George Floyd’s Killing and Its International Repercussions

Part 1

George Floyd’s killing and its international repercussions: Part 1

Part OnePart 2 here.

The gruesome killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 25 May 2020 has given rise to an unprecedented campaign against police brutality in the United States, and in turn has acted as a fuse for a worldwide uprising against racism and inequality. Floyd’s killing triggered massive demonstrations in more than 350 cities in the United States and around the world, and has probably started a movement that goes well beyond the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and may prove to be a turning point in human history.

What is remarkable is that those who have taken part in those massive demonstrations are not all black and ethnic people, but they have been joined by millions of white people who are ashamed of the legacy of slavery and are determined to help their fellow human beings to achieve the dignity and equality that they deserve. They know that a society that is built on exploitation, discrimination and inequality diminishes us all.

George Floyd was arrested, handcuffed and pushed faced down to the ground while Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes, despite the fact that Floyd kept saying that he could not breathe, until his body became motionless.

Clearly, the policeman’s behaviour was not the case of a “bad apple”, but was typical of the militaristic and high-handed manner in which the  US police treat all US citizens, but predominantly African-Americans and other ethnic groups.

Derek Chauvin did not act alone, but while Floyd was being choked to death, a second and a third officer held him down, while a fourth officer prevented bystanders from intervening.

Floyd’s murder was the fourth time in recent months that an unarmed innocent black man had been murdered by white policemen in Minnesota. In none of those previous cases were the policemen responsible for the murders punished.

In the United States the laws generally favour policemen. All a policeman has to say is that the victim had threatened him, so he or she had to be shot, and the law protects the policeman. They can even say that the victim had resisted arrest, and again they are covered by law.

To provide just a simple example of the grotesque disparity between the behaviour of the US police and police forces in other democracies, it is enough to point out that on average every year US police forces kill between 1,000 and 1,400 people, nearly half of them blacks. ((See David Leonhardt, “The Persistence of Police Killings, New York Times, May 29, 2020. According to this source the number of police killings by year in the U.S. are: In 2013: 1,111; 2014: 1.059; 2015: 1.103; 2016: 1,071; 2018: 1,143; 2019: 1,099.)) However, in the United Kingdom the average number of people killed as the result of a police shooting is three. ((See Statista: “Number of fatal shooting by police in England and Wales from 2004/05 to 2018/19”. Corresponding figures for UK from 2012/13 to 2018/19 have been: 0, 0, 1, 3, 6, 4. 3.))

The figures for the rest of Europe are also similar to those in Britain. In all European states the figures are in single digits. ((For a comparative list of killings by police in different countries see: “List of killings by law-enforcement officers by country” at Wikipedia.)) In other words, the US police shoot dead more people on a single day than police in different European countries kill in a whole year.

Of course, a part of this huge disparity is due to the fact that most Americans have access to firearms while in Europe and other democracies the possession of firearms is strictly controlled. That is an important issue that needs to be addressed in a democracy and in a law-abiding country.

In any country that is run on the basis of the rule of law, the citizens should rely on their police forces to protect them rather than act as armed militia for their protection which results in a situation as in the United States.

However, we must sadly confront the fact that the United States is still a racist society. The entire economy of the American South was dependent on slavery, and culturally still many white people regard black Americans if not as slaves but at least as inferior citizens. Various civil rights movements since 1960s have tried to bring about some fundamental change but, despite some improvements, the curse of racism has not yet been lifted.

Apart from the legacy of racism, black and ethnic minorities provide a ready scapegoat for the economic and social problems that afflict the society. Added to these factors is a fear of the white majority that soon they will lose their privileged status. Recently white populations in many parts of the country have lost their majority. In some parts of the Southwest, Hispanic Americans outnumber non-Hispanic Americans, and in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, African-Americans form a majority, as they do in many other US cities.

As a result, the white population is in a state of panic. They fear that in 20 years the United States as a whole will be a nation with a majority of non-white people. This is part of Trump’s appeal to his White Supremacist base who hate the thought of being in the minority. Many of them would like the black and brown and non-Christian people to disappear or at least be kept down.

When President Trump bans travel from six Muslim-majority countries or refers to some racist thugs as “very good people” it is not surprising that his followers follow the lead of the president and regard blacks, Latinos, other ethnic groups and Muslims as inferior people to be shunned and persecuted.

It is often not realised that even some of those who fought against slavery during the Civil War believed that black people had to be sent back to “their countries”. They argued that it was easy for some British abolitionists to call for an end to slavery because they did not have to live with them, as most slaves lived in British colonies and very few of them actually lived in Britain, while Americans had to live with their former slaves after abolishing slavery.

It is important to remember all this in order to understand the depth of hatred and extreme violence against the black and ethnic groups in the United States. So, what we are witnessing is a revolution which requires not only the change of a few laws or “defunding the police” but a complete transformation of the attitude of those who have had the culture of racism ingrained in them.

