“I Can’t Breathe” – The Death of George Floyd and its Effect on American Moral Authority

“I can’t breathe!” 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, cried out as Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressured his knee against Floyd’s neck. On May 25, 2020, after approximately 9 minutes of continued pressure, Floyd died unarmed. He was handcuffed, with his face pressed against the street. Like many preceding cases involving black men, Floyd was not suspected of posing any sort of violent threat at that moment. His death has not only once again reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, but this particular demonstration of police violence against a citizen has posed a great challenge to America’s authority and reputation as a champion for human rights.

The words “I can’t breathe” resonated with marginalized communities and activists across the world. They have been echoed in the spur of protests detesting police brutality that arose shortly after. Those in Paris have taken to the streets seeking justice for Floyd and Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black man who died in 2016 when apprehended by the police; his last words were the same as Floyd’s. Those in the United Kingdom have taken to the streets of central London to demand justice for Floyd and Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager killed in a racist attack in 1993. Even in Australia, protestors have risen to demand the end of police brutality against the Aboriginal and Strait Islander indigenous communities. In light of these cries, a prominent media entrepreneur in the Democratic Republic of Congo tweeted out to Mike Hammer, the U.S. Ambassador, the question we have all been asking ourselves; according to Robin Wright’s article published in the New Yorker on June 1, 2020, he wrote: “Dear ambassador, your country is shameful. Proud America, which went through everything from segregation to the election of Barack Obama, still hasn’t conquered the demons of racism. How many black people must be killed by white police officers before authorities react seriously?” Similar statements have been made by world leaders, leaving many to question America’s role as world police. Despite the U.S.’s unrestrained criticism of foreign governments’ handling of human rights issues, footage of Floyd’s death and President Trump’s threat to involve the military against rioters highlights the nation’s hypocrisy.

While the American government struggles to keep its credibility afloat, other countries are using the chaos incited within the U.S. as an effective propaganda technique to boost their legitimacy among citizens. This is especially true in China, where officials are taking advantage of the current situation to further retaliate against the U.S.’s “glorification” of the Hong Kong pro-democracy riots that began in March of 2019. In response to House Speaker Nanci Pelosi’s description of the pro-democracy protests as “a beautiful sight to behold,” the Chinese news agency Xinhua now mockingly describes the U.S. protests as “Pelosi’s beautiful landscape.” And indeed, for China, this is a beautiful scene; as stated by French journalist Pierre Haski, “Beijing could not have hoped for a better gift. The country that designates China as the culprit of all evils is making headlines around the world with the urban riots.” In other words, these riots have been effective in deflecting domestic criticism of the Chinese Communist Party by dialing in on American disarray and human rights violations within the criminal justice system. Others, such as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, have used this as an opportunity to portray the U.S. as hypocritical, asking “Why does the U.S. refer to that ‘ Hong Kong independence’ and black-clad rioters as ‘heroes’ and ‘fighters’ but label its people protesting against racial discrimination as ‘thugs’? Why did the U.S. have so many problems with the restrained and civilized way of law enforcement by the Hong Kong police but have no problem at all with threatening to shoot at and mobilizing the National Guard against its domestic protesters?” As Chinese officials are desperately trying to mobilize the country towards recovery after the coronavirus, pointing out the continued injustice in America has effectively worked in their favor to maintain legitimacy and portray the members of their government as responsible leaders.

With George Floyd’s death in the spotlight of news reports across the globe, is it possible for the U.S. to bounce back? Will, it once again come to be associated with the values of individual rights and equality, or will it gradually lose its prestige and come to be known as a nation that defies its principles? As of now, Americans’ only hope is that their cries will be heard. Their only hope is that their relentless efforts against injustice will inspire the necessary action to defeat racism.