What is to be done?

June 8, 2020

Dear RCAH Community Members,

Racism, including mass incarceration and the demonization of immigrants and refugees, has a very long history leading up to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, and Tony McDade. One way in which the current moment is different from the past is that now we have a president whose own racism, xenophobia, and sexism have given others who have harbored the same views and benefited from the same oppressive inequality permission to “Make America Great Again” in his image.

The differential impact of COVID-19 on marginalized racial minorities has become increasingly clear. During the pandemic, racial minorities have been given little choice but to work in dangerous situations or remain at home with few resources to care for and educate younger and elder members of their family. They will remain the first to be evicted and the first fired once the emergency is declared over. Further, these marginalized people and their allies are being treated like enemy combatants by heavily militarized police when they protest police violence against Blacks.

None of this is a secret. Nor is it an accident.

As we know, the violent act that begat the current protests across the world is the death of George Floyd, who was murdered by four Minneapolis policemen, brutally tortured on the street in front of onlookers who recorded this horrific act as he pleaded for his life and his mother. This was a public lynching designed to demonstrate the awesome power of the police to dehumanize and literally disappear a Black man who was not resisting and who was targeted because he had allegedly passed a $20 counterfeit bill. Rather than hide what they were doing, the police seemed to want to be filmed in the act.

Sadly, Mr. Floyd—who lost his job due to COVID-19—is no longer the latest and by no means the only casualty of systemic violence.

His murder at the hands of the state is the very definition of a crime against humanity. The police, an arm of the state whose responsibility is to protect citizens from harm, wantonly inflicted unjustifiable harm on Mr. Floyd, as if he had no rights as a human being. This act of torture is hideous and the lynching that took his life should be prosecuted as a crime against humanity. The officers should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

George Floyd’s story must be told and re-told. We all—in whose name the state is purportedly acting—have a responsibility to do that.

But it is not the whole story. What followed the murder of George Floyd is just as emblematic of the systemic violence against marginalized racial minorities as the murder itself. “Rough ’em up,” Trump told the police. “Dominate” the protestors, he chided state governors after he called out federal troops to clear the streets so that he could hold up a Bible in front of the camera for his evangelical followers. The four policeman who murdered George Floyd were just the tip of the iceberg, not just a few bad apples.

What should be done to halt this plague of systemic violence?

One thing is to recognize the fear that acts of violence and legitimating performances instill in Blacks. In a recent op-ed article in The New York Times entitled “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts from My White Friends: I need them to fight anti-blackness,” Chad Sanders writes,

“As a black man, what I actually feel—constantly—is the fear of death. But the fear doesn’t arrive only in the wake of uniquely viral killings of black people such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin. It’s a resting hum under every moment of my life.”

In the face of this constant fear, Sanders urges his readers to save their expressions of concern and, among other things, send money to organizations like the ACLU #blacklivesmatter legal defense fund for Blacks arrested for protesting the murder of George Floyd and the terror that the police now visit upon their communities.

The state has become an occupying force in too many Black communities, and it is doing this in the name of “the people.” The ACLU #blacklivesmatter website contains this grim reminder of how corrupt the criminal justice system has become:

“The deaths of Michael Brown, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, Scott Walker, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray are all grim reminders that there are two kinds of policing in America today: one to serve and protect the white community and one to criminalize and control the Black community.”

Since RCAH’s founding more than a dozen years ago, students, faculty, staff, and alumni have worked tirelessly to achieve social justice. As a college, RCAH supports Black Lives Matter and the protests calling for an end to state-sponsored brutality against Black people and the systemic racism that has meant oppression and death for generations of American Blacks. The voices of many in our community and beyond who are calling for the same are rising louder than ever.

RCAH has prepared its students and alumni for moments like this. Many have written passionately and clearly about how police brutality and anti-Black racism reveals deeper systemic inequality and structural violence. One alumna, Jassadi Moore, writes on Facebook:

“This is a very vital moment in American history, and it is important to be present and speak out. It is no secret that Black people have suffered tremendously and in the past week we have been pushed to the point of no return. There is no going back but only moving forward towards reform. This is obviously a fight for Black Lives but this not just a black fight, this is a fight everyone needs to jump in and support.”

Jassadi’s is a call for solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the name of justice for all. Another instance among many I have seen is this Instagram post by the RCAH a cappella group RCAHppella: “The members of RCAHppella recognize that silence during times of injustice enables systemic oppression – in light of this we would like to join other organizations in sponsoring donations to ACLU//black lives matter.” Just what Sanders had suggested.

The numbers don’t lie.

“Black people are 3.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by the police when they are not attacking or have a weapon: George Floyd. Black teenagers are 21 times more likely than White teenagers to be killed by police: Tamir Rice and Antwon Rose. A Black person is killed every 40 hours by police: Jonathan Ferrell and Koryn Gaines. One in every 1,000 Black people are killed by police: Breonna Taylor.” (Brookings)

Whites are joining the protest marches against this systemic violence and structural inequality, and this is a good thing. The human rights of George Floyd and those who rise up to protest their violation are the human rights we all should value.

There is no more important call to heed now.

Stephen L. Esquith, Dean
Residential College in the Arts and Humanities
Michigan State University