Edwidge Danticat writes about how the “nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s brutal killing by police officers resonates with immigrants, and with people around the world.” See the original article at The New Yorker.
I was twenty when Yusuf K. Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American man, was attacked by a mob of about thirty white teen-agers armed with baseball bats and then shot to death, on August 23, 1989, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Hawkins had gone to the predominantly white neighborhood to buy a car. In the days and weeks following his death, there were marches, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton and a coalition of civil-rights organizations, through the neighborhood where Hawkins was killed.
At the time of Hawkins’s murder, I had been in the United States for only eight years. Having spent my childhood living under a ruthless dictatorship in Haiti and being constantly reminded to avoid the wrath of soldiers and henchmen, I was already haunted by stories of beatings, torture, and extrajudicial killings. This was, in part, why I went to a massive protest in downtown Brooklyn a week after the murder. The march, called A Day of Outrage and Mourning, was attended by more than seven thousand people. I took my teen-age brothers with me, and I remember fearing—as we marched down Flatbush Avenue, shouting, “No justice, no peace”—that one day I might be chanting for them.
We came close on August 9, 1997, when a family friend, Abner Louima, in a case of mistaken identity, was arrested outside a Brooklyn night club, then pummelled with the fists, radios, flashlights, and nightsticks of several police officers, then sexually assaulted with a wooden broom handle inside a precinct bathroom. Some black immigrant parents harbor the illusion that if their émigré and U.S.-born children are the most polite, the best dressed, and the hardest working in school, they might somehow escape the brunt of systemic racism. But the myth of the good immigrant as exempt from police assault and murder kept getting shattered around us. By the February 4, 1999, killing of Amadou Diallo, a twenty-three-year-old Guinean, slaughtered on his doorstep by nineteen of the forty-one police bullets aimed at him as he reached for his wallet; by the March 16, 2000, shooting of Patrick Dorismond, the twenty-six-year-old son of Haitian immigrants, by undercover officers.
Thousands of people, in the United States and around the world, have had their own awakenings—from joining protests to becoming part of movements—after watching the on-camera asphyxiation of George Floyd, his neck crushed beneath the bent knee of Derek Chauvin for nearly nine minutes, as two other officers dug their knees into Floyd’s back. It is the stuff of many African-American families’ worst nightmares, a public torture and execution by uniformed representatives of the state, who seem equally unconcerned about the life they’re extinguishing and the consequences they appear certain they will never face. It is also the type of thing that many immigrants thought they were leaving behind when they moved here.
Describing the reaction of some of Minnesota’s Somali refugees to the sadistic killing of Floyd, Fartun Weli, the executive director of Isuroon—a nonprofit organization that supports Somali families—told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “They were like, ‘We can’t believe it. This is America.’”
At the same time, the image of these police officers squeezing the life out of Floyd might serve as a metaphor for the way U.S. Administrations have, for generations, dealt with the countries many of us come from—through invasions, occupations, wars, the buttressing of dictators, and the removal of democratically elected governments, among other tactics. In the agony of his final moments, while crying out for his mama, water, and breath, George Floyd reached out to and became all of us. He has joined a vast community of people, across the globe, who see echoes of the injustices and the inequalities of their own societies in his American story, and recognize their own torment in his suffering. Floyd’s seemingly unending death, in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately killed black, brown, and indigenous people, also underscores the fact that many of us are mourning, and are uncertain about how long we ourselves will be able to breathe.
In images of the solidarity protests from more than fifty countries around the world—Syria, Brazil, Australia, South Africa—people march, chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter.” George Floyd’s name is not the only one being called. The names of their own Breonna Taylors, Ahmaud Arberys, Sandra Blands, and Trayvon Martins also ring out, as part of a long and growing list. “It’s always the same story. Only the names change” read a cardboard sign held up by a protester in Paris.
Another sign reads “stop killing us.” This “us” has grown exponentially and has become more vocal and more visible than George Floyd or his killers could have ever imagined.
At recent rallies and protests near my home, in Miami, in addition to cries for justice for George Floyd and other victims of police and vigilante murder, I have observed spoken-word recitals, calls to defund the police and to end mass incarceration, and pleas for people to go out and vote. I have also heard music, drumming, and political hip-hop blasting from cars trailing the crowds. At times, also playing in the back of my mind are the words of the Miami-based poet and activist Aja Monet, from her poem “#sayhername”:
I am not here to say look at me how I died
so brutal a death I deserve a name to fit all the horror in
I am here to tell you how if they mentioned me
in their protest and their rallies
they would have to face their role in it too
my beauty too ♦
[Published in the print edition of the June 22, 2020, issue, with the headline “So Brutal a Death.” Edwidge Danticat is the author of many books, including, most recently, “Everything Inside: Stories.”]
See original article at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/is-this-america?
Photo above by Shevaun Williams: “Neustadt Prize Winner Edwidge Danticat,” from https://www.neustadtprize.org/2018-edwidge-danticat/