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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 25, New Delhi, June 6, 2020

They could never breathe | Sukumaran C.V.

Saturday 6 June 2020, by Sukumaran C.V.


George Floyd, an innocent African American, was killed in the night of May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, by a white policeman pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck. Floyd was not even the suspect the policeman suspected him to be!

On 26 June 2011, in Mississippi, a group of white teenagers savagely beat up James Anderson, a middle-aged African American, and then they ran over him with a pick up truck and killed him.

It is believed world over, or rather the world is forced to believe, that the U.S. is the greatest democracy in the world where the citizens are entitled to have all kinds of freedom. But history tells a different story.

Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1852, said: “So this is the little lady who made the big war.” The big war was the American Civil war. Mrs. Stowe says in the preface of the novel that none of the incidents she portrayed in the novel is fictitious! The following scene from the novel is one of the many such unimaginable ones delineated it: “A slave warehouse is a house where every day you may see rows of men and women, an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children to be sold separately or in lots, to suit the convenience of the purchaser. ...Susan is sold! She goes down from the block, stops, looks wistfully back,—her daughter stretches her hands towards her. Susan looks with agony in the face of the man who has bought her, “Oh, Mas’r, please do buy my daughter!” “I’d like to, but I am afraid I can’t afford it!” said the gentleman...” The thing happens every day! One sees girls and mothers crying, at these sales, always!” (Chapter 30—The Slave Warehouse).

The origin of the perpetration of genocide as it is known today can be attributed to the white settlers of the Americas, especially North America. The hordes of white settlers who swarmed the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries first eliminated the Native Americans en masse to rob their lands—two whole continents. Millions of Native Americans perished. The next victims were the African Americans, who were caught from Africa and brought to the United States as slaves packed as fish in the slave ships. Even after slavery was legally abolished after the Civil War ended in 1865, 3446 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Their bodies were seen hung from electric posts and trees.

See how the forefathers of the African Americans were brought to the United States: “The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1,000 miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in which two of every five blacks died. On the coast they were kept in cages until they were picked and sold. One John Barbot, at the end of the seventeenth century, described these cages on the Gold Coast: ‘As the slaves come from Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth or prison near the beach, and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out onto a large plain, where the ship’s surgeons examine every part of every one of them, to the smallest member, men and women being stark naked. Such as are allowed good and sound are set on one side, marked on the breast with a red-hot iron imprinting the mark of the French, English, or Dutch companies. The branded slaves after this are returned to their former booths where they await shipment, sometimes 10-15 days.’”

If such was their condition before they were ‘shipped’, see what it was after they were shipped:

“Then they were packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins, chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship’s bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement. Documents of the time describe the conditions: ‘The height, sometimes, between decks, was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great that the Negroes are driven to frenzy.’ On one occasion, hearing a great noise from belowdecks where the blacks were chained together, the sailors opened the hatches and found the slaves in different stages of suffocation, many dead, some having killed others in desperate attempt to breathe. Slaves often jumped overboard to drown rather than continue their suffering. To one observer a slave-deck was “so covered with blood and mucus that it resembled a slaughter house.” Under these conditions, one of every three blacks transported overseas died, but the huge profits made it worthwhile for the slave trader, and so the blacks were packed into the holds like fish… Whatever horrors can be imagined in the transport of black slaves to America must be multiplied for black women, who were often one third of the cargo. Slave traders reported: ‘I saw pregnant women give birth to babies while chained to corpses which our drunken overseers had not removed…’” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Chapter 2—Drawing the Color Line).

Jacob Frey, the Mayor of Minneapolis, rightly says in his FB page on May 27: “If most people, particularly people of color, had done what a police officer did late Monday night, they would already be behind bars.”

On May 26th, the Mayor wrote in his FB page: “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence. For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a Black man’s neck. Five minutes. When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense.”

The United States of America always reminds me of mastiffs and wolfhounds. The Native Americans (whom Columbus called the Red Indians) had been eliminated through many unimaginable cruelties since the arrival of Columbus. One such cruelty is setting ferocious dogs loose on the hapless people: Ward Churchill, the well-known Native American activist and academic, writes in his book Since Predator Came: “In Central America, a new innovation, “dogging,” made its appearance. This had to do with setting vicious mastiffs and wolfhounds—raised on a diet of human flesh—loose on hapless natives. A properly fleshed dog could pursue a ‘savage’ as zealously and effectively as a deer or a boar. To many of the conquerors, the Indian was merely another savage animal, and the dogs were trained to rip apart their human quarry with the same zest as they felt when hunting wild beasts.” (Chapter 4—Genocide in the Americas: Landmarks from “Latin” America since 1492).

Such were the cruelties by which the forefathers of the U.S. citizens built this nation. It can rightly be called a predator nation. Therefore I don’t think the incidents like the tragic killings of James Anderson and George Floyd will cease to happen in that nation whose driving force is racism and the deep-rooted belief in white supremacy. As the people’s historian Howard Zinn says at the very beginning of the aforementioned chapter, ‘there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of “the color line” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, is still with us.’

And yet, I wish to see the bright rays of hope, the light of future, in the words of the Mayor of Minneapolis. I like to think, as Howard Zinn says in A People’s History of the United States, “Our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

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