George Floyd’s last words will eclipse Donald Trump’s – Alex Cole-Hamilton
When George Floyd gasped ‘I can’t breathe’, his words struck a terrible and resounding chord in the United States, says Alex Cole-Hamilton.
The Japanese word ‘Jisei’ describes a poetry genre unlike any other. Loosely translated as ‘death poems’, they are effectively the last words of the author committed to paper with structure and elegance, in full knowledge of their imminent demise. They can be witty and they can be desolate, but they are always profound. Last words spoken at the very end of life often matter, to family members or to nations. But last week, in his last three words, an unarmed black man set fire to a continent.
There are few times in human history where something captured on film is so incendiary that you immediately recognise it for the defining moment it is set to become. The sight of George Floyd, choking out the words “I can’t breathe” under the knee of a white police officer, shortly before he died, was one such moment.
Those words struck a terrible but resounding chord in a country where any one of over 100,000 people lost to Covid-19 might have uttered that same, desperate sentence the country over. They capture the sense of helplessness that the American people must feel when from a state of effective house arrest, they watch their livelihoods collapse. They also capture a sense of helplessness at history repeating again and again and again.
Police brutality and racism are stitched through American history. From the days of lynching to the police attack on a peaceful civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. From the riots that followed police brutality in Watts to those that followed the on-camera beating of Rodney King, the United States is stained with racial outrage. What makes the Floyd murder different is the response from the White House.
In 1965 in the days after local law enforcement turned on civil rights leaders in Selma, Lyndon Johnston sent in the National Guard to protect activists from local police officers and Klan members, allowing them to march again. This week Trump sent in the national guard to crush the activities of protesters, with tear gas and with rubber bullets.
Writing on Twitter, Trump warned those protesting in their tens of thousands, in dozens of cities across America: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Aside from violating Twitter’s incitement to violence rules, that phrase also resonates with America’s racist past. In 1967 Miami’s chief of police, Walter Headley said exactly those words in the context of a civil rights movement on the verge of explosion in Florida. Ordering his officers to control any violence with shotguns and live ammunition, Headley said: “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he typed those words and who he was speaking to.
Trump can see that he is losing ground to Joe Biden in the polls. He has mishandled the American response to Covid-19 and any credit he’d built up for stimulating growth in the economy has all but turned to ash. He sees all this, so he is seeding division in an attempt to mask his failings on coronavirus. All this while he reaches for the comfort blanket of his base in the far right. Remember, this is a president who describes white supremacists as “very fine people”. For all the nightmares that 2020 has thrown at humanity, the coming US election gives me hope for lasting change.
If he loses in November, I expect Trump will diminish into obscurity. And when he shuffles off this mortal coil, his last words won’t define a movement in the way George Floyd’s have. Indeed, if he does write one, I can’t help but think that his ‘Jisei’ will be typed out in furious block capitals over 280 characters on Twitter.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western
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