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Column: Image of George Floyd’s murder reveals how the world has changed, and how it hasn’t

  • Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/12/2021 10:20:12 PM
Modified: 6/12/2021 10:20:12 PM

Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who happened to be at the scene of George Floyd’s murder last year, captured with her smartphone the police brutality that shocked America and energized the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice.

Darnella must have known the power of the image, the video that went viral and instantly global. In an Instagram post she said, “If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth.”

When truth, however horrific, is visualized and emotionalized and turned into a symbol and a slogan (“I can’t breathe”), it becomes a very powerful social force. It’s through momentous images that our lives become meaningful: Jesus on the cross, the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, the sonogram heartbeat of the unborn, for example.

It wasn’t the first time that a Black American was brutalized, but the viral video transformed an ordinary man, accused of the petty crime of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a store, into a symbol of utter Black hopelessness and helplessness. In a moment, the video flashed before our eyes the history of American society’s inhumanity toward Black people — from Alex Haley’s character Kunta Kinte, who was dragged like an animal from his African village into a slave ship, to a modern metropolis like Minneapolis, where police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and squeezed life out of him.

The question arises: What if Darnella had just stood there in horror without using her smartphone? Floyd would have been just one more Black American killed by police officers (who, after routine internal investigations, likely would have avoided consequences).

But once a person, especially a digitally savvy young person, has a smartphone phone in her hands, it’s inevitable that she would use it and share the video with the world.

Social media, through its echo chamber capabilities, has democratizing power, the power to disturb the status quo and make us think.

Again, what if Floyd’s face had been turned away from the camera? He may have receded into anonymity and the video wouldn’t have shocked the world as much.

It was the 9-minute-long close-up showing us the agony on Floyd’s face that gripped our imagination, wrenched our souls and challenged our humanity.

No, no, no. This is not what America ought to be.

But Darnella’s video truth seems to negate the tremendous progress Black Americans have made since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream” that one day a Black American, Kunta Kinte’s progeny, would reach the promised land and would sit in the White House and rule over the most powerful civilization mankind has ever created.

The rise in the political power of Black Americans is due to the steady growth of their middle class. According to a 2020 Brookings Institution report by Andre Perry and Carl Romer, “Black people represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 61.2 percent of which are middle class,” which is “concentrated largely in the South and in large metro areas.” The rising Black middle class, including intellectuals, professionals, entrepreneurs and businesspeople, has found media expression in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Jeffersons, Black-ish, and many others.

And then there is Oprah Winfrey, television’s mother goddess, whose endorsement, one might say, enabled Barack Obama to take his first step toward the White House.

Black Americans have a dominant presence in sports. Not only in football and basketball but also in other fields, and many have become role models: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Simone Biles, to name a few.

From jazz to rock to hip-hop, Louis Armstrong to Beyoncé, Black artists have made some of the most original and creative contributions to the world of music. Black Americans have created sounds that the world has never heard before.

Last year it was a Black politician from South Carolina, Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Joe Biden’s candidacy rescued his lackluster campaign from the dustbin of history.

Biden, a most admirable centrist politician with a profound national vision and political courage, was then able to save the nation from another four years of a twitterdom presidency.

Again, it was Stacey Abrams, a Black democratic politician and writer (author of the thriller While Justice Sleeps), whose Fair Fight Action organization battled voter suppression and played a pivotal role in boosting turnout in Georgia, which enabled Biden and Kamala Harris — “a history making politician with big ambitions,” as Lisa Lerer of The New York Times called her — to win the state and, following Georgia’s Senate elections, gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Black Americans have discovered their political power and they are changing America. Nonetheless, Darnella Frazier’s image of the tortured face of George Floyd did capture the other reality of America, the systemic and persistent inequities of the criminal justice system from which Black Americans — and the rest of us — need liberation.

Narain Batra, of Hartford, is a contributing columnist for The Times of India, author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and a professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University.




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