George Floyd: why the sight of these brave, exhausted protesters gives me hope

Akwugo Emejulu, on the interplay between exhaustion and imagination in rebellion.

In a way, you could say we’ve been holding our breath this whole time, until now.

What you’re witnessing is Black America exhaling and breathing fire all over the country. We calculate, in horror, the awful symmetry of the killings of Eric Garner in 2014 in Staten Island and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. They couldn’t breathe because America is a choking hazard. I don’t think I exaggerate.

At the time of writing, there are more than 100,000 people dead from COVID-19 in the US. Black and Brown Americans are disproportionately sickened and have died from a novel coronavirus that exploits America’s breathtaking racial inequalities in health, housing and employment.

Protesters shouldn’t be gathering in groups as they risk infection and spreading the virus further. But protesters are assembling, at great personal risk to themselves and their loved ones, because George Floyd couldn’t breathe. They inhale, exhale and raise hell in memory of him.

In cities across America and Europe you see how George Floyd is spontaneously put in conversation with other Black victims of state violence. With Atatiana Jefferson in Texas, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Adama Traoré in France, Sarah Reed in England and Oury Jalloh in Germany. These souls have died at the hands of the police (Jefferson and Taylor), under suspicious circumstances in custody (Traoré, Reed and Jalloh) or have been shot to death by private citizens who were, until very recently, confident they would not have to answer for their crime (Arbery).

This is a gathering of the ghosts of our past, present and future. They assemble to watch us and wonder when and how this will end. We scream, we shout and we march because we are haunted by those we could not save and by the terrifying knowledge that these violent deaths at the hands of the state – or those who know they have the full support of the state – could happen to any of us. They couldn’t breathe because existing while Black is a threat to the everyday order of things – to the mundane organisation of American society that demands Black people’s subjugation.

Read more:
George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery deaths: Racism causes life-threatening conditions for black men every day

Politics of exhaustion

Folks are tired of this injustice. They are exhausted. Yet, even in this state of individual and collective exhaustion, protesters take to the streets. Exhaustion, it seems, is a praxis: it is a theory and practice for protest and activism. Physical and psychological exhaustion is knowledge – because if you’re tired of the way things are that means you understand that things can be different. Through a haze of exhaustion, you glimpse another world. A world without police and prisons, perhaps.

Counter-intuitively, exhaustion is your imagination hard at work envisioning new futures in which your Blackness is not weaponised against you. Those folks putting their bodies on the line in the streets understand that we have to work through our exhaustion in order for it to come to an end. We must pass through exhaustion to reach repose.

This exhaustion can be used to forge solidarity. Solidarity is a deeply emotional sense of unity: the collective exhaustion of protesters and the wider sympathetic public binds us together through collective agony and action. We are scared, the future is uncertain – all we have is each other. With each other, we can try to build something new.

Lessons from the tear gas

It is, of course, monstrous that exhaustion is demanded from those who simply want to live. It is unconscionable that we must accept extreme fatigue in order to get free. The simple message of “stop killing us” is greeted by militarised police forces armed to the teeth with flash bang grenades and tear gas. Meanwhile, armed white people who intimidated elected officials in order to resume their conspicuous consumption in the middle of global pandemic were hailed as heroes.

Read more:
Why are white supremacists protesting to ‘reopen’ the US economy?

However, this is the stark reality of living under white supremacy. Tear gas, ironically, can be very clarifying. America offers lessons every day about who it values, who belongs and who is human. Follow the tear gas: many answers to your questions about America, past and present, are there. But don’t let this enduring lesson be in vain.

Seeing people stream out onto the streets is probably the most hopeful I’ve been since the start of the pandemic. America is experiencing mass death, incompetent and vengeful leadership and economic collapse. Even under these catastrophic circumstances, people join together to demand more and better for themselves.

We can’t go on like this. The ferocity you see in the streets is driven by the grim understanding that the protesters will return after the next outrage and the one after that because the struggle for Black liberation will not be realised in our lifetimes. But we catch glimpses of the world that might be in the exhalation of breath on the streets.The Conversation

Akwugo Emejulu, Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Comments (10)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    Thank you for your heartening statement and reflections. The struggle continues.

  2. William Ross says:

    If the author is arguing that black men in the USA are at serious risk from murder by police that is an utter fallacy. See this sober analysis: On the other hand, black people are at very serious risk from criminals. But that doesn`t worry the author.

    The young black female mayor of Atlanta takes a different view on recent events. She is raging about the burning of Atlanta. But what would she know? See What would the Floyd family know? What would Police Chief Acevedo of Houston know? They are calling for peaceful protest and an end to the violence , arson and looting. On the other hand our author is enjoying raising hell.

