The Bold Act of Civil Disobedience

The convergence of coronavirus and recent events in the nation have shed light on the consequences of a failing leadership, and they suggest civil disobedience as a necessary tool for the protection of citizens.
Black Lives Matter March in Atlanta, credit AP

We have reached the end of the first half of 2020. So far, this year has been marked by a global-scale pandemic – decelerated in some countries while still persevering in others – a constricting world economy, increasing unemployment and now unhampered public outrage in the world’s leading democracy (or should we now say failing). The United States of America is encountered with a twin crisis – pandemic and protests. In such fragile circumstances, the head of state should issue his word of honour to assure his people of his efforts for their protection. However, in the US, the president has retreated to his presidential bunker and instead offered his public address in a belligerent tone, through Twitter. The convergence of coronavirus and recent events in the nation have shed light on the consequences of a failing leadership, and they suggest civil disobedience as a necessary tool for the protection of citizens. Once the citizens realize that a state no longer upholds their end of the social contract (in providing protection), the citizens too no longer have to comply with the rules and regulations set by the law enforcers – thereby breaking the contract and rattling the foundations of a society. 

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King. 

The death of George Floyd occurred on 25th May 2020, in the state of Minneapolis. Floyd, a 46 year-old Black American, was taken into police custody for allegedly paying with a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. Minneapolis police forces were quickly alerted by the shop clerk, and four officers soon arrived to interrogate and persecute Floyd. What happened next was nothing short of torture. Floyd, handcuffed and showing no signs of resistance, was eventually manhandled and peeled to the ground with his neck depressed for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, by a 44 year-old White policeman, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin pressed his knee firmly down on Floyd’s neck, who soon began pleading that he couldn’t breathe, and continued so for 2 minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd lost consciousness[1]. The other policemen on site pinned Floyd’s legs to the ground and tried diverting the bystanders away. This police brutality was caught on tape by onlookers, who profusely appealed to the police to stop with their gruesome act. The video was released on social media and quickly went viral, drawing attention once again to the everlasting oppression of the Black community. Floyd’s death follows a visibly growing scene of aggression targeted at African Americans by the White population – the recent shootings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and many others come to mind[2]. African Americans belong to a historically marginalised group and suffer from entrenched inequalities, which persist decades after the Civil Rights movement granted them equal rights. These inequalities, as much structural as institutional, have held back the community in achieving similar levels of success to their White counterparts. The Black community makes up a total of estimated 23,000 COVID-19 related deaths in America and around 93 percent of coronavirus related arrests[3]. Despite the American police departments restraining on their arrest orders, in the name of preserving public health, this ethnic community continues to suffer maltreatment one way or another. 

How does civil disobedience help the people combat institutional discrimination? This term was first coined by Henry David Thoreau in 1848, to describe an illegal, public, non-violent and conscientious act, with the particular intent to frustrate a country’s laws[4]. The George Floyd protests, beginning on 26th May, were intended to highly publicize and seek a systematic reform for Black oppression, in a non-aggressive mobilisation, but disregard state-imposed curfews, and thus can have the attending protestors arrested – a form of civil disobedience. Protesting has become a common tool for civil movements, especially seen in 2019, where unprecedented political mobilisation poses a grave challenge to governments today. The American streets are flooded with anguished, cross-cultural protestors, who stand in solidarity against the discriminatory criminal justice system. Peaceful protesting in America is viewed as a legitimate expression of civil opinion (freedom of speech), protected by the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights[5]. This means that the people can organise or attend a protest at streets, sidewalks, parks and even public property like a plaza in front of a government building. They do not require a permit to host or participate in such protests, as long as they do not obscure any vehicle/pedestrian traffic. Protesting, however, is not guaranteed without incurring consequences. The police can infringe on these civilian rights and limit their exercise of speech. Yet, the nation continues to persist as the 1977 Declaration of Independence enables the Americans to alter their government should it no longer serve them[6]

