early 70s. This was the time of the black unrest in places like Newark and Watts and the rise of the Black Panthers.

President Lyndon Johnson, who formulated a “War on Poverty” program to address the disaffection in the black community, also sanctioned a “War on Crime,” as historian Elizabeth Hinton has shown: “By 1965, Johnson had formulated a new initiative, what he called a ‘War on Crime.’ He sent to Congress a sweeping new bill that would bulk up police forces with federal money and intensify patrols in urban areas…His initiatives provided money for police to arm themselves with military equipment — ‘military-grade rifles, tanks, riot gear, walkie-talkies, helicopters, and bulletproof vests.’”

What is abundantly clear is that the police has always been at the frontline of an apathetic and skittish administration, which has deliberately under-invested in the upliftment of African-Americans. The police, especially the white officers, do their superior’s bidding, besides imbibing all the common prejudices against the African-Americans.

protesters face off with Baton Rouge police in riot gear
Police brutality is certainly a real, existential issue for black Americans. In this photo, from July ’08, protesters face off with Baton Rouge police in riot gear (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Such is the threat that an oppressed, marginalized, brutalized community poses to them that their immediate reaction, despite whatever their training manual says, despite a child or an adult in front of them who is unarmed, is to pull their gun and deal with the supposed threat first.

But the story of the economic disadvantages that the African-Americans suffer from cannot be ignored. Though, as several incidents including the one with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates have demonstrated, more well-placed blacks are not necessarily exempt from being stereotyped and viewed with suspicion, the likelihood of poorer blacks being the target of police violence is greater.

The sharp economic divides between blacks and whites are evident in most places in the US. Minneapolis, in the white-majority state of Minnesota, has parts that are poor and economically depressed. As an African-American city official from Minneapolis wrote recently, “Minneapolis hosts some of the worst disparities between black and white success in America.” Similar glaring gaps were found in the areas surrounding the town of Ferguson where protests had broken out in 2014.

While police brutality is certainly a real, existential issue for black Americans, the calamity of the coronavirus has laid bare their vulnerabilities in a stark and undeniable manner. Police brutality and the threat posed by the black body seems embedded deep in America’s history and psyche. So is the socio-economic marginalization of African-Americans.

The protests and reform movements, of course, rightfully seek changes to police operating procedures,  greater conversation on issues of race and solutions like community-control over the police. Many organizations seek a minimum of accountability to prosecute the guilty police officers and reopening of old cases to bring a sense of justice.

The tactics and beliefs of the Black Panther Party in struggling against the structures of racism and inequality can be instructive. While advocating for neighborhood self-defence groups to address issues of police brutality, they also campaigned for socio-economic rights, managing their own free breakfast and liberation school programs.

While the current anger and outrage is understandable and protesting the institutionalized racism that pervades the police force is the need of the hour, long-term goals of pressing for socio-economic changes cannot be left by the wayside. Otherwise, it is possible little substantial difference will accrue to the lives of African-Americans.

The article was first published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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