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‘Let Me Breathe!’

‘Let Me Breathe!’

On Thursday 4 June a Memorial was held in Minneapolis for George Floyd (46 years) a black American who was killed on 25 May by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman. The video of that killing filmed by bystanders, which has gone more than viral all over the world, vividly and painfully shows how Chauvin had pinned him to the ground and for almost nine minutes knelt on Floyd’s neck. Gasping Floyd is heard pleading “I can’t breathe ”; Chauvin does not let go until Floyd breathes no more. The image of that brutal killing, the way Floyd begged for his life, will forever remain in the hearts and memory of every human being who has some conscience.

At the Memorial there was a golden casket and flower bouquets, and against a backdrop of artwork depicting Floyd saying, "I can breathe now."  Speaker after speaker lamented George’s death and lambasted a system which has internalised racism.Philonise Floyd, his brother said, “ Everybody wants justice. We want justice for George. He's gonna get it!” In an impassioned eulogy, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton said visiting where Floyd died made him realize that what happened there is a metaphor for the African American experience. Sharpton said, "When I stood at that spot, the reason it got to me is that George Floyd's story has been the story of black folks; because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck." He added, "What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It's time to stand up in George's name and say get your knee off our necks!"

The murder of George sparked spontaneous protests all over the United States, hundreds of thousands (from across the divide) have come out chanting “No to Racism” and condemning police brutality; in some areas, the protests have also been violent: with plenty of arson and looting.  There are also calls to the protesters, whilst defending their right to protest, to eschew every form of violence. There have also been protests all major cities of the world. People have come out on the streets demanding an end to racism and every form of discrimination. Strangely, both in the United States and in several parts of the world, ‘leaders’ seem to be numbed in taking a stand. They fail miserably in their defense of human rights and in the values enshrined in their Constitutions.

Some however, are very visible and vocal in their condemnation. Bishop Shelton Fabre, Chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) ad hoc Committee Against Racism states, “There is naturally a broken heartedness and a sadness, which includes a righteous outrage and a righteous anger manifested at the fact that we continue to struggle with a loss of lives as a consequence of racism. The root of the problem is something that we in the United States have been struggling with since the birth of our nation: racism. Thinking that people who are of a different race – people of colour – are less than me because of their race”. Years ago St. John Paul II said that, “racism is one of the most persistent and destructive evils in the United States.”

Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Catholic theologian says, “ Racism is a  sickness of the soul. This sickness has been spread since the first Africans were forcibly brought to America and sold as slaves 400 years ago. Our nation is one founded and continuously shaped by white supremacy. White supremacy, fundamentally is the assumption that this country, its political institutions, its cultural heritage, its social policies and its public spaces belong to white people in a way that they do not belong to others. It is the basic assumption that some naturally belong in our public and cultural space and others have to justify being there. Further, it is the suspicion that those ‘others’ are in ‘our’ space only because someone has made special allowances for them. This is the most uncomfortable truth we must face as Americans about racism. Many want to believe that people of all races are equally guilty of racism; it is a way for the majority to let itself off the hook. But the honest truth is that if it were up to people of color, racism would have ended a long time ago. This is the deepest reason why racism is so often avoided or only dealt with in very superficial ways: because naming white supremacy makes white people uncomfortable. And white comfort sets the limits of engagement” Many in the US and across the world, share in the views of    Bishop Fabre and Fr.   Massingale; the point is how does one internalize an attitude of inclusion? How does one mainstream substantial practices of non-discrimination?

Exclusion and discrimination are apparently part of the DNA of the people of India. Casteism is older than racism. We have internalised it in our behavioural patterns – in our food, clothing, and dress and even in our worship! We have just taken it for granted that we have the ‘divine right’ to discriminate against ‘the other’; one does not have to go very far to see how discriminatory attitudes have permeated into society. The ads in our ‘Matrimonial Columns’ (even in so-called ‘Catholic’ magazines) are a clear indicator of our biases and prejudices; the partner that we look for blatantly has to belong to a particular caste or ethnic group; the ‘colour’ of skin that one looks for is downright racist; then there is class segregation so vividly displayed by one’s educational or financial status. The ‘kitlis’ are little tea shops found all over Gujarat; if  one belongs to a lower caste, one is directly shown where the special  ‘saucers’ (a good percentage of people in Gujarat, normally drink tea from saucers)  are kept from which only lower castes should   drink the tea. The fact that the higher castes in most parts of India do not allow the lower castes to draw or drink water from their wells, seems to be an accepted norm.

The minorities of India are also discriminated against. There are innumerable instances to prove this. The rant and rave against the Muslims by Hindu extremists seems to become an order of the day.  There is hardly a whimper of protest when members of a minority community are lynched. The then Chief Justice of India referred to lynching as the ‘new normal’. Once on bail, the lynchpin is even feted by the ruling party. In the midst of the breakout of the pandemic Covid-19 , the only group which was held responsible was an assembly of Muslims which actually met , days after the ‘Namaste Trump’ tamasha in Ahmedabad which brought in several people from abroad and thousands from all over Gujarat; and of course, all at the expense of the State exchequer. If you take a stand against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and happen to be a Muslim, then be assured that you can be easily incarcerated under the dreaded UAPA.

