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What Price Human Life?
“I Can't Breathe”
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Praise the Lord, O My Soul
The Blood of Jesus
You'll Never Walk Alone
How Changed Are We?
A Sunday Morning's Meditation on Psalm 24

 

“I CAN'T BREATHE”
(Sunday, 7 June 2020)
by Ong Kok Bin

 

George Floyd, a black American, and his last words “I can't breathe”1 will stand in history as a testimony against power abuse, the white race, and closely linked to the white race, the white religion.

All of these three spiralled onto the vortex of Floyd and his killer, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A. Chauvin and three other police officers had arrested Floyd following a complaint of the latter using a $20 counterfeit bill in a grocery store. Chauvin pressed his knee onto the neck of Floyd, who was handcuffed and lying flat on the ground and did not resist arrest. By one account, Chauvin kept his knee onto Floyd's neck a total of eight minutes and forty-two seconds even though Floyd had voiced out his distress, “I can't breathe”, at least a couple of times.

At Floyd's memorial service, a vigil of silence was kept for the duration of eight minutes forty-two seconds, the time Chauvin's knee was on Floyd's neck.

Chauvin has since been dismissed from the police force, arrested, and charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and his three fellow officers would be facing complicity charges as well.

As we know, protests erupted all over America. But, to what avail?

Will white America change its ways and live the equal of all other races? Or, will it continue to breathe out the human rights of freedom to dignity, equality and fraternity in one nostril and at the same time, snort out hatred, distrust, discrimination and self-supremacy in the other nostril? My suspicion, I am afraid, is the latter; even if it means risking the offence of tarring the white constituency black. I know there are many whites, might even be the majority, who love and respect their fellow black Americans and other ethnic groups as themselves. But the taste and smell of the cake is what expresses itself most.

Of the three strands that are intertwined in the spiral that vortexed on Floyd and Chauvin, we shall concentrate more on the latter two of the white race and the white religion after briefly discussing the first, that is, power abuse.

Power abuse is universal. But what made the Chauvin abuse such a glare-out fuse for wide-spread anger and protest was that it was captured on camera and almost immediately shared with everyone on cybersphere. Had it not been for this, Floyd's death would just be another statistic in the records. Investigations would be on-going and perhaps Chauvin and company might get a slap on the wrist and the whole matter filed up and forgotten. But it could not be done this way since the cat was already out of the box and there was no way of coaxing it back in. Floyd's death at the hands of a white police officer was not an isolated incident. There has been a pattern of black deaths and abuse at the hands of the police, in particular, white police.

What contributed to this?

To answer this question, we shall have to go to the second strand of the spiral – the white race and slavery, and to when and how it all began (I have thought of calling it the “original sin”, when pondering over the whole issue days before this writing, but someone beat me to it in print).2 As it was, our story began in 1619 when a ship, The White Lion, brought 20 African slaves, captured from a Portuguese slave ship, on shore to Jamestown, Virginia. According to one account, several millions of Africans were brought in the 18th century alone to work as slaves in the tobacco and cotton fields of the New World, especially in the South.3

The white slave owners' treatment of their black slaves was horrifically abhorrent to say the least. They regarded their slaves not as human persons but as chattels to be bought and sold at auctions; to be shackled, tortured and beaten at will; to be raped and killed without fear of legal prosecution (for black slaves had no legal civil rights of their own in the foreign soil of the American New World). They used degrading and derogatory words on their slaves, the best known of which is ‘nigger’ (from the Spanish and Portuguese ‘negro’, which means ‘black’). One writer has argued that ‘nigger’ is not only a slur and pejorative term but is a word of enslavement.4

Over the course of time, there were whites, especially from the North, who opposed slavery and the ill-treatment of slaves. A war was fought, principally to keep the United States united; but secondarily, it was fought over the right to keep slaves. The South (the Confederated States which had seceded from the Union) lost the war and slaves were freed. But this freedom did not confer on the former black slaves equal civil rights before the law and human dignity before the former white slave owners. Blacks continued to be treated as lesser humans by their white counterparts. Segregation was practised. Blacks could not go to the same school, sit on the same side of the bus, or be buried in the same graveyard as whites. ‘Nigger’ was still thrown at blacks with the same disgust as before. Worse, the emancipation of the black slaves spawned secretive white supremacist groups, the best known of which was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Their primary aim was to prevent blacks from taking their rightful place under the American sun and they did this with the same venomous ill-treatment of torture, rape and lynching as their ancestors did against the ‘nigger-slaves’. The lost of the war and their slaves only sharpened the baser instincts of the racist white supremacists.

The disproportionate abuse of power by the police against blacks, arguably, had its roots in this history of black slavery at the hands of the whites.

In the midst of all this ill-treatment, what did the blacks do? They were quite a subdued lot in the beginning, quite contented with their new-found freedom. There were organisations and organised efforts to advance their cause, though. However, they were getting no headway. But Rosa Parks changed all that. She changed the landscape. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white on 1 December 1955 gave impetus to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Million March on Washington in 1963 and his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a landmark in the history of the black equality movement. Meanwhile, there was a political correctness awakening amongst much of the cultured and educated population both in America and in Europe. Derogatory words and slangs were found to be politically incorrect and were thrown out of the window and banned from coming back into the room. ‘Nigger’ went out. So, too, did ‘negro’. And in their place, ‘African-Americans’ or the cumbersome ‘Americans of African origin’, or simply, ‘blacks’. Barack Obama got elected to the presidency and served from 2009 to 2017. His election to the highest office in America both stunned and frightened the white racists – for Obama was a black, despite his having white blood half flowing in his veins. I got a first-hand understanding of this racist divide when my wife and I were in Memphis on a sabbatical in the second half of 2014. One white church elder told me of how on the morning after Obama was elected, there was an eerie and uncomfortable silence in his church, which was principally white. He had to stand up before his congregation and ask them to accept Obama's election. Another fellow Christian, also a white, told me he did not accept Obama as President, but merely an occupier of the White House.

