By DR. Femi Olugbile
They had come from different parts of the USA to pay their respects to a man who was now a metaphor for the condition of the black man in America. George Floyd had been in the news every day for several days. In his name thousands of people had been protesting on the streets of cities all across the country, and in different parts of the world.
The Memorial event was a combination of solemnity and religious fervour.
The diversity of the crowd in the auditorium and the denizens that were protesting all over the world was most unusual. It was a ‘black’ event, but it was not really a “black” crowd. Young people and a sprinkling of older folks were marching day and night holding placards and shouting slogans –
“We can’t breathe!” “No peace without justice”.
Some of the protests had turned violent. In the beginning, in Minneapolis and some other locations in the early days, some young men and women jumped onto police cars and property, smashing them up and putting them to the torch. Some rioters, black and white, were caught on video, gleefully looting shops. This provided ready grist for the mill of a wide array of anti-black voices, including right-wing news media such as Fox News and partisan “evangelicals” who constituted the core of Donald Trump’s base. They also included a sprinkling of black voices such as Candace Owens who were sympathetic to the President and held views that were generally disparaging of their fellow blacks and of such bodies as ‘Black Lives Matter’. Their beef was that black people were being “enslaved” in a celebration of “victimhood”, encouraged by the Democrats and the “Left”. Their presence was a great source of joy for Trump, and he enjoyed quoting them and occasionally reeling them out for photo opportunities.
George Floyd was an unremarkable man of forty-six years whose life story mirrored the story of the all-too-many males in the African American community. He had been brought up by a single mother. He and his siblings were regular folk, trying to live the American dream.
At the end he asked the crowd to stand on their feet for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, in honour of George Floyd. It was the length of time the racist cop Derek Chauvin had stood on his neck
He was no saint – he had been in Police trouble before. In 2009, he had gone to prison for five years for armed robbery. Subsequently he tried his hands at various jobs, spoke out against gun violence, and was generally seen to be making an earnest effort to put his life back on track.
As he suffocated to death under the knee of a policeman on the cold tarmac of a street in Minneapolis, he cried out for his mother. She was two years dead. But for George, time had stood still.
By now the story of George Floyd has been heard and witnessed all over the world by millions of people. The tall gangling man had gone to a store. He was said to have paid with a bad 20 dollar bill. The Palestinian owners called the police. George was handcuffed. He offered no resistance. His was made to lie prone on the tarmac, his hands cuffed behind him. Police officer Derek Chauvin held him down, putting his knee and the whole weight of his body on his neck.
“I can’t breathe,” mumbled George repeatedly.
The policeman, hand in the pocket, like a hunter who had felled a lion in the forest, kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd until he died.
As the Memorial Service went on, a Gospel singer came up on the podium to belt out “Amazing Grace”. It was powerful and evocative. Many in the audience were already in tears.
Earlier the family lawyer had made a powerful pitch for justice for George, who had been egregiously violated in his human essence. For him George was a metaphor for all of black America. He wanted everybody to understand this was not about revenge.
Jesse Jackson was in the audience. He was old and slow now. It fell to the Reverend Al Sharpton to define the moment for the audience in the auditorium, and the millions watching all over the world.
He rose to the occasion. “Get your knee off my neck” George Floyd must have thought, under the knee of the monster who was lynching him in full public view, in 2020, The African in America, for four hundred and one years, had been held down literally and metaphorically by the knee on his neck and kept from achieving his full human potential at every turn. It was not victimology, as voluble self-deniers and victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome” such as Candace Owens proclaimed, to the applause of racists who would not hesitate to put a knee on their own necks too if the situation arose.
It was there in the poor neighbourhoods African Americans inhabited, in the poor schools they attended, where input and expectations were low. In the visible and invisible barriers they faced at every turn. No, the African American was not asking for charity, screamed Sharpton. All he was saying was “Get your foot off my neck” so he could breath, so he could compete, so he could achieve.
A change was coming, Al Sharpton announced. The youths were taking over, and they were not going to stop where they, their parents, stopped. He was heartened that whites realised now they had to get involved, that silence was collusion. The protesting crowds he had seen on the streets of Western cities were black and white and brown and all shades. This time the change had to come.
At the end he asked the crowd to stand on their feet for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, in honour of George Floyd. It was the length of time the racist cop Derek Chauvin had stood on his neck.
Watching from your study, you stood with them.
The minutes passed ever so slowly.
Eight minutes forty-six seconds, you saw afresh, was a very long time indeed.
First published on businessday.ng