Christians too are not spared: Churches are regularly attacked, church personnel are beaten up and Christians are systematically discriminated against. They are denied Government employment, even when they have the necessary competencies. These acts take place directly and subtely.Adivasis, tribals and other forest dwellers are at the receiving end of an exclusive regime. For years the forests and the forest lands were the natural habitat of these indigenous people. In very calculated moves, they are being denied what is rightfully theirs. Recently , we had terrible images flashed of Adivasis being evicted from their land in Kevadia colony in Gujarat ( the area of the Narmada Dam not far from the massive Sardar Patel Statue).The slum dwellers, the daily wage earners and the migrant workers as we have seen in this current pandemic, women and children are all victims of an unjust and exploitative system, which caters to a very small segment of rich, powerful and higher castes and clearly discriminates and excludes vast sections of society.

So when Rev Al Sharpton in his eulogy to George Floyd said, “ what happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It's time to stand up in George's name and say get your knee off our necks!" , he was in no uncertain referring to the Dalits, the Adivasis, the minorities, the migrant workers , women and other sub-altern sections of Indian society . In India we have umpteen metaphors ( like Floyd’s life being snuffed out) to describe the painful reality of our people: Muhmmad Aklaq being beaten to death, the migrant workers being run over by a train, the little child playing with the cloth sheet which covered his dead mother… The cry of suffering is clear: “get your knee off my neck, stop strangulating me, and let me breathe...”

 

Strangely enough whilst some Indian celebrities were concerned about what was happening in the US and were openly supporting #Black LivesMatter, Bollywood celebrity Abhay Deol called out their hypocrisy saying that   Indian celebrities and middle class who were so interested in fighting systemic racism in the US should first   look into  what is happening in their own backyard in India. The actor tweeted an image of a piece of paper with the hashtags #migrantlivesmatter, #minoritylivesmatter, #poorlivesmatter written on it. "Support them (Americans) by calling out the systemic problems in your own country because they turn out to be one and the same thing," Deol wrote.  Ironic indeed when so much of exclusion and discrimination takes place in India all the time, there is hardly any protest from the celebrities.

Pope Francis has been consistent in his stand against exclusion. In a message after the death of Floyd he referred to racism as a sin saying “ we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost”.

Whilst condemning exclusion in every form, he has also been giving practical suggestions of how one can work towards a more inclusive, just, equitable and harmonious society. On 13 May in an advance message for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2020 (which falls on 27 September) he focuses on ‘Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee: Welcoming, Protecting, Promoting and Integrating Internally Displaced Persons’.

In his message he gives the Church and the world “ six pairs of verbs that deal with very practical actions and are linked together in a relationship of cause and effect”. These are          (i) you have  to know in order  to understand: If we encounter them, we will get to know more about them. And knowing their stories, we will be able to understand them. We will be able to understand, for example, that the precariousness that we have come to experience as a result of this pandemic is a constant in the lives of displaced people. (ii) it is necessary  to be close in order  to serve: fears and prejudices – all too many prejudices – keep us distant from others and often prevent us from “becoming neighbours” to them and serving them with love (iii) in order  to be reconciled, we need  to listen: a love that reconciles and saves begins with listening. In today’s world, messages multiply but the practice of listening is being lost. Yet it is only through humble and attentive listening that we can truly be reconciled.  (iv) in order  to grow, it is necessary  to share :to grow truly, we must grow together, sharing what we have, like the boy who offered Jesus five barley loaves and two fish (v) we need  to be involved in order  to promote: we must find “the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity” (vi) it is necessary  to cooperate in order  to build : to preserve our common home and make it conform more and more to God’s original plan, we must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded.

Earlier for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018 (14 January 2018) Pope Francis said, “I wish to reaffirm that “our shared response may be articulated by four verbs:  to welcome, to protect, to promote and  to integrate. The verbs are certainly easy to understand, highly meaningful in the face of the institutionalization of exclusion and discrimination everywhere. We could all well take a cue from the directions which Pope Francis gives and actually begin practicing acceptance and inclusion of the other!

The problem is accentuated when majoritarianism    giving rise to false nationalism and xenophobia, keep others subjugated and even strangulated. Our Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore has powerfully brought home the sin of discrimination in his famous dance drama ‘Chandalika’ – it would be helpful for all in India to revisit this play written in 1938 – and in humility acknowledge that the reality then, is very prevalent in the India of today too! In the final analysis, the moot question is, however, in a world which seems to institutionalize and even legitimize discrimination and exclusion, do we have the courage to initiate reform and ensure change today?   George Floyd was brutally murdered; thousands of our country men and women are humiliated, ostracized and even murdered only because of WHO they are! It is time we act together tell the powerful and the vested interests to stop strangulating others and unequivocally say, “LET ME BREATHE”!

( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist and writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 8th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 24)