Picture: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ
Picture: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ

Remember the good old days when the thing that scared us most was our groceries? We were terrified that the bottle of low-fat, lactose-free milk from Woolies might be smeared with the coronavirus.

We were afraid that we’d then bring the dreaded silent killer into our homes on the plastic wrap on over-packaged chicken or a toothpaste lid, or the tomato paste in an Italian tube.

So much effort went into disinfecting the soles of our shoes; scrubbing our counter tops with bleach; wiping down every bought item with sanitiser-soaked kitchen towel. And then the packets we’d brought our weekly grocery supplies home in were tossed under the dining room table or garage for three days, until we were sure any lingering Covid-19 had died.

Ja, the good old days. I yearn for... day 13, when safety meant keeping just yourself safe, and all forays into the big, wide world beyond your front door were undertaken with infinite care, fueled by trepidation and genuine fear of this unseen enemy.

Then this week, SA opened for business, and with it came new and unimagined terror scenarios: more people on the streets and in the shops; more cars on the roads; more potential exposure to the coronavirus. Danger lurked everywhere.

And, in the American city of Minneapolis, danger came not just from groceries or masked people in the supermarket but from those whose job it is to protect, the police.

On May 25, George Floyd, a black man, died when arresting officer Derek Chauvin, a white policeman, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 47 seconds.

The incident was filmed, an astonishing visual where a white man with sunglasses perched on his head, one hand casually in his pocket, kept his knee pressed firmly into the neck of the handcuffed Floyd, prone on the ground.

The video went viral and — as America went up in flames — crowds gathered across the world to protest racism. In Paris, Berlin, Toronto, London, the Middle East, Sydney, Auckland — people made their feelings heard, often chanting, as Floyd did as he lay on the ground, “I can’t breathe”.

Celebrity voices, politicians, royalty added their protest voices to those of the masses. SA comedian, and US television talk show host Trevor Noah tweeted: “While everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, black people in America are still facing the battle against racism ... and coronavirus.”

F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, “overcome with rage”, took to Instagram: “Please do not sit in silence, no matter the colour of your skin. Black Lives Matter.”

I put on my timer and recorded what I did in nine minutes. I brushed my teeth, ironed a shirt, made myself a cup of coffee, toasted a hot cross bun, buttered it, ate it, started...

Princess Märtha Louise of Norway, also on Instagram, called for an end to “this inhumanity”. “Stop!!!” she wrote. “It has been going on for far too long; the killing of innocent men and women. Who are these Monsters of Distorted Believes [sic] thinking they have the right to kill someone just because [of] a different pigment of their skin? It grieves me so deeply that we as a human race has not developed past killing each other, bringing someone else down, hurting each other because of our own insecurities. When will we wake up to see that we are part of the same creation?”

One of the EU’s top diplomats, Josep Borrell, described Floyd’s death as “an abuse of power” as he criticised Washington’s violent crackdown on protesters that followed. He used undiplomatic words, saying people in Europe were “shocked and appalled”.

The leading UN human rights advocate, Michelle Bachelet, reminded the world that the coronavirus is already having “a devastating impact” on ethnic minorities around the world. Protests across America, triggered by Floyd’s murder, she added, highlighted more than just police violence against black people, but also shone a spotlight on the inequalities in health, education, employment and “endemic racial discrimination”.

It became evident as the week wore on that there was something in the video that has been shown on every social media platform that touched people’s hearts, and sparked their anger.

In it, Floyd, who was arrested after being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a market, can be heard saying over and over, “I can’t breathe,” his tone pleading as he calls for his mother. Chauvin’s knee did not move off Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Nine minutes!

What kind of man pins someone to the ground for nine minutes, ignoring their cries as they suffocate? Why keep a man pinned to the ground for nine minutes? Why not hold him in a police car? Floyd was handcuffed so, it seemed, was not an immediate threat.

Nine minutes! I put on my timer and recorded what I did in nine minutes. I brushed my teeth, ironed a shirt, made myself a cup of coffee, toasted a hot cross bun, buttered it, ate it, started Business Day’s two-in-one crossword puzzle and finished five clues before the timer buzzed.

Such enthusiasm

But then, we have to remember the death of our very own Collins Khosa, a black man killed by the SA National Defence Force for sitting in a chair in his back yard in Alex, drinking a beer. He broke the lockdown rules, and died for it. And so it seemed a little strange when, this week, ANC national spokesperson Pule Mabe — as he called for calm in the US — urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to talk to the US authorities and try to diffuse tensions (wearing his AU chair hat).

The irony!

There was no mention in that ANC statement of Collins Khosa or of the 10 SA men and the seven-year-old boy — all black — killed during interactions with the SA police since the start of lockdown. To emphasise the ridiculousness of it, the ANC is appealing to a man who, in a briefing to the media last Sunday, referred to these deaths as the police letting “their enthusiasm get the better of them”.

What could our president even begin to say to Americans about curbing the enthusiasm of their white policemen when our own law enforcers here at home seem to have little regard for black lives that are supposed to matter.

Police brutality is reprehensible everywhere in the world, yes, but doubly so here at home during this uncertain time when fear of an infectious disease that threatens our lives is added to the equation.

For the police to prey on the poor, the hungry, the most vulnerable people in our society — whose difficult lives are made more difficult during this pandemic — is criminal. Seriously missing in policing at this time seems to be the key human ingredient: compassion.

Nobody should die at the hands of the police just because they are poor, or hungry, or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“No Justice. No Peace.” It’s an apt American slogan.

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