Change in America Gerry OShea
The death of George Floyd in Mineapolis from torture inflicted in broad daylight has led to days of protest all over the country and beyond. The event was filmed by a brave young woman who stood her ground close to the location to capture a clear video showing a manacled Mr. Floyd on the ground pleading with a policeman who had his knee on his neck that he was choking from lack of air. The torture scene lasted close to nine minutes before the prisoner expired on the street.
The horror video told the story very clearly of a prisoner in custody being tortured, and the response was an outcry of shock and disbelief from people all over America. The community feeling of revulsion brought to mind a line from an Irish rebel song, “the wailing cry went up to very heaven.”
A few weeks previously we learned about another black man, Ahmoud Arbery, being mowed down in Brunswick, Georgia while he was out jogging. This happened a few months earlier but, amazingly, no action was taken until a video of the murder surfaced. In a strange twist, worthy of an Agatha Christie novel, the man who released the video is now charged with Mr. Arbery’s death along with a former policeman and his son.
Books have been written about all the black men who have died in police custody over the years, revealing the depth of racism among a minority of white cops. Somehow, the Floyd case was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The whole grim scene of a citizen in handcuffs crying out that he couldn’t breathe caused mass revulsion and outrage.
These big nightly protests, mostly peaceful, were supported by people of all ages and colors, but especially noticeable was the large number of young white people who are giving notice that they want an end to racism in all parts of American life. A recent Monmouth poll showed that 76% of Americans support this position – up by 26% in three years.
Are we living in a time of seismic change in America? The COVID 19 pandemic with its trail of more than 100,000 coffins has shaken the country. We will continue on tenterhooks until a vaccine is developed and that may be a year or more away.
While thousands of the young and able-bodied have died from the virus, the main worry centers on friends and acquaintances who are vulnerable because of age or infirmity.
The reports from hospital wards tell of patients in agony, cut off from family and friends – no hand to hold, no reassuring voice. In Shakespeare’s words this isolation “is the unkindest cut of all.”
In this milieu, the size of a person’s car or boat or millions in investments do not count. Humanity is laid bare, with no defense against a newly-mutated pathogen. Ironic that during his travails the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with a history of flirting with deplorable anti-immigrant rhetoric, depended on and later spoke glowingly about a brave Portugese health worker who held his hand during his dark nights in recovery.
Of course, money still matters. Bills have to be paid and food purchased. The pandemic is a real inconvenience for everyone, but a healthy bank account ensures that those lucky people have their needs met with only minimal risk of contagion.
Good luck to them! But what about all the so-called essential workers, many of them poor people, who are paid the minimum wage and often live in packed conditions with their families. The crowded projects, which most of these workers call home, include a disproportionate percentage of those afflicted by the powerful virus. Once again, the poor bear the brunt of the suffering.
These are the men and women who stock the shelves in the supermarket, who clean the buses and subways and who fulfill all the menial laundry, feeding and cleaning duties in our hospitals and retirement homes. The nurses, doctors and other senior personnel are equally brave and admirable, but they earn decent salaries and live in adequate housing.
Many of the workers on low wages do not have health insurance – over twenty million in the United States. Where is the justice and basic decency of asking employees on twelve dollars an hour to work long shifts in dangerous circumstances and not even provide them with health insurance for themselves and their families?
Meanwhile, during the two months from the middle of March to the middle of May, billionaires increased their wealth by 15% and eighteen new members joined that exclusive club. People are wondering how they have “earned” all that money and why they should possess such huge monetary resources while thousands of citizens line up for food parcels in every American city.
These gross inequalities, evidence of serious ethical incongruities in the body politic, seem to bother young people most. Who, they ask, decided to divvy up the national cake in this manner? This is not an easy question, but it is important that our leaders face it.
Recently, Governor Cuomo from New York predicted that the stars are lining up for a period of great change. Our times are particularly propitious for a major forward movement in important areas of public policy. Surely, financing better homes and schools for the poor and middle class has to be a top priority. Bernie Sanders’ proposal for a national minimum hourly wage of $15 an hour seemed extreme to people last year; today many would support a figure of $20.
Some people, abiding by the accepted rhetoric of the past, may object that such plans are too revolutionary. That debate has to take place. Keep in mind that in a recent poll a slight majority of young people from 18 to 30 opted for a socialist form of government for America over the present capitalist system. They are not talking about some kind of Marxist utopia, but a place where meeting citizens’ needs in housing, education, healthcare and workers’ and women’s rights are the top policy priorities.
Change is in the air, but it is difficult to predict the outcome because the forces of the status quo will assert their privileges and they control most of the levers of power. Only a massive popular movement will shift the culture from the old unthinking ways. The November election will have a major bearing on the future direction of the United States.
The combined urgency of the COVID-19 scourge and the deep dissatisfaction evident in the big nightly protests, focusing on racism, suggest that there will be no returning to the status quo.
Seamus Heaney captures well the sense of hope that is always part of of any major historical change and is pertinent in today’s America.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com