In 2016, Will Smith told Stephen Colbert that “racism is not getting worse, it’s just being filmed”.
Testimony to the truth of this sentence is the video that is depopulating these days of a black man, George Floyd, who, unable to breathe, was killed by a policeman named Derek Chovin.
The arrest of Mr Floyd took place on the 25th of May 2020. The Minneapolis Police Department declared in a statement that four officers had responded to a call from a store owner about a man suspected of falsifying documents, precisely of using counterfeit money.
The police said the man was found sitting on the top of a blue car and “appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol” and ” in the grip of a medical problem”.
The Department’s statement said that he was ordered to step from his car and, after he got out, despite the fact that he previously physically resisted officers (according to them he also refused to leave the car), they were able to get the suspect, who was suffering from medical distress, into handcuffs.
The statement said that the officers had called for an ambulance. Soon after Floyd died.
However, the new videos and photos taken from cell phones and a surveillance camera footage contradict the reconstruction of the law enforcement.
The first video shows two officers approaching Floyd as he sits in the driving seat of a black Mercedes SUV. An officer is seen conversing with Floyd with the door open, while the second one is next to the front passenger’s door, next to an unidentified person who was sitting inside the vehicle.
Although initially, the situation seems calm it quickly changed.
Forty-five seconds later, an officer pulls with force Floyd as he leaves the cockpit.
Once the second officer approaches to provide assistance, the rest of the recording apparently shows the two policemen who seek contact with Floyd before handcuffing him. Although much of the recording is audio-free, it is possible to hear a cry of Floyd right at the end of the movie.
The second video, a footage from the surveillance cameras of a grocery store across the street, shows Floyd sitting on the sidewalk against a building while an officer is in front of him.
The person previously seen sitting on the passenger seat of Floyd’s vehicle appears in the background as he answers the police officer’s questions. The recording does not provide any audio, although it is possible to see Floyd briefly exchanging words with the two officers, who eventually accompany him in the direction of the police SUV. While the officers were handcuffing and restraining him, George was completely cooperative.
In another video, filmed by a girl, a white policeman presses his knee on the neck of Floyd, already immobilized on the ground, for eight consecutive minutes, while his three colleagues look at him without intervening and while Floyd says several times “I can not breath, please I can’t breathe”.
A few minutes later the man, still lying face down on the street and in handcuffs with his arms behind his back, remains silent and motionless. The bystanders, also seeing the blood from the nose of the man, beg the officer to stop, but in vain. Shortly after, the ambulance comes with a doctor who initially checks the man’s heartbeat and then loads him on the medical vehicle to take him to the hospital.
He died shortly after in the hospital.
The episode went viral around the web. The last words spoken by the man, “I can’t breathe” have become the slogan of protest on the streets of Minneapolis and on social media.
On Tuesday morning, the police published a statement entitled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”, saying that ulterior information had been made available and that the F.B.I. was joining the investigation.
Many people in the political field showed disgust for this situation and expressed their desire to make justice. Between them there are Minnesota Senator Amy Kloubacher and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
The latter, in order to do justice as soon as possible, has called the prosecutors to file charges against the murderer of George Floyd; he affirmed with strength that everything he saw in that video was wrong, evil, unacceptable and for this reason worthy of severe repercussions. These were not long in coming: Mayor Jacob Frey announced on Twitter that the four policemen involved in the matter were fired and investigated.
During investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) has mainly worked on the federal aspect, while the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) on the possible violations of Minnesota statutes.
The investigations revealed the fact as manslaughter.
After that result, Odi Hennepin County Attorney’s Mike Freeman reported during a press conference that Derek Chauvin was formally charged with murder and manslaughter.
This event did not end here.
Recently, to cover the white suprematism, it was claimed that George Floyd had died of previous causes. All this was denied by the independent medical report of the lawyer of the family of Floyd from which it was found that he died of asphyxia caused by compression of the neck and back.
Unfortunately, this case of police violence against a black person is not an isolated one. George Floyd’s story also echoes the case of Eric Garner.
Eric Garner was placed in a police chokehold in New York in 2014 on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes.”I can’t breathe”, uttered by him 11 times, became a rallying call against the violence of the police and was a pushing force in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The episode reopened the national debate on police conduct against blacks, in the wake of the movement Black Lives Matter born in 2016 to denounce and say stop to racism and systematic violence of law enforcement against people of colour.
It began after the acquittal of a neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman, in the shooting death of the African-American Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
Blacks have accounted for over 60% of victims in Minneapolis police shootings over the past 10 years.
Minneapolis is a very liberal city, but also a very segregated one, and it has witnessed several controversial police killings.
In 2017, Justine Damond was killed after she called the police to indicate an eventual sexual assault in her street. The officer was tried for murder and sentenced to twelve years and a half in prison.
