The reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests are an indications of the structural racism in the US, says Christian Chun.
Protests in times of COVID-19
Beginning in March, the state governments across the US began issuing the stay-at-home order to help contain the COVID-19 viral pandemic. However, not every state in the country issued this order, nor was it mandated in all cases, just suggested by some. Barely a month later in mid-April, people already started to protest by gathering on the steps of their state capitols – with some banging on the capitols’ closed doors – in calling on their government to “reopen the country!” The protesters framed their grievances about the stay-at-home order as an egregious attack on their freedoms and liberties in not being able to venture out of their homes and resume their daily lives. In this context though, judging from photos of their protest signs, ‘daily lives’ did not refer to being able to go back to work; rather it indexed the right to go shopping, golfing, exercising outdoors, congregating at the beach, and getting haircuts:
From the photos of the protesters published by the media, none were wearing protective masks nor practicing social distancing since they viewed having to wear a mask as an infringement on their freedom. Some protesters were brandishing guns in their claiming of their 2nd Amendment Rights (Chun, 2018). Chanting “freedom, freedom, freedom!”, all the people at these protests appeared to be White. There seemed to be very little, if any, police presence at these protests. When there were police standing by, there was no reported confrontations or attacks directed at the protesters, even those with their rifles in full view. Not one protester was shoved or kicked to the ground, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, or shot by a rubber bullet. Of course, why would they be? These people were protesting peacefully. Or were they? The self-presentation of ‘peaceful’ depends on who is doing what to whom:
These White protesters were just demanding their right to live on their own terms – to go out of their house when they wished, walk down the streets or go to the store, and gather in public spaces at any time of the day or night without any fear whatsoever. From their perspective, their right to live their lives without being told what to do or not to do by the government is fundamental to what a democracy is all about. The protesters want to live their lives without the fear of death from the pandemic. So, they felt they had the right to protest.
Since late May, there have now been new protests from people also demanding their freedom and liberty from fear of death. However, unlike the April protests to reopen the country and lift the stay-at-home order, these protesters have been unarmed with no one displaying any guns. They have also peacefully demonstrated yet they have been met with tear gas, pepper spray, chemical grenades, and rubber bullets with some getting maimed or even killed (at least 13 people at the latest count) by the police despite the absence of any violent confrontation or provocation. Hmm, I wonder what caused the police to react differently to these protesters? Yes, this is a loaded question, and in this context, “loaded” has a specific meaning.
Black Lives Matter protests are not equal?
It appears that the White protesters against the stay-at-home order see themselves as having the sole right to disobey the government when they see fit. In a social meme featuring several Twitter posts, they framed their resistance to the stay-at-home order as a call for freedom from government coercion. In contrast, their comments on the Black Lives Matter protests of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery castigated the BLack Lives Matter protesters as being as ‘unlawful’ for not obeying the curfew.
Emblematic for the paradoxical position of these White tweeps supporting anti-COVID-19 measures protests and targetting the Black Lives Matter protests is one person tweeting on the government stay-at-home order, “I call bullshit! Just trying to scare people to stay inside...” A month later, in addressing the BLM protesters, the same person applauded the government for imposing curfews in trying to contain the BLM protests, “They said get in the house. Fkn listen.” Another commenting on the state requiring people to wear protective masks to help contain the virus, “It should be personal choice. If you choose to wear one, power to you. If you choose not to, it’s your right. None of government’s business.” A few weeks later, the person warned the Black Lives Matter protesters, “When they (the government) say get in your home, next time you’ll do it.”
James Baldwin, the Civil Rights activist, author, and friend of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, noted that “when any White man says, ‘give me liberty or give me death’, the entire White world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won't be any more like him.” (Baldwin, 2017, pp. 88-89).
There have been years, decades, and centuries of state-justified and perpetuated violence against the Black community with police brutality and killing of innocent Black lives as an obvious example – at least to some of us. However, the US societal cruelty toward Black lives has extended far beyond the police in its housing and job discrimination, lower wages, lack of adequate funding for education and healthcare, and public health crises in poor communities such as the water crisis with lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan (over 50% of the people who live there are African American). Why wouldn’t Black people express their pent-up anger, frustration, and despair at a society that has oppressed them for 400 years since slavery began in the US?
The White protesters against a stay-at-home order that was done for their own health and safety couldn’t stand it after only a month, so they took to the streets, yelling at the police and some waving their guns. Yet they expect Black protesters to take all the brutality and killings they have suffered for the past four centuries lying down?
Black lives Matters and racism
Many Black people know full well how the system of capitalism, which has depended on racism from its very beginning to enable it in the US, has been looting their labor, time, and lives for centuries; first as slaves, later as sharecroppers, and then ending up as lower-paid and often minimum-wage workers working night and day and getting very little, if any, in return except more violence and killing. How would you react? Would you be able to control and contain your rage after 400 years of this? The fact that protests by the Black community have been by and large historically peaceful, such as the Civil Rights marches and the current Black Lives Matter rallies, speaks volumes about their humanity, strength, and love for their, yes, THEIR country, the US of A.
The White protesters whining about the government telling them that it’s safer for them to stay at home so they won’t get sick and die from the virus, or give it to others? Perhaps they should think about the people who built the country alongside them but have never reaped the benefits nowhere near to the same extent, nor have ever been rightfully recognized or acknowledged for their contributions. When it comes to being Black, it’s the pandemic of racism that has been deadly for centuries. It’s about time for the cure.
Baldwin, J. (2017). Selling the Negro. In R. Peck (Ed.), I am not your Negro: From texts by James Baldwin. New York: Vintage International.
Chun, C. W. (2018). Just another day in America: On guns, identity and mass shootings. Diggit Magazine website.