Most people are unaware of the extent of the crimes associated with slavery. Although some form of slavery had existed from the beginning of human history, with the rise of European powers and the need for cheap labour in the New World, slavery assumed industrial proportions, involving millions of people being grabbed and uprooted from their homes and shipped across the world to work in inhumane conditions on plantations. ((David Keys, “Details of horrific first voyages in transatlantic slave trade revealed”, The Independent, 17 August 2018.))

The largest slave trade in history was carried out by Europeans, mainly to serve in the New World. Before it was over, tens of millions of Africans would be killed for the profit of white colonialists. White colonialists armed with superior weapons would invade some African countries, pull young men and young women out of the embrace of their loved ones, put them in chains and transport them to the other side of the world to be sold as slaves. The “voyages of discovery” were not as benign as they have been made out, but were money-making enterprises with the natives and black slaves paying the biggest cost. ((See “The true legacy of Christopher Columbus: ‘Western Civilisation,’ George Monbiot.”))

A main reason for the high death toll among the slaves was the tidal wave of war and desolation that the slave trade unleashed in the heart of Africa. While both Europe’s and Asia’s populations nearly doubled between 1600 and 1800, Africa’s population dropped from 114 million in 1600 to 107 million in 1800. ((“Death Toll from the Slave Trade: The African Holocaust”, World Future Fund.))

Some scholars estimate that some 30 to 60 million Africans were enslaved. Out of those captured Africans, between 12,000,000-15,000,000 survived the ordeal of forced migration to become plantation labourers in North and South America and the Caribbean.

There was a 50% mortality rate among new slaves while being gathered and stored in Africa, a 10% mortality rate among the survivors while crossing the ocean, and another 50% mortality rate in the first “seasoning” phase of slave labour. Overall, some scholars estimate a 75-80% mortality rate in transit and among the survivors. ((David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 317-18.))

In order to get an idea of the way the slaves were treated on plantations one has to read Charles Dickens’s “American Notes” which provide the details of what he saw with his own eyes during his trip to the United States. He quotes some advertisements published in some US newspapers for recapturing the slaves who had fled:

‘‘Ran away, a negro man named Henry; his left eye out, some scars from a dirk on and under his left arm, and much scarred with the whip.’

‘One hundred dollars reward, for a negro fellow, Pompey, 40 years old.  He is branded on the left jaw.’

‘Ran away, a negro woman named Rachel.  Has lost all her toes except the large one.’

‘Ran away, Sam.  He was shot a short time since through the hand, and has several shots in his left arm and side.’

‘Ran away, my negro man Dennis.  Said negro has been shot in the left arm between the shoulder and elbow, which has paralysed the left hand.’

‘Ran away, my negro man named Simon.  He has been shot badly, in his back and right arm.’

‘Ran away, a negro named Arthur.  Has a considerable scar across his breast and each arm, made by a knife; loves to talk much of the goodness of God.’

 ‘Committed to jail, a man who calls his name John.  He has a clog of iron on his right foot which will weigh four or five pounds.’

‘Detained at the police jail, the negro wench, Myra.  Has several marks of lashing, and has irons on her feet.’

‘Twenty-five dollars reward for my man Isaac.  He has a scar on his forehead, caused by a blow; and one on his back, made by a shot from a pistol.’

‘Ran away, a negro girl called Mary.  Has a small scar over her eye, a good many teeth missing, the letter A is branded on her cheek and forehead.’

These are just a few examples of many more that he quotes. These horrendous facts and figures must bring tears to the eyes of every decent person.

It is time to look at history as it was, be brave enough to admit and condemn historical injustices, make sure that we move forward with a different attitude and celebrate our common humanity.

Former US President Jimmy Carter issued a statement shortly after George Floyd’s killing and nationwide demonstrations. What he said must act as a wakeup call to all of us:

‘… As a white male of the South, I know all too well the impact of segregation and injustice to African Americans. As a politician, I felt a responsibility to bring equity to my state and our country. In my 1971 inaugural address as Georgia’s governor, I said: “The time for racial discrimination is over.” With great sorrow and disappointment, I repeat those words today, nearly five decades later. Dehumanizing people debases us all; humanity is beautifully and almost infinitely diverse. The bonds of our common humanity must overcome the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices….’ ((See “Statement from Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter”))

Photo on top
Slave Trade, print on paper by John Raphael Smith after George Morland, 1762–1812; in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (RP-P-1969-83)

  • For “George Floyd’s killing – Part 2,” click here.
  • Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a former Senior Research Scholar at Harvard. He is also a TFF Associate and former Board member of the foundation. For the past 30 years, he has been teaching courses on the Middle East at the Department of Continuing Education and is a member of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford. Read other articles by Farhang, or visit Farhang's website.