Black Lives Matter in the time of Covid-19
The chaos currently gripping the US has divided Egyptians, despite that causes closer to hand — like the Palestinian struggle — share with the Black Lives Matter movement a common horizon
Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, coronavirus, United States, rights, equality, racism, Egypt
Recently, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has created a great deal of controversy amongst Egyptians and on Egyptian media. Misunderstandings and varied views regarding this movement currently gripping the US make a discussion of its parameters direly due.
Despite the fact that the “Black Lives Matter” movement was founded in the US in 2013 as a result of the shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin, it has currently escalated to unprecedented heights after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.
Police violence against African American citizens has been a volatile issue for years in the US, but this incident taking place amidst the Covid-19 pandemic along with two other recent instances were the match that lit the fire of the current unrest.
Racism in the US has been pinpointed by many as a historically sustained pandemic. But how do we as Egyptians position ourselves towards all of this?
Egyptians, whether on social media or in the street, are quite divided. Some can only see the current protests in light of the limited violence, looting and rioting, arguing that “Black Lives Matter” is a violent exclusionary movement and that blacks should go back to their original homelands (of course, this group is completely clueless regarding the history of slavery and dispossession that brought blacks originally to American/Native American soil)!
Others, on the other hand, are quite empathetic, but feel that Egyptians’ empathy with the “Black Lives Matter” movement is trend-oriented and shortsightedly ignores other oppressive struggles closer to Egyptians, such as the Palestinian struggle.
This group draws attention to all the violence Palestinians face on a daily basis at the hands of the Israeli occupation, which cannot be denied. What we need to understand, though, is that whether it is the “Black Lives Matter” movement or the Palestinian struggle, it is the same issue: standing up against violence and racist hatred.
The current support Arab-American groups and Palestinian-American groups are showing towards the “Black Lives Matter" movement in the US is proof of this.
This undermines the empty argument that “Black Lives” is a reverse racist, exclusionary movement, since “All Lives Matter.” In reality, claiming and naming a particular black position now is the only means to overcome the systemic racism ingrained in the American political system, which normalises racism that is against the rights of all American citizens and humans in general.
As citizens, African-Americans in the US have a very distinct history of dispossession that needs to be taken into account. The majority of African-Americans in the US did not leave their original homelands of their own accord but were abducted, sold into slavery and forcibly moved to build the US capitalist economy under the worst of conditions.
In the Declaration of Independence, the American Forefathers stated that “All men are created equal” and that everyone has the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Sadly though, actuation of these ideals was continuously questioned by the institution of slavery that supported American capitalism. Abolitionists in the past rose to argue that blacks should have equal rights and that the practice of racist laws such as the ones denying blacks education and fining any whites teaching slaves to read had to be stopped.
The Civil War took place to acquire the rightful freedom of blacks and end their economic oppression by whites, but Jim Crow laws of racial segregation remained in the US till the 1950s. These laws prevented African-Americans from being educated in the same schools as whites, riding the same transportation, or even using the same washrooms (social distancing at a whole new level).
The Civil Rights movement headed by figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X called for the end of segregation and the inclusion of blacks into the American Dream, and some gains were won, but curiously enough both of these leaders were assassinated.
Though outright laws of segregation ended, white supremacist practices remain and are still practiced by groups such as the KKK, which has chapters all over the US.
That is why Floyd’s murder and his plea to police officers, “I can’t breathe,” is an actual description of suffocation that African-Americans have been experiencing long before the lung failures resulting from Covid-19. A suffocation that has led to the sudden grasp for breath, that is literally taking place now.
Writers like Dr Cornell West have long been analysing the dire conditions of poverty and injustice that have led to this current situation and have anticipated its outcomes. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery are all points in a circle of institutionalised injustice and violence that has robbed African-Americans of their humanity for years.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only starkly placed this injustice before our eyes as we compare the numbers of African-Americans and minorities killed by this disease as a result of misguided funding directed to black communities.
This is why the current protests are calling for redirection of funds to develop African-American communities rather than criminalise and police them. This uprising is gaining momentum, moving actually and digitally to encompass the parameters of all such injustice, undermining mainstream capitalist funded media framing of the movement as violent.
Nations face demise and decay when their central creeds and belief systems become blatantly questionable. The various major crises in American history have been shaped by this kind of crisis of identity. The men who crafted the US Constitution were above all shaping a dream of equality and freedom, and this has for a long time shaped how Americans like to define themselves, irrespective of the realities of racism, which were always relegated to the sidelines as isolated incidents practiced by a minority.
The current chapter of unrest in American history will not end until the real problems of systemic racism and discrimination are addressed.
A digital uprising is already being organised and movements like “In Defense of Black Lives,” which stress capitalist economic oppression suffered by blacks, are joining forces. Political leaders like Andrew Cuomo, Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama have all expressed the need to face the realities of systemic racism.
As Egyptians, we need to look in the mirror and realise our own blackness and attempt to understand the historical context.
*Somaya Sami Sabry is an associate professor of American and cultural studies at the English Department of Ain Shams University.