A woman during a protest over the death of Malcolm Harsch, a black man who was found hanging from a tree in Victorville, California. File/Agence France-Presse
For the first time in his tenure, President Donald Trump’s personal image as the leader of the only superpower of the world and as the head of the world’s oldest democracy is taking a hit — all because of his responses to the ‘killing’ in full public view of George Floyd, an Afro-American suspected of some small time ‘offence’, by a white police officer at Minneapolis.
The way the rogue policeman with an unconcealed arrogance kept pressing on the neck of the grounded victim with full force of his knee — reportedly for nearly nine minutes in full public view amidst faint pleadings of the latter that he was not able to breath — was perhaps the worst case of ‘third degree’ violence witnessed in recent times anywhere in the world. It was different from an ‘illegal’ shooting by the police in the open pursuit of an offender or something done by policemen to a suspect in the secrecy of a lockup — it was a demonstrative ‘instant justice’ dished out to an apprehended person in front of the people — the body language of the police officer with one hand in his pocket showing his antipathy towards a coloured man.
The first and the only reaction of the American President should have been one of feeling aghast over the incident, sending the lawless policeman and his teammates on the spot packing home and declaring that they did not represent the police force of the nation. This did not happen, either because temperamentally Trump always tended to side with the power of enforcement or allowed his racial instincts to get the better of him. His grudging words of condolence to the family of the Afro-American killed, came late in the day and that too without any fitting rebuke for the policemen concerned.
The protests rapidly became a national marker of public discontent in which there was convergence of political opposition, economic dissatisfaction accentuated by the corona pandemic and a strong undercurrent of disapproval of what was perceived as a racial outlook of President Trump. The President stridently called for deployment of National Guards, the reserve component of US Army, in different states to quell the protests and even threatened to use the Army against the agitators — this was something that did not go well with the top brass of the defence forces themselves.
The agitation has no doubt become defiant against the authority at some centres but on the whole it has taken the form of a political campaign against President Trump goaded by the forces of the opposition. The political cost of the mishandling of the George Floyd case will become evident as the Presidential election in the US draws to a close. It is significant that the rival camps of Trump and Joe Biden have started openly accusing each other of attempts to take to fraudulent methods of gaining votes in the impending polls.
Coming back to the case of George Floyd, it has to be mentioned that the police is the only coercive arm of the state in a democracy that is meant to deal with crime and disorder under the corresponding legal conditionality — that no confession would be obtained under duress and that minimum force would be used for dispersing an unlawful crowd. In handling a crime suspect under arrest there was just no question of any ‘third degree’ force being permitted against the latter. Any such act of a police personnel is legally punishable. At Minneapolis, there was a blatant show of white supremacism by policemen in the act of ‘punishing’ the black suspect in public. The racial divide that the incident has uncovered has now brought out the dormant polarisation of the Americans even on such fundamental milestones of the American democracy as the abolition of slavery and grant of equality to the blacks as citizens with voting rights.
In a halting process of democratic reforms in the US, the black women got the right of franchise only in 1965, almost a century after the 15th Amendment had allowed voting right to black men. The undercurrent of racism, however, did not leave the US ever. The re-election of the first black President, Barack Obama, in 2012 saw a very large turnout of Afro-American voters and this was noted. President Donald Trump seemed to politically bank on the common white Americans at the grass roots, besides corporate America. This gives him a formidable strength. The George Floyd episode has deepened the racial divide and taken the protests in the direction of condemnation of the advocates of slavery who existed ‘in the historical past’ not only in the US but in the UK as well. It is to be seen how the black issue will affect the arithmetic of numbers between the Republicans and Democrats in the Presidential election. The anti-Trump forces are likely to keep the pot boiling till the polls. On his part, President Donald Trump believes that it is the post-Covid economic recovery that would put everything else on the back burner and get him a second term in office.
Since the current developments in the US are a direct result of the doings of rogue policemen, it is natural that some writings have appeared on the learning they provide for other democratic countries, particularly India where the police handling of certain kinds of public protests had been commented upon. India does not have any ‘racial’ problem beyond the unfair practices that did exist in the name of caste — the internal divide here is ‘communal’ in nature which was largely a continuing political legacy of the extraordinary event of the country’s partition that had been done on religious lines. Further, local police in India is an arm of the government which is funded by the state or the Centre and is, therefore, trained to act as the confident, strong and impartial face of law enforcement.
This is the reason why a ‘rogue’ policeman here is identified and acted against promptly — more easily. There is also a well-established hierarchy in the force that keeps the supervision by senior officers in play, all the time. If anything, America can learn from India in matters of administration of law and order —here this function is performed seamlessly through the entire nation in spite of the fact that police was a state subject and investigation was a sovereign function of the police station.
In India, the government takes responsibility for any failures of the police just as it gets credit for good law and order management. The police, if not meddled with politically, is an instrument for creating an equal and abiding society and a sheet anchor for shaping a secular and democratic governance. It has to be kept under public scrutiny for its own good. The US is apparently falling behind in the matter of ensuring a non-discriminatory and non-sectarian law enforcement in conformity with established democratic norms.