    A former black police officer on security duty was shot dead by looters last night in St Louis. I doubt that Mr Dorn will get much sympathy. His problem is that he was not killed by a white policeman. His life doesn`t seem to matter at all.

    If America is about white supremacy it does not appear to be very effective. After all, America elected a two term black president in 2008 with massive white support. Segregation and Jim Crow disappeared 50 years ago. Almost all the cities with major unrest have been Democratic controlled for decades as have most of the relevant states. Many if not most inner city policemen are themselves black.

    The author has no idea of any way forward.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      You have sufficiently “outed” yourself that I for one will no longer respond to your posts. Truly, they do not merit the time it takes to type the words.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        My comment was direct to Mr. Ross, not to you, Michael. Sorry about the mispositioning. No way to erase/correct. Oh, well.

      2. Jo says:

        That’s why I felt the need to decontaminate myself on the other thread, Daniel, after reading a similar post from the same person. Sickening stuff and simply not worthy of a response.

  3. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Whilst you and your views are instantly dismissable, Mr Ross, I feel very sorry, indeed, for those who may be subject to your presence in their lives.

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      Whilst I disagree with William’s views on this, I believe they are genuinely held and not based in racism. In my view he is representative of an “attractive” school of thought that sees the US as the bastion of freedom and democracy in a world that increasingly, to them, appears to threaten it. Any tarnishing of “freedom’s shield” is viewed as a potential threat to a way of life they hold dear, and creates an insecurity in them that often manifests itself in an almost blind support for the “American ideal” and equally blind refusal to acknowledge the reality.

      As I said, I believe he is wrong in his views here. He is wrong to dismiss the actions and legitimate concerns of the black community in the US as unjustified criminality. He is wrong to suggest there is no problem of institutionalised racism within America’s multitudinous police forces. He is definitely wrong to suggest the existence of the Trump regime in Washington and its overt support for an increasingly belligerent populist (and racist) right is not a cause for concern. To my mind it is a greater threat, by far, to the “American dream” than the protests against it. The protesters, after all, just want equality. The populist-right want the “freedom” to discriminate. I REALLY wish William could see that.

      In short, I do not believe William actually IS a racist, but, whether he likes it or not, his views on this subject give succour to them.

      PS Contrary to William’s view of me being on a mission against the US, I actually believe it is essentially a great country. The vast majority of its people are perfectly friendly, tolerant and reasonable individuals. The constitution is a marvellous basis for a “free” society (bar the baring arms sh*te). I just rail against its lurch to the ugly end of right wing politics.

  4. William Ross says:

    It seems like I am the bad boy of Bella again. Mike thinks I am a disgrace and Jo needs more dettol!

    But nobody takes on my arguments, because they cannot be refuted. On the numbers of unarmed black people killed by police in America see this careful analysis by respected criminal attorney and former New York DA Andrew McCarthy. According to the liberal Washington Post, nine unarmed black people were killed by police in 2019. In 2018, the last year for which complete figures exist some 7,400 black people died through homicide. This is a shocking total. Maybe all of this is fake news?

    Was I making up what Mayor Bottom of Atlanta said? This is a CNN report! Is she just a white patsy?

    Did I make up the death of David Dorn? I used a National Review report but CNN reported the same thing? Aren`t you outraged about his death., and the thousands of other black victims of homicide who are nothing to do with racist police? It is such an odd question to have to ask?

    How was my question about white supremacy disgraceful? How could a white supremacist country elect Barack Obama with huge white support? What about scores of black and coloured elected representatives at federal, state and city level? Minneapolis has been democrat since 50 years? What have these people done in that time? What are they going to change?

    How will race -baiting and black separatism help the inner city black communities?

    Just asking?


    MBP: thanks for your post. Naturally I disagree with some of what you say but it is good to have a fair hearing.

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      No problem William.

      The problem with institunalised racism within US police forces is not restricted to black people who have died at their hands, shocking though that is (how many “armed” black people have died though – being armed being a right and all). It’s the day to day harassment and casual oppression that black people have to endure. Something not confined to the US in Western societies. And the racism goes further than that in US (though, again, not confined to) society. You can name all the exceptions you want, but it does not disprove anything. People point Thatcher, May and sundry other female public figures as proof women have achieved equality. They have not. Women still face a huge battle to get anywhere in male dominated spheres and are still hugely under represented in them. However, they are still streets ahead of the black community in that respect. It is even likely that the election of Obama inadvertantly set the cause of equality back as it seems to have galvanised a latent racist minority into action. A minority Trump is only too happy to exploit for his own venal political ends.

      You can deny it all you like but, in my opinion, Trump and the populist-right are a far greater threat to the American dream you hold on to than a restive, impoverished ethnic minority denied access to it.

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