During a 2016 traffic stop, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was later acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and for using a firearm in the shooting.
There was also a case in which the charges were never brought; this was the case of Jamar Clark, who was killed by Minneapolis officers in 2015.
Very often, the killings happen due to miscalculation or to what is called racial profiling, a practice that consists of criminalizing people on the basis of place of birth, ethnic origins, language or religion. These are the cases of, for example, Ahmaud Arbary, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin.
Ahmaud Arbary was a 25 years old man, who had left home to jog near Brunswick, Georgia, to never come back home again.
He was killed on the 23rd of February by two white men: Gregory Mcmichael and his son Travis. Two months later, they were arrested on charges of murder and aggravated assault, after a prime prosecutor had instead claimed that they had acted in self-defence. It was argued that his pursuers had mistaken him for a thief, despite the videos later viewed by the authorities showed that Arbery had only approached a house under construction without touching anything.
Breonna Taylor, a black woman, was a front-line worker who died after a police-involved shooting.
Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were sleeping inside their apartment, when some officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department attempted to execute a “no-knock” search warrant.
Three officers opened Taylor’s front door and “blindly” opened fire.
Taylor was shot more than eight times and died. Her boyfriend, thinking they were thieves, fired a shot and, although found innocent, after being arrested for acting against a public official, was placed under house arrest.
Trayvon Martin, who can be considered the emblematic case of racial profiling, was a seventeen years old boy, who was shot at sight just because he was considered suspicious for his colour of skin.
There were also cases in which white people took advantage of their white-power. This is what happened between a white woman and a black man in Central Park, New York, which is now known because of a video that became viral.
The man, Christian Cooper, had asked the woman, Amy Cooper (the two are clearly not related), to put the leash to his dog, according to the rules of the park. In response, she called the 911 and said that “an African-American man” was threatening her.
These are all expressions of a system that is profoundly racist. It is possible to see the difference in treatment between white and black people by comparing two cases.
George Floyd, suspected of “forgery”, was killed by the police, while Dylan Roof, a white man, despite the fact that he entered in a church, mostly frequented by African Americans, and murdered nine people, was arrested peacefully; the same happened with Patrick Crucius, another white supremacist who killed twenty-two people of South American origin, who he saw as invaders.
All this is in the heart of the people that in these days are doing the protests in America with the slogan “I can’t breath” in honour of George Floyd.
But that is not all.
In fact, behind the riots that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there is not only anger at the umpteenth case of police brutality against a black person, but also a deep frustration, lived viscerally by African Americans for their condition. Almost 160 years after the abolition of slavery and more than 50 years after the death of Martin Luther King, the black community continues to feel oppressed by serious economic gaps, discriminatory regulations, foreclosure of opportunities, media and political underrepresentation, which underline their sense of exclusion and inferiority with respect to the rest of the nation.
Their lives are above a thread, precarious both for the threats of the police (police officers who injure or kill African Americans almost never suffer criminal convictions) and also for other aspects: education, working conditions, health access and householding.
For people of colour, it is difficult to access a dignified level of education. They enter schools of lower grade more easily. However, according to the Economic Policy Institute, educational attainment has greatly increased, with more than 90 per cent of African Americans aged 25–29 having graduated from high school. African Americans are increasinlgy graduating from college in the last period.
But the problem persists when graduated black people have to find a job.
A study has shown that the curricula of people with African-American names get half the answers from companies, compared to those with racial neutral names.
The unemployment rate of blacks is double that of whites, their income strongly lower, the difference in wealth impressive: the median value of the assets of white households is 170,000 dollars, for black ones is 17,000 dollars: exactly a tenth. Although African-Americans hold the same office as white people, they are paid less. Even when taking into account similar education levels, workers of colour are consistently paid less than white ones. Income is a major factor in a family’s ability to access health care, which can make up a significant share of household spending in terms of insurance premium and out-of-pocket costs.
For homeownership, just a little percentage of African Americans owns a house, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged since 1968. African-American households have significantly lower household income than white ones; the average for African Americans in 2018 was $41,361, while it was $70,642 for white people.
During the New Deal, for example, the wave of federal mortgage funding for house purchases went almost exclusively to white neighbourhoods, while black ones, considered less reliable, were systematically excluded; this helped consolidate a structural wealth gap.
The lack of affordable housing puts a financial strain on families and can pull resources away from necessities like food and medical care.
The racist system permeates every area.
Even the medical one.
African Americans have lower life expectancy, due to the fact that they have to face more illnesses and infirmities than the other racial and ethnic groups.
The treatments in the hospitals are different according to the race.
Black people do not receive painkillers for the idea that blacks and mulattoes feel less pain, exaggerate on their conditions and are predisposed to drug addiction.
The Food and Drug Administration, some years ago, has approved a specific medicine.
It’s a pill for heart failure in self-identified African-American patients, called Bidil. A cardiologist thought about this drug without thinking about the race or genetics, but it became convenient for commercial reasons to advertise it to black people.
The FDA allowed the pharmaceutical company to test its effectiveness in a private analysis that included only African-American subjects. By doing so, the difference in treatment between patients was even more marked.
In relation to this medicine, it is worth mentioning the invention of a diagnostic tool developed by a doctor during the slave era, used to justify the practice of slavery.
The era of slavery was justified affirming that the lung capacity of blacks, compared to the one of whites, was improved by forced labour. This argument, developed by Cartwright, is still approved by some doctors, who use a spirometer that provides different results depending on the race racial gap in health care.
Recent studies have further highlighted that black patients are less likely to receive pain treatment, potentially lifesaving lung cancer surgery or cholesterol-lowering drugs, compared to white patients.
Nowadays, black people have poor medical support; black patients incurred about $1,800 less in medical costs per year than white patients with the same chronic conditions. An algorithm called Optum, invented for the purpose of guiding health decisions and assessing health care costs, showed that the ones who benefit from extra medical care are the whites and that the health needs of the sickest black patients are dramatically underestimated.
Among the 20 milions of Americans to which the Affordable Care Act has guaranteed health care coverage, only 2.8 are African-Americans. For the 27.5 million people that still lack health insurance coverage, 9.45 per cent cite cost as the reason for being uninsured and the 18 per cent of them are African-American. African Americans make up about 20 per cent of Medicaid enrollees. African-American women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women and the African-American infant mortality rate is twice the rate of white infants.
It is worth mentioning that the burden of racism causes African Americans to die prematurely and experience chronic diseases (such as heart attack, neurodegenerative diseases, metastatic cancer and toxic stress) and more mental health challenges than white Americans.
Another scourge for black people is the high rate of incarceration. It is counted that black people are arrested with a 5 per cent greater frequency than white people.
But is extremely wrong to consider this a factor only of the USA.
The racist system is not only present in America, but all over the world, also in Italy.
It is present especially in the system of justice.
When Emmanuel Chidi Namdi was killed for his skin colour, in July 2016 in Fermo, the killer Amedeo Mancini pleaded for a four-year sentence and obtained it.
Another case is also the one related to Luca Traini. Traini, convicted of attempted massacre with aggravating racist hatred, had a judicial outcome to just serve 12 years in prison.
Racism is present in the dramatic situation of the labourers in the south of Italy, who are seen more as useful tools for profit than human beings who deserve equal rights.
In the supply chain, people who do not have the right to the dignity of work or to well-being are breaking their backs for the collection that we as consumers eat every day. They live in buildings that fall apart, eat with pots and cook food with wood. They work, under an incorrect wage contract, 12 hours a day for a derisory wage of 20 euros per day, while food distribution in Italy is a sector worth almost 90 milliards of turnover per year.
There is the concept of the useful immigrant, forced to carry out underpaid work without the protection of his rights, because the law Bossi-Fini is still in force. Only who is already in possession of a contract of job that allows economic maintenance can enter in Italy and receive a permit of residence; it lasts two years for permanent relationships, while those who become unemployed in the meantime will have to return home.
Migrants are considered consumer goods, whose existence in terms of permanence is regulated only by their increased functionality in the market. Only useful consumer goods deserve the temporary regularisation necessary for harvesting in the fields.
Racism is present in the educational system. Very often children are pointed out as apes, people who do not wash, they are constantly questioned about the origins of their parents and are bullied even for their hair (to which they are given a thousand malicious nicknames, despite the fact that behind them there is a story of domination and strenght).
Racism is something that is spread in every aspect of the everyday life, from the proverbs that one hears, even in one’s own home, to negative thoughts about women seen as prostitutes, sensual objects of desire for the colonial history behind it, to the record companies where there are more white artists in the foreground, while black people are entrusted with more marginal roles.
Something that each of us considers normal to have as a citizen, being born on Italian soil, like a house in which to live, becomes for other people, whose difference is the only colour of the skin, a problem. People with dark skin are considered, although born and raised in Italy, foreign and are treated as such. They must do files at the police station for years to obtain a residence permit, even if born here, and they must do an oath to be faithful to the Italian Republic to be considered formally Italian citizens (this, however, does not take them away from being victims of abuse, evil acts and discrimination).
It is also important to remember that each of us can do something. Information and defence can become socially useful weapons for a system that must be dismantled at the base. In this way, we can make a difference and ensure that the death of innocent people is not vain.
Dorothy Roberts·TEDMED 2015
The problem with race-based medicine