A week ago, on Monday, May 25, 2020, we celebrated Memorial Day. What a memorable Memorial Day it ended up being.
A Murder Scene
That evening, something happened in Minneapolis. The horrible event was captured on video from multiple angles and broadcast all over the world. The appalling image that is imprinted in my mind is the subject of this writing. The object of my own search for my own humanity.
On my TV screen I observed a man, a human being, hands tied behind his back, on the concrete pavement face down, and a heavy strong knee pressed against his neck purposely and methodically squeezing every last bit of breath out of him. It was determined by authorities that the slow killing of Mr. Floyd took nearly nine minutes, nearly three of those minutes being after the victim had fallen unconscious. The killer, a human being, one who is entrusted with and sworn to defend and protect citizens like Mr. Floyd.
There were others too. Closest to the activity, there was one, a human being for sure, standing close, observing disinterestedly, and occasionally turning to the crowed without emotion. He too is a peace officer expected to protect and defend. Two others who kept coming in and out of view, uniformed, and on duty, are seen holding the almost lifeless victim down. At the same time, the helpless crowd, concerned for the life of the victim, could be heard pleading with the “officers” to let him go.
Finally, they, “the peace officers”, checked the man’s pulse, and, as if satisfied that he has expired, called the ambulance and he was taken to the hospital.
As soon as they announced his death, the police started to disseminate information that would free the “officers” from culpability. “No shots were fired” as if the only way the police could kill is by firing shots. “He had medical conditions” as if the way to help a man with a medical condition is by throwing him on the ground and shoving a knee into his neck. This, official but untrue story would be corroborated by the autopsy report that the cause of death is an underlying medical condition, not the knee. This has happened before, time and time again, and killer cops have literally “gotten away with murder.” They have their stories, observed, and documented facts notwithstanding. Shameless humanity!
Unfortunately, this is not the only image of a black man being brutally murdered in the hands of white police officers that we have seen. Other images like those of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and others are conjured up to question the humanity of not only those who do the killing but also the humanity of the rest of us, the bedrock of this inhuman system.
The public reaction to such killings has also been predictable and customary. The enraged public takes to the street carrying protest signs, and chanting; “Justice for Floyd,” “We want justice,” “No justice, no peace’’, and the like. They walk, they chant and continue on. When the day ends and the night takes over the tone changes.
Most of the protesters continue to protest peacefully. A group breaks off and starts throwing rocks, breaking windows, setting vehicles on fire. This escalates to putting buildings on fire and breaking into stores. Some are seen walking by unaffected and continuing their protests. Others are seen running into the stores and walking out with armfuls of goods. Protesters turned looters, or looters hiding among protesters, hard to tell. Police come, a confrontation ensues, tear gases, arrests, chaotic scene. All this in the name demanding justice for Floyd. Just like in the original scene, here too, two kinds of humanity; those who are there to protest injustice, and those who take justice in their own hands. Where do I stand?
I am not out there protesting. I am not calling on authorities and demanding justice. Yet, my sympathy seems to be with Floyd and those who are protesting his unlawful death. I remember telling someone that had I been twenty years younger, I would have been out there protesting. Really? I am a 72-year-old, healthy man. I see people who are older than me flying across the country to come and stand with the protesters. Making speech and calling for justice. I see physically challenged people with their canes or wheelchairs among the protesters. It makes me question my own honesty. There must be something else. I am a human being. I must be enraged.
Remembering the Land of Human Butchery
My mind wanders off to Ethiopia where the long and costly Oromo youth protest shook up things and brought about “change.” It was hoped that it was a “change for the better.” Instead, it is proving to be tantamount to “jumping into the fire from a frying pan.” The protest was costly in that over fifteen thousand Oromo youth lost their lives in the hands of Ethiopian authorities who wanted to silence the protesters. Pictures of some of those who perished circulated on social media widely. Some of them are so awful that they still give me nightmares when I think about them. As cruel as the murder of Mr. Floyd was, it pales in comparison to the barbaric way those Oromo youths were murdered.
We were promised and we expected better days for the 40,000,000+ Oromo citizens of Ethiopia when the then Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned and the current prime minister, Dr. Abyi Ahmed was installed. And, he did not take long to disappoint us. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and gross violations of human rights escalated under Dr. Abiyi. Yes, it is the extrajudicial killing of Mr. Floyd and the shame of humanity it uncovered that this essay is all about. And, before I digressed, I was contemplating why it was that I was not outraged enough to be out there protesting.
As humans, we are very malleable. We can get used to or adapt to just about anything. That is why the slavers of yore thought that the enslaved Africans were different from their European masters. They, the enslaved Africans, withstood so much whipping and were thought of as having extra tolerance for pain. They, the enslaved Africans, come home from daylong hard labor and still had enough energy to stay up and play and laugh as a family and were thought of as being different from Europeans in their construction. By the same token, I, after seeing so many gruesome images, must have built enough tolerance to think that it is nothing new. Nothing to be excited about.
