Reflections on global protests against the murder of George Floyd

It seemed like a curious twist of history to see how people abroad, from Europe to Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, responded to the video of the brutal killing by police of George Floyd. Even the elites of Europe, the colonial oppressor of scores of countries, found their streets occupied by young demonstrators protesting racial discrimination in their own countries, which had once conquered lands of peoples who made up the armies of the French, German, British, Belgian, Portuguese, Dutch and Italian empires. 

That so many youth of this generation have so easily bonded in the name of human rights in solidarity with African-Americans is a sign that the world is on the cusp of a new age filled with hope and light. It was only a few years ago that the political swing to the right since the Reagan-Bush years that had captured much of the last four decades still seemed so dark with the celebration of greed, lies, and deliberate amnesia of the wrongs of the past. Yet there was a recognition among protesters at home and abroad that the battle to fulfill the promise of America is far from over. It has barely begun.

Jack Yates High School Alumni parade and vigil honoring alumnus George Floyd, class of 1993. Houston, Texas, May 30, 2020. Photo by 2C2K Photography, used under a Creative Commons license.

We would be wise to heed the calls for justice that swept the globe and recorded George Floyd’s last moments forever via satellite TV and social media. Now, with the ears and eyes long shut by the bauble of comfort zones, white people are witnessing a youth revolution against determined ignorance of what has long been a protected tradition of white supremacy kept intact and enabled. We now know the statistics of inequality, the lack of vision that has stained the United States, and of the deliberate erasure of the full story of white supremacy and inequality from America’s memory in curriculum, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, media and even in places of worship.

Toward Freedom began in 1952 amid the anti-colonial revolutions that followed World War II. In fact, its very name was borrowed from the autobiography of Nehru, follower of Mahatma Gandhi and the first president of an independent India. Just as the struggle for India’s independence and peaceful development is still underway, just as the frustrations of Indian workers and peasants have been exploited by far–right nationalists, so also do we see that exploitation repeated around the world, including in the US.

But we must always remember that Trump did not invent the Military-Industrial Complex’s selling arms to Saudi Arabia or to the pliable dictators of the world. Americans who call themselves liberals did that. It was, in fact, “corporate liberals” who accepted the power of corporations in making decisions in government, in education, in media and law. 

Tragically for the US and the world it ruled, it was liberals who could not see beyond corporate decision-makers in order to comprehend a world without the corporate power that their privileges rested upon. Imperialism, whether via direct colonial rule or indirect corporate rule, is based on racism. Liberals cannot fight racism without fighting imperialism, and they cannot fight imperialism without fighting racism. Otherwise, they are complicit with empire.

In our country’s tradition of honoring leaders of the Confederate treason to our union as a nation, are we not paying homage to the treachery against all Americans’ right to be free? The sins of our fathers and mothers against humanity were visited not only in white Americans’ genocide of Native Americans, not only of white Americans’ slavery of African-Americans who were kidnapped and sold against their will. 

If you look at the history of the United States’ growth, you see a series of conflicts. To name but two on a very long list, Mexicans lost one-third of their country including Texas to slaveholders and California to gold seekers. The Lakota lost their sacred Black Hills to a gold-seeking general named Custer who, after massacring the tribe of a peaceful chief, Black Kettle, who was waving a white flag, led a military expedition into the Black Hills and reported finding gold as high as his ankle. 

That is the lesson for all Americans in the demonstrations of solidarity around the world. Empires used colonial armies who were promised postwar independence and peace, and who were then deceived along with us until finally we were (and are) confronted by their revolutions. Our corporate leaders and their paid politicians answered those revolts by financing and arming reactionary local favorites who corrupted governments and joined in the plunder of peasants and workers. And, if not so “contained” to our leaders’ satisfaction, they were answered by the bayonets of US Marines, the cannons of gunboats, and the bombs of warplanes.

In the US, however, we have ignored the lessons of ancient Rome and its Republic, which have much to teach us: under the pressures of holding together the empire won by Roman generals, the Republic eventually abandoned the traditional citizen-soldier of the yeoman farmer, for a professional army that eventually followed a populist Caesar across the forbidden Rubicon to end the Republic. 

