EDITORIAL: The death of an unarmed and hand-cuffed African-American, George Floyd, after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes ignoring his “I can't breathe" plea, has sparked an uncontrollable outpouring of anger against institutionalised racism prevalent in the US. Disregarding social distancing in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, millions of people across the country took to the streets to vent their fury against racial discrimination at the back of recurring cases of police brutality involving African-Americans. Violent clashes erupted from coast to coast with police using tear gas, pepper spray and flash bang grenades to disperse crowds who lit several large fires and damaged property. In Washington DC, the city mayor ordered curfew from 11pm to 6am following media reports that President Donald Trump had been rushed by Secret Service agents into an underground bunker at the White House during a Friday night protest demonstration. The outrage over police brutality in the US also erupted in protests in several European cities, including London, Dublin, Berlin, Zurich and Brussels.

Initially, the officer who pinned down Floyd to death with his knee merely for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill has been booked for third-degree murder and manslaughter, but the other two officers who looked on all this while even as some passers-by vainly tried to intervene, had not been held to account for inaction. Mercifully, the Attorney General of the state of Minnesota entered in the fray and made a redetermination of the charge made by the local prosecutor and changed the third-degree charge of murder to ‘murder in the second degree' and charged the other two police officers present on the spot with the offence as accessory to murder. Had the state attorney general not made the redetermination, it could only have encouraged racist elements in the police to return to business as usual, adding to the names of earlier high profile victims like Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and Eric Garner whose dying words, like Floyd's, were “I can't breathe." Floyd's last words “I can't breathe" that have become as a rallying cry should have made every white citizen, especially President Trump who had the power to introduce structural reforms, realise how would they feel if they were to be treated in a similar fashion. Instead true to his abrasive style, Trump called the protesters thugs with the threat, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts." This further inflamed passions. Later accusing state governors of being weak – for not using excessive force to quell protests – he said: “you have to dominate, if you don't dominate you're wasting your time…you're going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate." He has since warned he would call out the military. That though is not going to resolve anything.

Former president Barack Obama rightly averred in an article “The choice isn't between protest and politics. We have to do both." Sooner or later the protests will come to an end, but America needs to rid its criminal justice system of racism unless it is prepared to see yet another and more violent reaction down the road. Showing the way forward, said Obama, “we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a US justice department and a federal judiciary that recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society, and want to do something about it." The opportunity to do something arrives come November. Whites in America have to decide whether they want to reform the system or continue allowing prejudice be the defining norm of race relations.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020