I admit, somewhat reluctantly, that I am jealous. I am jealous that I am not seeing protests in opposition to the hundreds, nameless hundreds, of Oromos suffering similar, and often worse, cases of extrajudicial killing. I wish Mr. Floyd never died. I wish the mass murders that are happening Ethiopia stop happening. But, in a twisted sense, in a twisted reality of human co-existence, Mr. Floyd’s senseless murder appears enviable in comparison with the murders of hundreds of Oromos that take place daily away from the public eye and in complete silence. My sincere apologies!
I have always known Ethiopia to be a prison, depressingly damp, and dark prison. But over the last two years, that prison has turned into a hell hole where vicious beasts and vermin abound. Where life is constantly in danger, liable to be snatched at any time for any reason. Where human life has no worth.
In Oromia region of Ethiopia, especially in areas that are under the misrule of the Command Post, human life is in constant danger. It is not only the staggering number of extrajudicial killings but the disgustingly barbaric way the killings take place that casts a grim shadow on our humanity. Those who do it, do it without shame, and those who watch it seem to have their human conscience benumbed. Reverence for life is not known. Crude barbarity reigns. Shameless!
Now I remember why the image of Mr. Floyd’s last minutes of life keeps bothering me. As he was pleading for air, saying “please,” calling for his “mama,” a grown man, a “gentle giant” as he was known, gasping for air and still calling out to humanity for mercy. I saw white foam filling his mouth and oozing out. Those who were there witnessed him urinating on himself as well. Subconsciously, I must have been seeing a replay of a scene from my childhood, the last and only other time I watched a man being killed. I was only 6 or 7 years old, incapable of comprehending the meaning of the whole thing. I went to the market in the town of Gimbii, Ethiopia, with my mother. We heard that a man was going to be hung in the center of the market. We rushed there. We saw the gallows. People were standing around it. Somehow, I got to be in the front raw. Two officers brought a young man in handcuffs, he seemed old to me then as he was about 20. He was made to step on a pedestal. The noose was put around his neck. He was given a chance to say his final words, the last gesture of “human goodwill” towards him. Then the pedestal was kicked away from underneath him. His hands tied behind his back and legs still in chains, his body spun around for a while. His mouth started frothing. Urine ran down his legs. Just like that, he was gone. I literally watched the man die. I am not sure how long the body was left hanging. The crowd dispersed. I was scared, scared of uniformed people, and scared of talking about it.
No one really knows what it is like for one to be in that situation. At the juncture between life and death, being and not being, consciousness and unconsciousness forever. Everyone says that those who have made this transition, the departed, are in a better place. Yet no one is in a hurry to make that transition, at least, not for the purpose of being in a better place. I am sure that the killers are not intending to do their victims a favor by sending them to a better place. Naturally, people insist on living longer, hanging on to life, until one can resist no more.
But what about the killers? What goes on the minds of killers as they do their killing? They are human beings; they can think and feel. They must be thinking about what they are doing. The officers that took part in the killing of Mr. Floyd, the many individuals in Ethiopia who kill innocent Oromos like the one who shot a mother of four while she was working in her farm field, the officers who took a young man on his way to work and mutilated him and left his dismembered body to be found three days later, or the officers who captured a young man who was in a marketplace to meet his fiancé and killed him and threw his body in a sack and left it in a field, or the government official at a meeting who shot a man dead right in the meeting because the man’s cell phone rang, or the ones who put fire on a house while the family is sleeping inside at midnight and let police dogs loose on those who were able to get out, or …
These too are human beings. Why aren’t they repulsed by the grossly inhuman acts they are committing? Are they naturally different from others, or is it a gradual numbing of the senses? Growing less and less human by constantly practicing cruelty? God have mercy!
Human beings cannot afford to continue disregarding the value of the lives some without facing the reality of lowering the value of the lives of all. I have heard people say “all lives matter” when they hear “Black Lives Matter.” Whatever their motivation for using such a counter-argument, the fact remains. All lives matter as much as the life that is least valued. Right now, black lives in America and Oromo lives in Ethiopia seem to carry little value. For all lives to matter, black lives must matter as well. For all lives to matter, Oromo lives must matter as well. Humanity, according to the Good Book, is created a notch above other animals. And, even after the original sin, they remain capable of rising above their animal selves. They cannot do this while trying to brutally dehumanize some segment of humanity.
Remember, while you keep your total weight on me to keep me in the gutter, you must remain in the gutter with me, albeit on top of me. You fail to realize that it is better for you to fly up high with me as your equal than stay in the gutter as my superior. This shamelessness must end.