Trump is no Caesar, but recent warnings of high US generals to the American people of an accelerating trend to an imperial presidency are only as strong as they are heeded. Even if they are heeded, the Pentagon’s ludicrous and lucrative procurement practices, complete with revolving seats on corporate boards, continue.

Police brutality at home has the same object as conquests abroad: control by any means necessary to protect the fundamental power base of the status quo. 

The lies and excuses for CIA atrocities like the military coups in Iran (1953) against the elected premier, in Guatemala against the elected president (1954), in Vietnam by denying the Geneva 1954 pledge of elections and setting up a puppet regime in Saigon (1956), in Indonesia accompanied by the mass slaughter of the Chinese minority (1965), in Chile accompanied by the assassination of the elected president (1973) and mass executions fly in the face of truth like whiplashes. 

Told they were fighting for freedom, Cold War liberals became corporate liberals. Yes, some of them gave away money through their controlled foundations, but whether abroad or at home, most recipients are those favored by the political outlook shared with their benefactors. Control ultimately is not shared and never has been in America except as a vision of democracy won incrementally throughout history by the people, not elites. 

When the rich get richer, they get more than riches; they gain more power to purchase our lifetimes and our dreams. That, as they say on Wall Street, is the bottom line of their rule.

Seen in this light, it should not be surprising that many soldiers who experienced the trauma of defending that corporate empire overseas have come home to police our neighborhoods as though they were war zones, often using the bloody firepower, tear gas,  surveillance, and psychological warfare they used aboard. 

Since the 1980s’ Contra War in Nicaragua under President Reagan, students of warfare abroad have become the tutors of repression at home: witness the Pentagon’s use of the Israeli military to train American police in “occupation” strategy and tactics that have been used for over 70 years in Palestine. (Click here to read the latest report from Amnesty International US on the use of taxpayers’ and private funds to train American police in Israel). 

Palestinian Arabs have become a displaced people in their own country, pushed out by a European settler state that has expanded into the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and isolated Gaza, treating Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike as conquered minorities, reserving most of the seats in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) for themselves.  

The Israel world leaders believed would provide shelter and security for a people mercilessly slaughtered by the millions by the Nazis has become the opposite of what they envisioned. Billions of dollars of US arms have been funneled to Tel Aviv. Armed US interventions, occupation, discrimination, and support for dictatorships, throughout the Middle East have fed an Israel armed to the teeth and dominated by right-wing zealots.

Cicero once said, “To be unacquainted with events which take place long before our birth is always to remain a child.” To look deeply into the soul of America, we have to put away a child’s view of our history. We have to grow up as a nation, be prepared at last to fight our own battle for a just and free America, respecting other nations’ right to self-determination—as well as our own. 

Today, most Americans do not have self-determination; it has been stolen by a corporate elite, the one percent of the population that owns so much of the wealth that even the wisest of their kind worry that their republic cannot survive such a wide income discrepancy. White people in the US and around the world must realize that the struggles by the Black, Indigenous and people of color is their struggle too. 

The militarism of police officers affects us all. But racism is a deeper problem than the militarism of police. The officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in the back had been trained in de-escalation, but the racism and pride of white skin privilege took over. We now hear of another Black man, Robert Fuller, found hanged from a tree whose circumstance of death was covered up to keep the media blind. 

The ongoing uprising in the streets of the United States may be the beginning of a new awakening for white youth who join their Black, Indigenous and Brown friends and comrades in the streets. This is the only place where today’s youth can confirm their own humanity.

This may be our last chance to preserve the republic by advancing toward its promise, not backward toward a mythical past. It’s not just a matter of mea culpa or an overdue sensitivity to what has been done by corporate elites, institutions, and racist white people to Black and Indigenous people and people of color in the United States. It’s a matter of self-respect and survival to eliminate white supremacy in America and the world, and in the process become a unified front for the freedom that has too long escaped the world’s majority.

This article was written by Gerard Colby for the board members of Toward Freedom.

Author Bio:

Gerard Colby is a historian who, during his 50 years as an investigative journalist, was president of the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981) between 2004 and 2009 and a winner of the National Press Association’s Award for Press Criticism. He is the author of Du Pont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain and Thy Will Be Done, the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil.