It hurt as I breathed: history repeats itself

“They would catch me, I saw, half turning round to see my rear but still kicking my heels forward. ‘Nigger nigger - catch a nigger by the toe, eeny meany miney mo!’.”

So begins a story by African American Peggy Dye, describing her childhood when she crossed uptown Illinois to study in a majority white school with a small black quota. It was a school her parents encouraged her to attend, knowing she was smart. But there were risks. It was a school full of white boys who thought all Negroes (the word used) were “cold-black and violent”. They’d chase her home.

“‘Get away from me!’ I panted as I pumped my 18-inch legs. ‘Please!’ and I felt the tears in my eyes. I was running and trying so hard not to fight, choking down the anger. I was resisting. I felt a big pain in my stomach. Was it anger? It was a rock and it rolled inside my ribs and hurt as I breathed.”

Still running

It was the late 1940s. Dye had just started first grade when her father told her, “‘It’s a war baby, and don’t you forget it.. But don’t you get yourself in the middle of no fights. Alright? The school will be looking for a way to say you’re trouble. Resist anything that tries to make you trouble.’ My father had made me swear I’d be patient and on my best behaviour. No matter what.”

Fast forward to 2020 and the lines remain drawn. In May, 25 year old Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by two white men as he jogged through suburban Georgia. Then in June a Minneapolis police officer pinned 46 year old George Floyd down, kneeling on his neck for eight minutes until he suffocated. Against the stubborn indifference of the officer and his colleagues, Floyd said, "..I didn't do nothing serious man. Please.. I can't breathe..".

A minor offence, passing a counterfeit $20 bill, provoked a force that crushed the life from him.

Mourning and grief

More than 75 cities across the United States have come alive with grief and action in huge protests on a scale not seen since the 1960s calling for racial justice, and provoking marches of support around the world. Spot violence has overshadowed what has been largely peaceful demonstrations. People of colour feel betrayed by their country.

In an echo of Dye’s father’s plea, black leaders on social media have been urging black Americans to resist causing trouble. 'They will call you thugs but don’t give them reason to pick on you. We understand your anger but don’t let hate rule you. Don’t burn the house down because it’s your house too.’

The problem with pleas for calm, says friend, African American broadcaster, Shelton Walden, is that black Americans are always having to put white people at ease. “We are taught that from a very young age. It has conditioned us to not rock the boat, to not appear threatening, because we understand the unilateral power white folks have over us and how that power that can be turned on with the flick of a switch.”

Emancipation is recent

Between when Peggy Dye started school in the 1940s and today a lot has been done to desegregate the United States and create a multiracial nation, gaining force with President John F Kennedy's civil rights bill, pushed through by President Lyndon Johnson and culminating in the election of Barack Obama. What went before that was hundreds of years of slave-history.

Walden says, “This runs deep, for most of North America’s history black people were considered non-citizens, sub-human. You could do just about anything to a black person. African American men were just lynched for just looking at a white woman.” He brings up the recent racially-charged accusations of a white woman toward a bird-lover in Central Park who asked her to put a lead on her dog. She rang police shouting ‘an African American man is threatening my life’. “The mere exchange of words with a black man, a Harvard graduate, was, in her mind, an affront,” he says. “She couldn’t stomach the fact that this man asked her to do something. Any suggestion he had some authority over her was audacious. She deliberately raised his colour, saying Big Brother will come and remove you. It again puts all of us on notice. It’s chilling.”


America is in a perilous moment. The dream of an all-encompassing democracy is faltering, in part because of dual thinking. “There’s a tribal approach to almost everything; who is in and who is out - even in getting God’s favour,” says Walden. “Oppositional dualism won’t break down without mercy and grace. You are always in some kind of box and it’s hard to get out of the box. There needs to be less judgement.”

Are things worse?

I met Peggy Dye in church in Harlem, New York in the winter of 1993. Walden was her neighbour. I was travelling the world, hungry to understand history’s legacy in colonial states including South Africa, my birthplace. Dye was vigorous then, still able to turn up her heels and run. So much of North America, she said, is good, and so much is ugly.

History moves like a pendulum but this time it feels like it has swung back far more than usual. When Martin Luther King Jr was still alive, modelling mercy and grace, the 1963 march on Washington seemed to hold more sky, more optimism. King had just met Kennedy. There were shouts of freedom reverberating across the country, awakening the consciences of millions of Americans. The president was listening. The current president has been secluded in a bunker under Washington’s White House adding to the fire with inflammatory tweets, and then emerging to hold a Bible in his hand using a church as a prop.

If one positive thing has come out of it, it is that thousands of white Americans on social media have acknowledged their white privilege and called for change. Here too. Walden says Dye,who died of cancer in 2007, would have recognised that as progress. The crisis has revealed the truth of things.

Reminiscent of LA riots

When I met her in 1992 the US West Coast was recovering from the Rodney King riots. Unrest began in South Central Los Angeles after a trial jury acquitted four officers who were caught on video savagely beating King, a black man they’d pulled over for speeding. The Los Angeles Police Department had a notorious reputation and had enthusiastically used techniques such as the choke hold when arresting African American men. It was justified by a bogus view that black men had unusually large necks. The tape made what had been happening visible.

In the smartphone age, recordings are used for self protection. "Had Derek Chauvin not been recorded pushing his knee into Floyd’s neck, he would have said Floyd resisted arrest," says Walden.

Police trained to be behave like occupiers

Police reform says Matt Taibbi, author of I Can't Breathe: a killing on Bay Street has been long-promised by the Democrats but blocked because of strong police unions in the US that prevent persecutions. Reform is also burdened by history as the early American police forces evolved out of slave patrols in the South, and “progressed” to enforce the Black Codes from the Civil War period and beyond. American policing, increasingly militarised, has almost always been concerned on some level with enforcing racial separatism.

Enthusiasm from the 1990s for what’s called the Broken Windows theory - changing policing from a business of fighting crime to doing ‘order maintenance’ - encouraged police to make snap judgements that profiled minorities. Taibbi says the cost of policing in the US has tripled in 40 years and the prison population doubled, even though crimes rates have been plummeting.

There are hundreds of police departments across the US. Some work well, many don't. There are no national ethical standards, something the Democrats are again seeking to establish.

Trauma trigger

Here in Australia, First Nations people are on edge. The instability in the US has triggered earlier traumas. An Awabakal friend says it has made her people scramble, “there are many responses but above all shared outrage and solidarity.”

Here, police negligence still needs to be dealt with, with racism demonstrated in public ways in recent weeks and stories unpacking just some of the hundreds of Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991. Progress has been too slow since the Blacks Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. There is a deaths in custody watch in Western Australia but, as Marcia Langton said in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in Australian cities, all agencies need to grow what works to stop Aborignal deaths in custody and reduce the numbers of Indigenous people in Australian jails. The distinguished professor and activist for Indigenous rights has called for duty of care to be central to police training. “There’s still not a lot of compassion,” she told the ABC.

Walden, for his part, regrets not trying to emigrate to Australia when he had the chance in the mid 1990s. “Visiting Australia, it was the first time in my life, as a black person, that I didn't feel watched. It was such a relief. I felt free.” Now in his 50s he still feels he is being watched and made to feel like a fugitive even though he has done nothing wrong. “We are tired, tired of being constantly monitored, not sure who to trust," he says. "We just want to be.”

Can't simply blame Trump

Americans who harboured racist beliefs and had learned to be discreet are no longer trying to hide them.

Dr Eddie Glaude, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, thinks President Donald Trump gave them licence. “Trump broke the consensus that America would keep its racism quiet. He has unwittingly cracked a pernicious impediment — one we still hear in those who in one breath decry his explicit racism and then accept policies and positions that stoke the flames of white racial resentment.” As Australian theologian Mike Frost observed, American racists no longer have the decency to be subtle.

Glaude says Americans can’t simply blame their president.

“We will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We must address not just the nasty words, but also the policies and the practices. We need to look inward."

Hot days ahead

It’s going to be a long sticky summer in the US.

Forty million people are out of work, 100,000 people are dead from coronavirus. American economist Alberto Alesina, who died this month, fingered racism as the reason Americans don't have universal health care. "Racial animosity in the US makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters," he wrote.

Families with limited resources are going stir crazy trying to keep bored children at home, with a real risk of death if they don't. Fatigue and frustration are building. The presidential election is mere months away as Trump, relying on a strategy of division and rhetorical if not real violence, ramps up authoritarianism. ​"If officer Chauvin is not convicted there will be no peace," adds Walden.

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