Can We Breathe Now?

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The unnaturally quiet days of the pandemic lockdown came to a screeching halt with the murder of African-American George Floyd, who was choked to death while in police custody in Minneapolis. The disturbing video of the subduing and subsequent death was the last straw.

His death has triggered nationwide protests, looting, burning and more. Sadly, it was the last in a long line of incidents in the past decades. More often than not, police who have killed unarmed blacks have not been charged with committing a crime, or have not had to face punishments commensurate with their acts.

In this latest case, the policeman who was caught on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was fired, then arrested and charged with third-degree murder. The arrest has not quelled the protestors who are asking for the arrest of the three other police officers witnessing Floyd’s ordeal without lifting a finger.

Demonstrations sprang immediately across the US, soon to also give way to looting in sever-
al cities, which then imposed
curfews.

The crowds have gathered in all thoroughfares of major cities with colorful slogans, such as “No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” “We Can’t Breathe” and “Abolish Police,” etc.

The ubiquitous civil rights activist, Rev. Al Sharpton, showed up at a rally in Minneapolis and gave one of his trademark fiery speeches and reversed the words uttered by the dying George Floyd (“I can’t breathe”) and asked his fellow believers to start a movement called “We Can Breathe.” He also stated, “We are not looking for a favor; we want justice.”

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It is not just one man’s murder that has triggered the current nationwide movement. The fact of the matter is that there has been a tremendous amount of anger built up and it took this last ember to turn the issue into a roaring blaze.

It will take a lot of fact-finding, statistics, and sociological analysis to get to the heart of this outburst. But one can draw some conclusions based on economics.

In the last few decades, the divide between haves and have-nots has grown wider, in fact becoming a chasm, with people of color overwhelmingly falling in the latter category.

Yet another indication of that disparity was manifest in the statistics of COVID-19 victims who were predominantly African-Americans. This demographic has less access to the healthcare system and in general suffers much shorter life spans and poor health. Incidents of heart disease and diabetes, often correlated to economic and educational problems, are rampant in the African-American community.

Women, specifically, are also suffering. In most major cities, African-American women suffer three times the mortality rate of white women during childbirth.

All this takes place in a country that is home to the greatest medical discoveries and hospitals.

The Civil Rights Movement went through a tortuous journey in this country before the Civil Rights Act was adopted. On the way to achieving justice for the African-American community, many leaders and activists were assassinated, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and others.

But what we discover now is that while the laws may be on the books, one cannot legislate behavior. Racist attitudes take a long time to dissipate and they rise to the surface every time a conflict erupts.

In the current political climate, the very top leadership of the country is using racist dog whistles to call to arms fellow believers against minorities in the country. It is a convenient way to manipulate them for a win in November: Sow fear and reap votes.

Former President Barack Obama’s recent statement struck a sensitive chord when he said, “We have to remember that for millions of Americas being treated different on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’”

Demonstrators can be broken down into a few categories. Certainly the looters who rob the stores and destroy cash registers are not motivated by any noble ideology. However, there are people — white and black — who stand up for human rights.

All the protestors are not looters and all looters are not protestors.

President Trump also blamed Antifa and other leftist groups, when the nation needs compassion from the highest office. President Trump instead chose to add a few remarks to his speech from Cape Canaveral, during the SpaceX launch, where he stated that he loved blacks and that he had called George Floyd’s family. Then he lashed out at all his detractors, announcing also that Antifa would be banned as a terrorist organization. He also threatened that “when looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Two weeks ago, a group of protestors marched to the capitol in Lancing, Mich., to protest the lockdown. Those protestors, all white, were armed to the teeth, carrying automatic assault weapons and even spewing hate speech. At that time, President Trump advised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to level with those thugs. “These are very good people but they are angry. They want their lives back. See them, talk to them and make a deal,” he said.

Earlier, dismissively he had called Michigan’s governor “that woman.” The reason for that treatment, or rather mistreatment, was that Ms. Whitmer is on the list of Democratic vice presidential candidates.

Now, victims of racist crimes of the past decade are resurrected. The mothers and other family members of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and others appear on TV screens to lament the fates of their loved ones and remind every- one of their losses, rendering the situation even more complex.

Joining the crows of mourners is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Los Angeles Laker, who is an eloquent writer and intellectual. Writing in the Los Angeles Times opinion section, “African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even when you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.”

America claims to have created a model society for the rest of the world to emulate. Yet in this land of plenty, a large swath of society suffers from hunger, depravation and injustice.

Armenian Americans should be among the first people to empathize with the plight of the underdog in society because generations of our parents and grandparents also experienced the thrust of the same racism. They were denied entry to grocery stores and other facilities, which often carried signs that Armenians, Jews and dogs were forbidden from entering.

Social and economic upward mobility should not rob us of our humanity. When the demonstrators warn “No Justice, No Peace,” that holds true for everybody, including the Armenians. Do we not say that we want justice when we protest the lack of recognition of the Armenian Genocide?

The unrest is continuing. Later, the country will begin to put its house in order and clean up the debris, contemplating what had transpired and questioned what lessons could be gleaned.

The name of George Floyd is one more casualty on the list of race victims.

Already, a mural marks the location where Floyd was murdered with a sign which reads, “I can breathe now.”

Can we also breathe now?

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