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Is A Human Being’s Life Worth Less Than A ‘Fake $20 Bill’? – OpEd

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Or is it just the case with a black man’s life in the United States! 

In the year 2020 when a pandemic is devouring social and political economies across the globe and killing innocent people, watching the white police officer’s knee pressed against the black man’s neck asphyxiating the latter is something I would have expected in a gothic version of a posthumously published Beckett drama.

It’s hard to imagine how black people feel when they watch such cruelty and inhumanity with a sense of horror. I am also making an effort to imagine how conscientious whites feel both humiliation and disgust at the sight of cold-blooded murder by a man whose job it is to save people from getting murdered and not murdering them. It’s as if the Civil Rights Movement never took place and the US is still living in a system of racial segregation where such atrocities are accepted as quite normal. It’s as if parts of America have decided that they must walk the way of South Africa in the apartheid era, with no hope of real integration or genuine inter-racial dialogue ever happening anytime soon. 

Something is abnormal (a word I rarely use) with the whole system or social order whose foundations are rooted in a state of mind called “white supremacy” which no longer exists except as the oneiric daydream of a lunatic fringe suffering from a golden past syndrome for a world filled with hobbits, elves, talking animals and friendly witches. We are living in the 21st century and it is the year 2020 (I keep repeating the year just to get the feeling that something like this shocking incident has really happened, when most of us actually believe that these are random occurrences done by completely crazy men and not someone who is fully normal and in a responsible position).   

If this incident is symptomatic of anything it is third world brutality in the first world and in full public display without fear of consequences, thanks to Donald Trump’s leadership of America. Not that I see any serious alternatives to Mr. Trump at this point. Punishing the police officer or his conscienceless colleagues, who could have stopped the murder from happening, means nothing at all. It’s like Genghis Khan sending an apology letter to the Persians after razing to the ground a great culture and a glorious civilization. No such letter was ever dispatched by the way. Genghis Khan did not have to. He died eventually of natural causes though the Khwarazm Empire never recovered its past. The moral of the tale, if at all there is one, is that power has to be resisted without having to wait for an apology.

This kind of aggression has a global context to it. It is how we look at people and their lives, people who don’t matter to us because their lives are less than human from where we stand. It would be unfair to say that it is only in the United States that something like this is happening to a black person and everywhere else people are living equally without being intimidated by the law. I live in India and I know for a fact what the police and the army are capable of when it comes to crushing resistance, especially when it comes from the working classes. I understand what judges do in a court of law when they allow the letter of the rule to override the spirit of the rule. 

A brute system of force is legitimized through a bureaucracy and propaganda machinery ensuring that inequality remains and property relations never change. The police officer who killed the black man is just one of the many people who are indoctrinated by a system that makes them believe that they are playing a positive role in ensuring that there are no “bad” people around and the streets are crime-free. However, as George Carlin notes, “They want to put street criminals in jail to make life safer for the business criminals. They’re against street crime, providing that street isn’t Wall Street.”

There are two streets that make up most of the world; the streets of the rich and the streets of the poor; the ones in between are the frontline defense for the rich; they are called the middle classes because they endorse the system without asking questions in exchange for one thing only: security. The price of the security is paid for by the poor and the weak whose bodies and souls put together are worth less than a fake $20 bill. 

Less than a fake $20 bill are the lives of the victims of American Foreign Policy in the Third World where loans are given to governments whose interest is paid by the masses; victims of weapons and surveillance technology sold by powerful companies to third world despots ensuring that social democracy is impossible; victims of poverty and disease because of lack of access to food and basic medicine; victims of prostitution and drug trafficking; Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers because they are fighting against a colonial-style occupation; victims of honor killings in South Asia and some other kinds of cold-blooded murders thanks to completely inhuman laws such as the blasphemy law in Pakistan; migrant labor enduring the unendurable in India; the poor dying in Africa and Latin America and practically everywhere because neither are their bodies nor their minds equipped to win the survival battle. 

The fake $20 bill is symbolic therefore because there are millions of people whose lives are of less worth than that. 

This doesn’t mean I approve of the violence by well-meaning protesters engulfing American cities, though it is enlightening to see so many white boys and girls participating along with the blacks in the protests. The unity of blacks and whites is a sign that systemic racism or the kind of murderous behavior displayed by the police officer and his colleagues is being confronted in a big way. 

Nonviolence proves an important point which is that change is not something to be afraid of. Whether they like it or not blacks and whites have to learn to live together since they inhabit the same space. Nonviolent protests can be the means to bigger changes like ending class inequality. Sporadic violence no matter how provocative achieves literally nothing because as Gandhi says, a state, by definition, is “a soulless machine” and “its very existence depends on violence.” 

Merely arresting or punishing one white police officer who is a cog in the state machine means little when we look at the bigger picture. If racism and classism (both of which are conjoined twins) must end, the violence of the protesters is not going to be of significant help. In the end the protesters will have to go back to their homes and the violence might also have the effect of justifying the “organized violence” (Gandhi) of the state itself. A carefully conceived protest with the single goal of creating a non-violent order will do a lot more to put an end to racism and classism than anything I can think of. 

*Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.  

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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