The three months of horrendous human tragedies unleased by Covid-19 resulted in the death of over 110,000 people in the United States. About 500,000 people have been infected and many are still struggling in hospitals. More than $6.5 trillion in household wealth vanished during the first three months of the year as the pandemic tightened its hold on global economy. The Federal Reserve Chairman characterised this as the biggest economic shock in the United States. Towards end May, the deadly disease appeared to have come under some restraints and the local governments began to lift restrictions on the movement of the people. The economy which was shattered by months-long shutdown began to regain some strength. It was estimated that about 40 million people have lost jobs and unemployment level reached 20 per cent. Some 26 million people sought unemployment benefit in the month of May. CARES Act, passed by the Congress and approved by the President, encompassed several rescue packages including a stimulus package providing $1200 to individuals having less than $90,000 annual income and additional unemployment allowances of $600 per week to those lost jobs, enabled people to meet their most pressing needs.
New York which was the epicentre of Covid-19 began rolling back the shutdown from the outskirts of the city and allowed small businesses to resume activities. Manhattan, the busiest part of the city seemed to have returned to business as usual. About 90 per cent of 20 million people who lots jobs in April said they expected to return to their jobs, a sign that economy might soon return to normal. Employment in restaurants and hospitality sector started to rise with 1.2 million jobs added as hotels began to see occupancy rates pick up. Employment in construction increased by 464,000 as buildings work began to increase in many states. In the health sector 312,000 jobs were added in April and May.
As people began to see some light at the end of long tunnel, an unarmed young African-American man was murdered by a white police officer in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. The man was overpowered by three police personnel and was grounded. Derek Chauvin, the police officer held his knee on the neck of George Floyd for several minutes. George was begging for mercy and told he could not breathe. Derek Chauvin repositioned his knee on George's neck and at one stage the two other police officers mounted on George. When the police team realised George stopped talking and showed no sign of body movement, they called an ambulance and sent him to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, the attending doctor pronounced him dead.
Why was George arrested? The police haven't yet submitted any official complaint apart from a dubious payment of a bill with a $20 counterfeit. When this brutal episode was happening, someone captured the horrendous act in cell phone and shared the same among his friends and acquaintances. The video became viral and people in the neighbourhood and then all over the country rose in protest of police brutality. There was strong demand to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Governor and the state administration were dragging their feet and took more than five days to announce that Derek Chauvin would be charged for committing homicide. Meanwhile, the people beyond ethnic divide and across the country rose in revolt, damaged properties and in the mayhem, shops were looted. Realising the depth of the crisis, the state administration transferred the case to the Attorney General.
President Trump, not surprisingly, remained quiet when the situation was getting intractable and spread to major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. His inaction infuriated the demonstrators, and, in several locations, the police shot at the demonstrators and sprayed tear gas. Trump exacerbated the situation by advancing justification that "when looting starts, shooting starts".
As anger and grief mounted, demonstrators assembled adjacent to the White House and condemned Trump's acquiescence of police atrocity against the people of colour. Bewildered and frightened, Trump ordered taller fence around the White House and commissioned the military to push the demonstrators away from the Lafayette Square. Defence Secretary Mark Esper and the Joint Chief of the Military General Mark Milley accompanied President Trump to the Church and photographed with Trump holding a copy of the Bible. This was an unprecedented action and the military, for the first time in recent history, was called in to deny people of their constitutional right of peaceful demonstrations. Defence Secretary Esper regretted his parade with the President stating that he didn't know where the President was heading for. General Milley apologised and said, "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics."
Nearly 500 former officials who served in diplomatic and national security services issued an open letter denouncing Trump's response to nationwide protests over racial injustice. They wrote, "Our military is composed of and represents all of America. Misuse of the military for political purposes would weaken the fabric of democracy, denigrate those who serve in uniform to protect and defend the Constitution, and undermine our nation's strength abroad."
The procrastination of the local governments in indicting the police personnel involved in strangling and ultimately killing George, and the incendiary remarks by Trump set an impression that this is just another murder of a black person that would go unpunished. The demonstrators pointed out that nearly 500 people have been shot and killed by police during the five months of this year-an average of about three a day. They rightly demanded an end to this mass murder and suggested "police reform" among others. The proposals that dominated the discussion have been "defunding the police" and "abrogation of the police department". Trump signaled he would reject calls for wholesale change.
Neither defunding nor abrogation of the police department seem to survive final consideration. Defunding does not imply starving the department to extinction. It suggests diversion of a portion of the budget to social services and establishing linkage with the communities. There are 18,000 police departments in the US and what is recommended is to restructure these and bring under the command and control of the State administration. Outright abolition is not suggested. What is overdue is a reform in the police service and review of the myriad functions entrusted to the police. Domestic violence, breach of traffic regulations, eviction/relocation of the homeless, surveillance of mentally sick persons etc., could be assigned to an unarmed auxiliary force. Trainings of police on engagement, counselling and techniques of reaching out would make law enforcing and auxiliary forces effective and community friendly. The use of lethal weapon should be a choice of last resort. Mayor of Atlanta rightly observed, "Police should conduct as protector not as warrior."
It is apocalyptic that some states including New York, Minneapolis, Illinoi, Georgia, Florida have decided to undertake police reform and declared "chocking" illegal. Activists are still sceptical - they believe police departments are still too resistant to call for change, and too protective of bad actors.
The death of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night (June 12) during a scuffle with the police at Atlanta resulted in another round of protests in the country. Police rushed to a Wendy on a complaint that a man parked and was asleep in the drive-through. The officers carried out a sobriety test on the man, identified as Brooks. When he failed the test, police tried to arrest him. The scuffle began, and Brooks grabbed a gun from police and ran. Police followed, and Brooks apparently turned back toward the police and fired, at that point the officer fired at Brooks. Brooks was injured and later on died at the hospital.
Rolfe, the police officer who shot the gun has been fired and Devin Brosnan, the other police officer involved in the scuffle has been placed on administrative leave. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned on the following day.
Brooks - an African American, was born and raised in Atlanta. He had troubled years but recently settled down and returned into the routine of working hard. A man was murdered because he was asleep in the drive-through would be a legitimate cause for anger. But it would also be pertinent to examine when the suspect fired at the police, what should the officer have done? The unrest over police actions will impede Covid-19 recovery process and prolong economic meltdown.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.