“I can’t breathe”

These three words were the last words uttered by George Floyd who died recently because of police violence and Eric Garner who also died for the same reason six years ago. After being found not guilty for five days, the police officer who killed Floyd is now on trial for third-degree murder. Notably African Americans, hundreds of people who don’t feel equal have reacted to this situation with violent acts such as burning out police stations and vehicles, looting stores and surrounding the White House. The protests still continue.

“All people are created equal,” this sentence which was stated in the American Declaration of Independence 244 years ago is carried out proudly and, so to speak, is “sold” to the outer world by the American people, however it is obvious that they couldn’t internalized it psychologically. The abolition of slavery was an important phase for the transition from agriculture-based income to industrialization in those years. Instead of slaves, workers who would work for regular but very little salary were being needed. Instead of masses who took full responsibility and produced low-value- added agricultural products, the working class, whose service was bought as much as needed and who in return was employed with a small fee commensurate with the value they produced, was the most important element of the transition to industrialization and accordingly to the capitalist system at the time.

The Declaration of Independence

So, the abolition of slavery was a move that served not only to the human rights but also to the new economic order to be established. In the American Civil War, which was made entirely to take control of the United States, the Union (North) used the abolition of slavery as a propaganda tool and dragged the slave people into the war.

With the Union’s victory over the Confederation and the initiative steps about the abolition of slavery, the-helplessness-and victimization-based rage the slave people had accumulated for years was suppressed with a masterful move. Because their former masters pretended that the fight was for the freedom of the slaves whereas it was completely for the protection of their own hegemony and they made the slaves feel guilty about the war casualties. The cruel masters became the victim.

Besides that, with the pledges that everybody would be equal, they took the full support of black people about laying the foundations of the present America. Those who had been torn apart from their homelands years ago because of forced migration hoped to heal their wounds with the excitement of finding a new homeland and the possibility of belonging somewhere. However, the issue of equality has never been truly internalized. Once they acquire something for a while though undeserved, the humankind now believes that they deserve it. It is called the sense of entitlement. Even if the “master whites” who considered themselves as the superior for years tried to suppress their narcissistic feeling of superiority, it didn’t work out. Being equal with the black people whom they didn’t once regard as human beings and they humiliated would be to degrade themselves! Even so, in order to cope with it, using a totally opposite defense mechanism, they brought notions such as “democracy” and “equality” into the forefront. However, for a true and absorbed equality, first the victimization of the victimized must be approved and then they should be empathized with. Without such a settlement between them, the peoples only seemed to be equals for years.

Despite the 244 years that have passed and the fact that black people have many success stories in numerous fields, they still don’t have equal conditions in humanitarian and institutional contexts. They are disadvantaged in terms of money, job, health, living space and social relations. Apart from their past traumas that have already been triggered with the pandemic, they also don’t have as much access to health services as the others and are struggling with unemployment. While still experiencing all these, the words “I can’t breathe” of a young black man, under the knee of a police officer, echoed in their ears. Their already existing fear of death owing to Covid-19 took on a totally different dimension with these words. If you pay attention, “I can’t breathe” is a sentence formed by those who died of the pandemic. That is to say, people who have been living with the fear of not being able to breathe for months or who have lost their loved ones for this reason, loaded whatever is evil to the police officer who killed George Floyd by suffocating him and to the government institutions. They say: “They are enraged. And there’s an easy way to stop it: Arrest the cops. Charge the cops.”

The pain of Eric Garner who died of suffocation six years ago and of other victims is coming out now, too. The chosen traumas of the disadvantaged people in America have come to life and their inner destructiveness has shown its face. Erich Fromm says that anxiety and the obstruction of life wouldcreate destructiveness. He adds that the more we suppress the impulse of life, the greater the power of destructiveness becomes. It was an extremely worrying process for the black people in America. When they were leaving their homes or their loved ones, they couldn’t be sure whether they would see them ever again. And now they feel right and aggrieved enough to punish others. They say: “[The land] has not been free for Black people, and we are tired. Don’t talk to us about looting. Y’all are the looters. America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you.” (from activist Tamika Mallory’s speech on police brutality)

The Protests

So why this destructiveness hasn’t shown itself at a high level until now? First of all, as I mentioned before, the fear of death that is triggered during the pandemic, obvious inequalities, the painful struggle for survival and the recent police violence has triggered the current uprising. Plus, perhaps Floyd, who was suffocated to death, represents their loved ones who died of the pandemic whereas the police officer who suffocated him represents the government. But there is another issue I’d like to talk about: the sense of belonging. The ancestors of most of them had been torn apart from their homeland and brought to America with forced migration in the past. They tried to feel like they belonged to America with slogans such as “America is for all of us”. Because it was the only place for them to feel a sense of belonging and connection. However, words or what was written in the Constitution didn’t reflect on human relations, deep feelings and intentions. In order to better explain what I mean, I’d like to share a part from the own life story of an author named N. Hannah Jones:

“When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an
assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed
each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag. As she
turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me.
Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.”

I must add that the father of this article’s writer (a black worker) always keeps an American flag in their balcony and is proud to be an American. Just like a child who lost her mother and in pain needs to get attached to another without questioning… Michael Jackson is another type of example of this. Though he talked about the oppression they experienced in his songs, he waived his health and turned his black skin color into white.

America is now living in chaos as the victims of years have become the bullies. Because the rules are changing from person to person, the oppressed people no longer trust the government. As they don’t trust the legal and justice system, they seek their rights in their own ways. With years of traumatic accumulation, the state of trying to protect their own rights against institutional
violence is withholding them from empathizing with others. It is certain that Trump will not
empathize with these people, either. But what really catches my interest is the fact that these people have expectations not only from the American government but also from all official/unofficial institutions and the public. They say:

“I don’t care about the burning of Target because Target should have gone out and called for justice with us. If you don’t come to the defense of people, don’t challenge us while young people and others are being frustrated and provoked by people you pay for.”

The famous hactivist group Anonymous: “But what of the officers who stand by and do nothing while they commit offenses against the people they encounter?”

So, the saying “let sleeping dogs lie” is losing its function in the new world. Even if we keep quiet
about an unjust situation we witness, injustice eventually finds us. Because, regardless of where we stand in the equation, a structure that gives privilege to any group or makes a group undervalued is not a healthy structure and is sooner or later doomed to break apart. Because the victim eventually becomes the bully.

Right now, there is a different situation than the protests that have taken place from time to time. This time, the demands and criticism are directed not only to a single group but to all systems and institutions. Of course, the solution is not the arrest of a couple of police officers or the apology of a police department, as some claim. The actual demand is to end any discrimination embedded into the American dream over the years, centering the black people. What started with the demand of justice will evolve into the demand of equal job, equal pay and free fundamental social rights in the near future. America has long been unable to find a demand, or a chance, for such a social consensus.

As Michael Jordan beautifully said:
“We must listen to each other, show compassion and empathy and never turn our backs on senseless brutality. We need to continue peaceful expressions against injustice and demand accountability. Our unified voice needs to put pressure on our leaders to change our laws, or else we need to use our vote to create systemic change. Every one of us needs to be part of the solution, and we must work together to ensure justice for all.”

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