George Floyd’s memory will long be cherished for the global tremor his death at the oppressive knee of a savage cop caused, and the arousal of our nation’s conscience to want to do something about it. In the San Francisco Bay Area, as many joined the protest marches, it was heartening to see the Palo Alto Desi Indian American group rapidly convene a march to express solidarity with Black Life Matters. The second generation of immigrants from India feels intrinsically connected to broader causes and has a greater comfort level in standing up with others to seek justice for all. As with every immigrant group, the first wave was more tied up with carving its place in a new land and tended to choose caution over active participation in the host country’s politics.
But even for those of us from the first tranche of immigrants, the Black Life movement resonates in more ways than we imagined. It compels us to critique our own inheritance as Indians of having lived, breathed and grown up in a caste-ridden culture and society. So, when blacks call for respect to their lives and rights, we are instantly aware of the culture of caste distinction and oppression that has remained through centuries in India and subtly or overtly imbibed and carried forward by us. Our two democracies – whether Indian or American – on that single account alone have more to share, contribute to, and learn from each other.
Fully supportive of Black Lives Matter, and deeply resentful and ashamed of the centuries of enslaved people’s dehumanization, we nevertheless carry an equal burden of shame for sustaining the caste system and its brutal socio-economic, political and societal underpinnings. The comparison also suggests that the onus for oppression of blacks here and less ranked castes in India is not entirely to be placed on the governments or the injustices of the colonial-capitalist systems. While it is easy to blame police in the U.S. and in India for excessive brutality, to see savagery by some cops does not imply all cops are savage. Each of us is a participant in and contributor to an oppressive ethos. Only if we accept that universality of discriminating behavior can we claim to call racism both systemic and endemic. So, if protesters truly believe that differentiating is unique to police, and not ingrained in us all, then Floyd’s death serves only a partial purpose.
To be treated equally by everyone is individually and collectively our goal and our human right. But there is also an ugly reality intrinsic within and around us that needs to be squarely faced. None among us can claim we don’t feel differences regardless of what principles of equality we uphold. As Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece Alveda King points out, we are not color blind. God has filled nature and our universe with color, but we have to rise above color to see we all carry the same blood color – red.
Even as we believe in our common humanity, in every society, system, organization, and setting, starting from pre-school, humans are drawn to some and not to others. There are “in” and “out” groups and the divide between them is painfully opaque. The cruelty of that opaqueness remains with us from school to college years and later in the work place, in social clubs and Michelin 5-star restaurants as much as in foodbanks and unemployment, bank loans, and healthcare benefit seeking lines. The crushing pecking “perception” order haunts every level of society, culture and history.
So when we determine and vow that no death like Floyd’s will ever again occur, we have to go beyond slogans and renamed plazas, and streets painted in yellow, and murals freely available to express one’s rage, and yes, even stricter laws. We need also to delve into ourselves and individually to commit our person to contribute to the equal treatment under law goal by reforming our own conduct. Our hope for a just society lies not only in anger and protest, or in total dismantling of a society, country, or system, but more importantly, in changing ourselves. To recall Mahatma Gandhi, in becoming the change we desire.
A notable aspect of Floyd’s tragic end is that it has led to a new beginning. It demonstrates once again the power of a single person or event to change the course of history, as Gandhi’s arrival did to India’s freedom movement. While the Black Movement has been around for some time, it has gained fierce momentum only now, in the wake of Floyd’s brutal death. Responding to the pressure, House Democrats on June 8 introduced a bill outlining measures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability of police officers for misconduct.
The ‘Justice in Policing Act 2020’ will facilitate civil court prosecution of police for misconduct, changing the standard of prosecution from “willfulness” to “recklessness.” Officers will now be required to prove that use of force was not just reasonable but necessary. Specific to Floyd’s gruesome manner of death, the bill bans chokeholds. The amended qualified immunity clause will enable the aggrieved to seek redress and recover damages for violation of their constitutional rights by police.
A National Police Misconduct Registry requiring state and local law enforcement to furnish data on use of force disaggregated by race, gender, disability, religion and age will ensure sunlight on the handling of crime by police departments. To address cultural bias, the bill mandates racial training. Lynching under the bill will now be a hate crime. That it is not already so is deeply offensive, and in itself proof of criminal negligence by all current and past elected leaders at all levels of our enlightened seasoned democracy.
Whether the bill will be enacted, and how successful it will be, will depend once again on the political will first to approve and then to rigorously enforce it. Importantly, how far it meets the demands of an enraged populace impatient for results will determine its fate. In the combustible current ethos, for any public figure to oppose any of what the protesters demand is to face political and social death.
Yet, it seems only fair to seek some moderation from protesters. However impassioned, the protesters’ plea to grossly truncate a police department, or worse, totally abolish it, seems impractical and utopian. Without suggesting who and what will fill the vacuum, any greenlight given to the above demand is to surrender to anarchy. How many millions of times have we seen a 911 call answered within seconds by cops who have put their own lives on the line to help defuse and resolve the crisis. And where would potential victims of crime be without any emergency hot line to call and seek help? Surely, the numbers of viciously violent, racial animus driven rogue cops cannot blemish the entirety of the police force. And who is to say that the proposed “Peace Force” intended to replace the Police Force will be gender, race, color and class blind?
Policing is as indispensable to us as is government, and the social contract of which jurists and thinkers spoke of in previous centuries. We can no more totally denude the police department of a funding lifeline, than we can of government’s various other organs and limbs. Without law and order, our precious human rights are and will be at peril.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author.)