In February this year, I was searched by the Transportation Security Administration at the JFK airport in New York.
The officer doing the searching assured me it was random and gave me the option of receiving his treatment in an area away from the public. I wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do but I told him he could do the search right there.
The search turned out to be a quite vigorous frisking of my arms, chest, thighs, and legs. But I wasn’t alarmed. What was I guilty of? Writing a harsh review? Typing too furiously on my laptop? Eating grilled chicken in an American cinema hall? Later I found two TSA notices in my bag.
There was a chance that I had been profiled but that’s a thing I see in the movies. And it didn’t really connect with anything historical in my brain. I waved it off. I think now that that ignorance is a privilege.
Fact is, I am Nigerian and have never lived anywhere else for month than 3 months at a time. What others might call racism I shrug off and, frankly, I just don’t have the experience and psychological apparatus to process nothing but the most egregious display of racism. I don’t have the African American’s historical baggage. I live in Lagos: any harshness abroad has to be stratospheric to register in my mind. When some guy mistook me for the guy who played M’baku in Black Panther as I tried to cross a road in Park City, I found it amusing. A white lady who saw the scene later scoffed, condemning what happened. She diagnosed the problem: to the white guy guy, I was “a big black guy” at a film festival showing a film starring a big black guy so I was probably Winston Duke. As I said, I was amused. As I write this, I wonder if I’d have been as amused where Duke some big, black guy who had just committed a crime.
Since 25 May, another big, black guy has been in the news. Unlike me, he’s dead now. Like me, his mother is dead. Unlike me, he was calling for her in his last encounter with a white man.
I had first seen the George Floyd murder video on Twitter. Adrift in the inundation of visual material online, I didn’t give it much thought. I had seen this too many times. He was just another black guy being subdued by the law. Later, I learned he didn’t survive the incident.
Later, I learned that the white police officer had knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. What was the crime? He had tried to make a purchase with a fake $20 bill. Apparently, he was inebriated. From a video capturing the events leading to his murder, he was handcuffed pretty quickly, thereby reducing his capacity for violence. How did he still end up murdered? The officer who killed him wasn’t even the first to arrive at the scene and wasn’t the one to handcuff him.
Mr Floyd was no saint as he had been to jail for armed robbery years ago. He had lost his job due to the coronavirus pandemic and was looking for work as many other persons have been forced to do. On the day, he was murdered, he had paid for a pack of cigarettes with the fake bill he had.
Even with the declining strength of our currency, that isn’t up to 10,000 naira. And if that money was for a pack of cigarettes, that is pretty much equivalent to around 200 naira depending on the brand. A man had been killed in the most humiliating fashion in public for less than 10k or for the cost of a pack of cigarettes. Dogs have received better treatment.
This is what has been playing in a part of my brain since I learned the details:
1. Do you know how uncomfortable it is for your hand to be restrained?
2. For those restrained hands to be behind your torso
3. To be put at the back of a police car after saying you are claustrophobic
4. To then be forced face down on a hard ground with your hands at your back
5. For this to be done in public
6. And for an adult human being to rest his weight on your neck
7. For that to continue for 1 whole minute
8. Two whole minutes
11. Five minutes
12. For eight whole minutes
13. While you’re begging for your life
14. While you call for your dead mother
15. “I can’t breathe man, please”
16. “Please, man”
17. Get in the car.
18. “I will” but he can’t move: there’s a human being on his neck
19. “I can’t breathe”
20. “The knee in my neck”
21. “Mama” “Mama”
I keep thinking that if by a miracle Mr Floyd had survived, he was never going to be same psychologically. His self-esteem would have been gone, his dignity shattered. How could he ever explain what had happened to him? How would he tell his kid that the dad she knew is no longer there? What would he tell her about the police and how she should behave before a white man? A white man’s weight on a black man’s neck seems just the metaphor for America’s race relations. And I wonder just how much of this trauma will be passed on across generations.
As it stands, the primary inheritor of that trauma is 6-year old Gianna, Mr Floyd’s daughter, who alongside her mother, Roxie Washington, spoke to the media a few days ago. Pointing to Gianna, Ms Washington said her kid no longer has a father. He won’t be there to see her graduate, he won’t be there to walk her down the aisle. He used to always play the girl; now that was no longer possible. For all of the reports of black American fathers being absent from the lives of their kids, here was one who was a part of his kid’s life. But now, she joins the stats of kids growing up without their fathers despite his efforts.
Someday, Gianna will see the video of her dad’s murder as an adult. She will be able to process things that she can’t as a 6-year old. Her heart will break all over again. She might be fine because, as they say, time heals everything. But for Gianna Floyd when that day comes, nobody can be entirely sure about that. What kind of healing is possible for a child who knows her father’s last moments had him scream for his own dead mother in anguish while a stranger’s knee pressed into his neck in public?