Apart from the peaceful protests, there have been other violent demonstrations such as burning of the Minneapolis police precinct and looting and damage of local shops, a display of public affliction towards the unending police brutality. This has been fiercely countered by a rioting police force, who under the guise of civil control, have grabbed a militaristic posture and stoke further unrest in the streets. Unlike the protestors who can be arrested, the local police cannot be held accountable for their actions as they are state’s instrument of law enforcement[7]. The forceful assertion of power shown through police brutality, strongly infringes on liberal rights and have begun people’s demands for an alternative to policing. The Americans demand for a greater police accountability and have pushed their lawmakers to enact change in the public safety system. With the great pressure asserted from the George Floyd protests, the Minneapolis City Council has declared the dismantling of the current police department. The allegedly racist Minneapolis Police will now be disintegrated for a better safety system to take its place. The New York Mayor, Bill De Blasio, has also responded positively to protestors’ rallying cries of “defund[ing] the police” and has announced a cut in New York Police Department’s budget which in turn would go in funding for social services[8].

Civil Disobedience has been powerful tool in grabbing the local leaders’ attention to listen to the people’s demands and spark a change. However, such mass mobilisation has left many concerned with the imminent health implications. These protests come at a time of high health alert, where strict safe-distancing measures are imperative to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Having people squashed together on busy streets, with some giving up on wearing their masks, would do little to lessen the impact and instead create a more contagious space for this infective agent to proliferate. While these concerns are substantial and a cause of worry for a country that has crossed 112,000 coronavirus-related deaths[9], the extended protests signal the grave urgency to solve the country’s racial inequity before worrying about safe-distancing. Protests during such a pandemic, creates a tense political climate, stretched between two national challenges. Such times call for a strong leadership to consolidate a fragile republic.

The 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama, used the Twitter platform to address the recent events and urge Americans to unite protests with politics to see long-lasting change. This means that while political mobilization helps raise awareness, voting for the correct local candidate seals the deal in improving law enforcement practices[10]. Meanwhile, the incumbent, Donald Trump, has in most senses, abdicated his leadership, predictably in times when his country needs him the most. With tweets such as “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”[11], the President has done more damage than good in restoring things to the norm. Instead he kept provoking the already-agitated protesters by threatening to unleash military troops into the streets, destabilising the situation further. For many Americans out there protesting, Trump has now become the “bully who cowers in a bunker”[12].For a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church, he had peaceful protestors violently cleared out from a park, ensuing another burst of violence. Unlike his preachings of being a President of “law and order”, as a leader he condones the use of smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray to attack protesters and remove them from the area. Characteristically, he finds people to blame through this crisis – lambasting the governors for being “weak” and incapacitated in “dominat[ing]” the protestors[13]. In exceptional times like these, when it feels like the country is pitted against their leader, civil disobedience can be America’s trump card in bringing about the change they wish to see implemented. 

References:

[1] What We Know About the Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (2020, May 27). Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/us/george-floyd-minneapolis-death.html

[2] Taylor, D. B. (2020, June 6). George Floyd Protests: A Timeline . Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage

[3] Taylor, K.-Y. (2020, May 29). Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/george-floyd-minneapolis.html

[4] Brownlee, Kimberley, “Civil Disobedience”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/civil-disobedience/>

[5] KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. (n.d.). Retrieved from ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/protesters-rights/#i-was-stopped-by-the-police-while-protesting

[6] Jefferson, T., Franklin, B., Adams, J., Sherman, R., & Livingston, R. R. (1776, July 4). The Declaration of Independence. Retrieved from National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration

[7] Bouie, J. (2020, June 5). The Police Are Rioting. We Need to Talk About It.Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/opinion/sunday/police-riots.html

[8] Live Updates on George Floyd Protests: Majority of Minneapolis City Council Pledges to Dismantle Police Department. (2020, June 8). Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/protests-today-george-floyd-video.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-6267c57e

[9]  Retrieved from worldometer: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

[10] Obama, B. (2020, June 2). Retrieved from Twitter: https://twitter.com/BarackObama/status/1267534341678170112

[11] Baker, P. (2020, May 30). In Days of Discord, a President Fans the Flames. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/us/politics/trump-george-floyd-protests.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

[12] Egan, T. (2020, June 5). How to Beat the Bully in His Bunker. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/opinion/republicans-lincoln-project-trump.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

[13] Baker, P., Haberman, M., Rogers, K., Kanno-Youngs, Z., & Benner, K. (2020, June 2). How Trump’s idea for a photo op led to havoc in a park. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/us/politics/trump-walk-lafayette-square.html

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