by Janine Solanki, published in FireThisTime Newsletter, Volume 14, June-August 2020
“I can’t breathe” were the dying words of George Floyd, repeated more than 20 times while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. During this whole time, Floyd, a 46-year old black man, was already handcuffed and pinned facedown on the ground by four police officers. George Floyd’s last words uttered on May 25, 2020 into the pavement of a Minneapolis street, are not unique, making this killing even more tragic. According to a report by the New York Times, the phrase “I can’t breathe” has been used by over 70 people who died in police custody. In the recent months following Floyd’s killing, “I Can’t Breathe” has been painted on protest signs and chanted by the millions of protesters in Black Lives Matter rallies and protests against police brutality, now the most massive protest movement in U.S. history.
Police brutality not a symptom but a fundamental institution of capitalism
“I can’t breathe” as a protest slogan is not only a response to the killing of George Floyd but to the approximately 1000 people killed each year by law enforcement officers in the United States. “I can’t breathe” refers to the suffocation Black people in the U.S. feel knowing they are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than a white person, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Statistics also put other people of colour, primarily Latino and Indigenous people, at higher rates of being killed at police hands than white people. They also face targeting, brutality, and discrimination from the police.
Racism in the U.S. is systemic, and a life and death matter. The U.S. system is based on class divisions, and the ruling class knows that the age-old saying “divide and conquer” holds true. Division based on race, gender, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation is fostered to keep poor, working, and oppressed communities from coming together as a united force to defend their rights under attack.
It is even more clear that the police, acting on the orders of the U.S. government and ruling class, are a tool of state suppression when you see their response to people of diverse backgrounds uniting together in widespread protests against police brutality. Peaceful protesters have been met with violent suppression from police forces and even the national guard. The police have attacked protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bangs, fists and boots, tasers, and lethal rubber bullets. Protestors have been beaten by police batons, buzzed by low-flying military helicopters, and run over by police cars. This response to peaceful protest tells you just how dangerous the unity of oppressed people is to the police, suppressive institutions, and those they get their orders from.
U. S. government: not just domestic but international police
It is not only people in the U.S. who are coming together against police brutality but also people around the world who have shown their solidarity with U.S. protests. In many countries, it is not only solidarity but understanding. One example is in Palestine, where Taqi Spateen, a Palestinian artist, painted a huge mural of George Floyd on the Israeli apartheid wall in West Bank, the wall itself a cruel feature of U.S.-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine. Spateen explained his motivation behind the mural,
“I want the people in America who see this mural to know that we in Palestine are standing with them because we know what it’s like to be strangled every day… George Floyd was killed because they practically strangled him and cut off his breathing… And every day, this wall strangles us and makes it hard for us to breathe.”
From Palestine and throughout the Middle East, across Africa and Latin America, these sentiments are echoed by oppressed nations suffocating under U.S. imperialism. At the same time the police are used as a tool of suppression within the borders of the U.S.; on the international stage, the U.S. military acts as the world police. While the U.S. police kill civilians with impunity, the U.S. military too kills innocent people around the world, claiming “collateral damage” or attaching the label of “terrorist” whenever convenient. Often the U.S. government’s excuse for intervention is claiming failed states and dictatorial regimes while championing “the peoples” aspirations for regime change in whatever country is targeted by the U.S. government. What hypocrisy! If the U.S. government cared so much for the well-being of people facing state suppression, they had a better look at home first. Instead, the U.S. government claims to have the authority to dictate other countries’ policies, impose crippling sanctions as punishment for not following their orders, and intervene militarily through drone strikes, mercenary forces, the fomentation of civil wars and coups, and even direct wars and occupations.
To carry out this world-wide stranglehold, the U.S. has built a global network of foreign military bases. According to the U.S. Department of Defense website, the U.S. military operates in more than 160 countries, on all seven continents, with approximately 4,800 military sites. According to Business Insider, an estimated 800 to 1000 of these sites are foreign bases, with about 450,000 soldiers stationed overseas. These bases are eyes on the ground to surveil the whole world and springboards to carry out military actions. U.S. foreign military bases are also denying the self-determination of many nations whose people oppose these bases and have often been displaced and negatively impacted by the U.S. military’s presence on their lands.
Foreign U.S. military bases are nothing new and have been built up over decades. In 1945 the U.S. military attacked and occupied Okinawa, Japan, during one of World War II’s bloodiest battles. Seventy-five years later, the U.S. military still hasn’t left Okinawa! Today there are 50,000 U.S. soldiers in Japan, and Okinawa is burdened with 73.9% percent of the total number of U.S. bases in Japan (more than 30). This is despite decades of protests and opposition of the Okinawan people. In South Korea, U.S. troops also never left after the 1950-53 war. In 2018 the largest foreign U.S. military U.S. base in the world was completed in Pyeongtaek, which covers 14.7 million square meters and holds the majority of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. Throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the list goes on, including the oldest U.S. foreign military base which has occupied Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay since 1903.
U.S. war machine suffocating the world
While the U.S. war machine has been active for many years, today, we face an intensified and accelerated period of U.S. wars and occupations. This new era of war and occupation began with the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both still under the U.S. military boot. Country after country has faced war, occupation, and sanctions throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Libya was destroyed and left in chaos after the 2011 U.S./NATO bombing campaign. Syria has undergone a U.S.-fomented civil war, U.S. funded, trained, and armed mercenary forces which led to the creation of Daesh (ISIS), and direct U.S.-led military intervention. Yemen has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after six years of U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing, and war.
The U.S. government, and their imperialist allies including Canada, have not stopped their war drive in the Middle East and North Africa. Their imperialist reach extends throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America and involves crippling and destructive sanctions and blockades. The U.S. has imposed a blockade on Cuba for over 60 years, and today, during a global pandemic, when sanctions are more deadly than ever, the U.S. has tightened the blockade to unprecedented levels. In neighbouring Venezuela, layer upon layer of sanctions has effectively become a blockade of the country, which led to the deaths of more than 40,000 people in Venezuela between 2017 and 2018, according to a study by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Iran is also facing the tightening grip of sanctions as well as U.S. threats of attack, provocations, and the assassination of key Iranian officials. What is the crime of these countries? Simply asserting their independence and sovereignty and not accepting the dictates of the U.S. government.
All of this war, destruction, and death is not about a war on terror or saving “failed states.” It boils down to dollars and cents, as the U.S. must save their failing capitalist economy through securing control of foreign markets, plundering resources overseas, and exploiting oppressed and working people. This is enough for working and oppressed people to know what imperialism, by definition, is. This system is based on increasing profits and growth for the ruling class off the backs of poor, working, and oppressed people both at home and abroad. In fact, imperialism does not start or end abroad; imperialism begins at home. Imperialism means capitalism in its highest stage, the monopoly of banks and industry in a system of super exploitation. Its oppressive role at home is demonstrated by poverty and racism, and police brutality, and abroad through sanctions, wars, and occupations. Any resistance to the U.S. government’s policies, whether in Fallujah, Iraq, or Portland, USA, is met with violent suppression by the U.S. military or police. Whether inside the United States or outside of the United States, the working class and oppressed have the same common oppressor, the same common enemy, the U.S. government.
We’re under attack, let’s get united
It becomes clear that poor, working, and oppressed people within the U.S. have a lot in common with the people beyond their borders, who they are often taught to fear and despise. Whether in Minneapolis or Baghdad, Louisville or Sana’a, Kenosha, or Kabul, oppressed people face a common enemy – the U.S. government, their war at home through police brutality and suppression, and the imperialist U.S. war abroad of sanctions, war, and occupation.
So how do we fight back? The first step is unity. Unity in the U.S., which we have seen in recent protests where people from all walks of life have come together against police brutality. Then internationally, when poor and working people in the U.S. and other imperialist countries including Canada recognize that an Afghan farmer is their brother, and a Haitian sweat-shop worker their sister and join in defense of their rights against U.S. imperialism. In a world that relies on division, the “us” and “them” narrative between nationality, skin colour, and religion must become an “us vs. them” of people’s unity against U.S. imperialism and their war at home and abroad. This can be achieved by fighting against all oppression at home and building a strong and united antiwar movement that spans across imperialist countries – bringing together people in countries like the U.S., Canada, and Europe in solidarity with people in countries facing imperialist war, occupation, and sanctions. Together we can and will build a better world, one for peace and in service of people’s interests over corporate profit.
Bring U.S. troops home now! No to Occupation, No to military bases, No to NATO! No to sanctions!
Janine Solanki is an Antiwar and social justice activist, supporter of the Cuban Revolution and Fidelista! from Vancouver. She is a member of MAWO (Movement Against War and Occupation), Vancouver. Solanki frequently publishes in the Fire This Time Newsletter.
Follow Janine Solanki on Twitter: @janinesolanki