This brings us to the third strand of the spiral – white religion. And I like to discuss this strand of white religion using Donald Trump's photo-op outside a church building a few days ago as a back-drop to the discussion. By white religion, I mean white Christianity, of course. Trump is not known to be affiliated to any denomination and so what was he doing outside of the Episcopal St. John's Church premises holding a Bible in one hand on Monday? Trump is a political animal and his animal instincts told him he needed his constituency of supporters and voters now more than ever before. And who are they? They are the evangelical white Christians who voted for him in November 2016 and elections are due this November 2020. These evangelical white Christians voted for him despite his immorality and lies and he is calling upon them to vote for him again in spite of his immorality and lies. In a very crude and inexact manner, the image of Donald Trump standing outside St. John's Church holding up a Bible in one hand prompts my mind to think of what the apostle Paul had written to the Thessalonians in 2 Thessalonians 2. Not that I am saying that Trump is Paul's “man of lawlessness”; no, not at all. I am thinking of the deceit and the counterfeit works, the powerful delusion and the lie that Paul wrote in association with this “man of lawlessness”. I had wondered how people could be so deluded as to not believe the truth but in a lie. Trump and his constituency of evangelical white voters opened my mind to this phenomenon of believing in a lie as never before.

These evangelical white voters are more likely to regard blacks as lesser humans and a threat to their existence much like their slave-owner ancestors before them. They would rather believe a lie or create one if it is convenient to them. An anecdotal real episode will illustrate this. On May 29, a young white woman was taking her dog for a walk in Central Park. The rule is that dogs have to be leashed. Amy Cooper did not leash her dog. A black man, Christian Cooper, (no relation to her) rightly asked her to leash her dog. Amy took out her mobile and called 911. In a very distraught and tearful voice, she made it known to her receiver on the other end that an African-American man was threatening her and her dog. Had not Christian video-recorded the whole episode, he might have been arrested and charged with demeanour or some assault-related charges. Multiply this episode umpteen times over four hundred years and you get the magnitude of the mistreatment blacks have suffered at the hands of the whites.

The lie that white Christian slave owners created was that niggers were less than human and not worthy of any dignity and respect. It was fashionable in those days for whites to call any other person who were not of the same skin colour as savages or barbarians. It might still be the same in certain white quarters today. Until as recent as the 1950s, American white nuclear scientists were referring to islanders in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean as savages. And because they were savages, they could be used as guinea pigs in their research into the radiation effects of nuclear bombs on human beings (read the history of the U.S. atomic bomb testing project on the Bikini atoll, one of the islands in the Marshall Islands).

“What's in a name?” Juliet of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet asked. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” she added.5 Juliet's words have been transformed into today's more oft-quoted and easily remembered idiom of “A rose by any name is just as sweet”. It is used to indicate that things do not change no matter by what name they are called. They are what they are by any name. However, this Shakespearean truism does not apply to names like ‘nigger’ or ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ that racist and supremacist whites pin on the back of others like Africans or Oceanians or Asians. The very naming of black people as ‘niggers’ pinned on them characteristics and traits that are less of a human and therefore they are to be treated as such — sub-humans, wild and dangerous. They have to be tamed, subdued and even shackled; kept apart. The name change from ‘nigger’ to ‘African-American’ was intended to remove this slur of insult and the attendant discriminatory treatment of the black people. Unfortunately, the name change does not have its intended objective entirely. African-Americans remain as ‘niggers’ or ‘negroes’ in the psyche of many whites, including white Christians. That is why Donald Trump went to a church building (two in fact) with a Bible held up high in his hand.

To what avail would the nation-wide (and world-wide) protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd be? The killing and the protests might change a few things in the immediate short term. They will, however, be merely cosmetic. Until and unless the lie that the evangelical Christian whites believe in be purged, blacks would remain as niggers — sub-human, wild and dangerous, to be tamed, subdued, shackled and kept apart.

When will that “until-and-unless”?

It is until and unless the words of the Lord Jesus Christ “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) pierce through the white lie and demolish it altogether.

It is until and unless the labels of white, black, and coloured disappear from our vocabulary.

In the meantime, we keep a vigilant hope:
     “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,
     for you are all one in Christ Jesus
(Galatians 3:28).tiny

_________________________

1Eric Garner similarly cried, “I can't breathe”, when he was choked in a stranglehold by the police in a side-walk in New York city in 2014. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Eric_Garner.
2Barrett Holmes Pitner, “Viewpoint: US Must Confront Its Original Sin to Move Forward”, 3 June 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52912238 (accessed 4 June 2020)
3https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery (accessed 6 June 2020)
4Alexander Brown, “African American Enslavement, Speech Act Theory, and the Law”, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12111-019-09431-z (accessed 6 June 2020)
5quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_rose_by_any_other_name_would_smell_as_sweet

  Lord, Make Us Instruments of Your Peace
        Lord, make us instruments of your peace
        Where there is hatred, let your love increase
        Lord, make us instruments of your peace
        Walls of pride and prejudice shall cease
        When we are your instruments of peace.


    1. Where there is hatred, we will show his love
    Where there is injury, we will never judge
    Where there is striving, we will speak his peace
    To the millions crying for release
    We will be his instruments of peace.

    2. Where there is blindness, we will pray for sight
    Where there is darkness, we will shine his light
    Where there is sadness, we will bear their grief
    To the millions crying for relief
    We will be your instruments of peace.

Lyrics: Don Moen   

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