By Wilson Honório da Silva (PSTU-Brazil), translated to English by Carlos Jara
Exactly 16 kilometers separate two stories that serve as signposts of the depths of the racial abyss that exists in North American society, of the violence that haunts and destroys Black lives, and also of the strength of the protests and rebellions “from below” in the struggle against oppression.
Today, April 20th, all who have participated in this struggle are taking to the streets to celebrate the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the policeman who strangled George Floyd to death on May 25, 2020, murdering him in a cowardly, brutal and painful display. Celebration is more than appropriate, as this trial outcome is very much the exception, and not the rule, in the so-called “greatest democracy on the planet”.
Perhaps the jury that found Chauvin guilty in Minneapolis, as well as the multitude of journalists that have descended on the city to cover the trial, should, as of April 11th, turn their attention and their cameras to the neighboring city of Brooklyn Center, where Duante Wright, a 20 year old Black man, was murdered by another police officer, Kim Potter, who claims to have mistaken her automatic pistol for a taser prior to shooting him to death.
Between these two incidents lie more than a few kilometers. There are centuries of racism and impunity, an innumerable amount of deaths at the hands of the police and white supremacists. There are also thousands of kilometers of road that protestors across the country have marched down, hundreds of thousands of Black, Latinx, indigenous peoples and their comrades standing together, with significant solidarity protests held around the entire world.
A victory, but also a historic exception
During the trial, Chauvin’s defense tried to make the case that George Floyd was the true culprit of his own death, claiming that his death was the result of cardiac and respiratory problems caused by drug use. As stupid and inadequate as this defense was, more than a few people believed it, including state officials who prepared themselves for a veritable war, putting police (under governors’ control) and the National Guard (under President Biden’s control) on maximum alert.
These precautions are based on historical experience. An article published on April 14 on the website Ill Will includes several illustrative pieces of data: over the course of 14 years from 2005 to 2019, only 104 were charged with homicide or involuntary homicide, despite 14,000 people having been killed by the police over the same period (a figure which is likely an underestimate). Out of the 104 charged, only 35 were found guilty, and only 4 faced prison sentences.
In the hands of the police, Black lives do not matter
The impunity enjoyed by the police forces is inversely proportional to the brutality that they unleash on the Black population. As noted in an article published on UOL, while Black Americans are only about 13% of the US population, they are jailed at a rate five times higher than white people (60% of the population) and twice as high as people of Hispanic origin (18% of the population). On top of that, Black men are three times as likely to be killed by police officers than white men, and Black women are 1.4 times as likely to be killed than white women.
These numbers represent lives, whose names have been engraved into the bedrock of the country’s recent memories. The beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement can be traced to the trial that found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The roots of the movement have been watered with blood, pain and impunity, by the deaths of Michael Brown, aged 18, shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; Eric Garner, aged 44, shouted “I can’t breathe” while being strangled by a police officer in New York, 2014; Freddie Gray, aged 26, killed by a cop in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015; Breonna Taylor, shot to death by policemen breaking into her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, 2020.
In all of these cases the police wee found innocent, with the exception of Breonna Taylor’s three murderers, who were charged with “reckless conduct” and fined.
Duante Wright: Proof of racist violence
As mentioned earlier in this article, Duante Wright, 20 years old and the father of a newborn baby, was murdered a few kilometers from where Chauvin’s trial was proceeding. Wright was stopped on the freeway on Sunday, April 11th for having car deodorizers hanging from his rearview mirror; technically against the law, but something that would rarely result in a white drivers being pulled over. A 2020 Stanford University found that Black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
The murder led to an immediate uprising by the population of the small city of Brooklyn Center, home to a mere 30,000 people and a non-white majority: 29% Black, 16.3% Asian, 13.5% hispanic, and 38% white. Since then, protests have continued every night despite curfews put into place by both the local government and the federal National Guard.
Duante’s murder was not an isolated incident. As noted in the April 17 copy of the New York Times, since the beginning of Chauvin’s trial on March 29th, no fewer than “64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement across the country, with Black and Latino people forming more than half of those killed.”
First among these victims, killed on the same day as the trial’s beginning, is a horrific example of the police’s blood lust. Adam Toledo, a Latinx boy barely 13 years old, was chased, cornered, and shot by a cop while holding his arms in the air.
Under capitalism, no justice, no peace
The practically unprecedented scene of Chauvin being marched to court in handcuffs, facing with decades of jail time, is not a product of Joe Biden’s rise to the presidency. The majority of the deaths recounted in this article occurred during the Obama administration, during which he was vice president.
Chauvin’s guilty verdict was the product of protests, which began in 2013 and 2014 and have only grown since then. Marches, protests, street occupations and isolated strikes have turned into one of the country’s most significant antiracist movements, drawing comparisons to the important Civil Rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s that brought an end to segregation laws.
Since the end of segregation, laws have been struck, a Black man assumed two terms as president, and various records of people of color in state office have been set. But the core of US society has not changed. On top of the ongoing, disproportionate killings and arrests, unemployment among Black people reached 11.4% in 2020, significantly higher than the national rate of 8.1%, an enduring sign of the inequality in the economy and in access to social services.
All of these issues have been further aggravated by the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by APM Labs, while the white majority has suffered 150.2 deaths out of every 100,000 people, the Black population faces a death rate of 179.8 per 100,000, and indigenous people (3% of the population) face the even higher rate of 256 deaths for every 100,000 people.
All of this data shows that Chauvin’s conviction is without a doubt an important victory of the recent struggles. And, for that reason, we cannot ignore the message posted on the Black Lives Matter Twitter account today.
The message reminds us that it took “330 days to confirm what we already knew. 330 days to relive the trauma of George’s murder, fearing that the system would fool us once again, and mourning so many more that we have lost. For a murder witnessed by millions of people.” And that this “is not proof the the system works. It is proof that the system is failing…Until we have a world where our communities can live without fear, we will not have justice.”
What’s more, the problem is not the judicial system, nor is the solution prosperity for the Black community. Biden stated that the conviction is a “step forward against the systemic racism the stains the soul of the country…that can be a great step forward in the march towards justice in America”. The Democrats and their allies (among whom stand the majority of the official leadership of BLM) will certainly use Chauvin’s conviction to promote this illusion.
But Black lives cannot live off of illusions alone. The harsh realities of capitalist exploitation lock us in a violent, racist quagmire, both here and everywhere else in the world. The murders will continue, and the murderers in blue will continue to enjoy impunity to the beat of the system’s drum. Chauvin’s conviction does not represent a change of direction. It was an exception, won by the alliance of Black people together with ever-growing sections of the working class, young people, Latinx people, immigrants, and indigenous peoples.
It is only through the unity of these bases, through the socialist struggle for the conquest of power, that we will be able to guarantee a future where we will not have to take the streets day after day to remind ourselves that Black lives mater.
The original article can be found in Portuguese here.