By Oliver Fisk, Summer Intern for the Richmond World Affairs Council
George Floyd was killed on May 25 when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Suffering from the pressure, Floyd, a black man, cried out “I can’t breathe”, before ultimately losing consciousness and dying not long thereafter.
Though Floyd’s killing took place in one of America’s less populous states, the reaction in recent weeks has been uniquely global. Since May 25th, protests against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have taken place in more than 60 countries, and #georgefloyd has been used 2.4 million times on Instagram alone.
The international outrage should serve as a reminder to the U.S.’s class of policymakers and politicians, that even when domestic affairs seem to be all and consume all, the world is still watching. The political circus of the United States does not occur in isolation but rather plays out extensively across the screens and headlines of the globe, with real consequences far beyond American borders. Few cases have made this as apparent as has George Floyd’s.
How the World Reacted: Solidarity
“Black people, the world over, are distraught by the killing of an unarmed black man.” – Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana
When President Nana Akufo-Addo tweeted this on June 1st, he was diagnosing the first, and least complex strand of global reaction to Floyd’s death: solidarity. The distressing video of Floyd’s prolonged suffocation prompted a wave of comments from political leaders and activists, especially within the Global South, that were by turns sympathetic and condemnatory.
As fires burned stateside, the leader of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, called for calm in the United States, but pointed to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor as evidence that “American society places a perilously low value on black lives.”
Uduak Amino, a Kenyan journalist, wrote that as a continent, Africa had “failed [its] African American brothers and sisters, offering next to nothing to ensure their dignity.” The Director of a West Africa’s Centre for Democracy and Development said that Africans should learn from the U.S. security services’s use of “excessive force” that “democracy must be never taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for.”
Compassionate and heartfelt, this reaction should be remembered as evidence of a perpetual strain on the (literal) African American relationship. For all of the engagement that Barack Obama provided during his Presidency, black America’s trials and tribulations are watched by many, especially younger, Africans who call into question their continent’s basing of dreams of equality and justice around the U.S.’s model.
Although this certainly is not to say that Beijing’s example is a more attractive one, as stories of African migrants being mistreated in China still make the headlines throughout the continent, it should be kept in mind that through his multi-billion dollar physical and digital infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping has been paving the road to a closer social, economic, and political relationship between his country and Africa. And in light of the continued suffering of black Americans, China’s offering is increasingly enticing.
How the World Reacted: Introspection
“It’s going to touch anyone who has had previous experiences of abuse and oppression, be it because of one’s race or religious background, or sexual identity.” – Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Human Rights Watch’s Africa advocacy director, speaking on Floyd’s killing”
While across Africa the predominant reaction to the death of George Floyd was one of frustration towards the United States and its enduring legacies of racism, elsewhere national bouts of self-examination went underway. Citizens around the world conducted analyses of their own respective countries, weighed on the scales of justice their respective racial structures and institutions, and, in many cases, found them wanting.
For example, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintained that “Australia is not the United States”, and expressed gratitude for the “wonderful country [he lives] in”, public anger played out in the streets.
Indigenous activists led protests and marches that not only commemorated George Floyd, but compared his death to that of David Dungay Jr., the Aboriginal Australian who died while pinned down by five white police officers. Protest participants urged the Australian government to fully implement the recommendations made by a 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, many of which remain unincorporated into practice.
Similar sights could be seen on the cobbled streets of Amsterdam, The Hague, Groningen, Utrecht, and Rotterdam, where several thousand young Dutch men and women took part in anti-racist protests.
Applying the global movement’s momentum to their national context, activists renewed complaints and questions around the Netherlands’ centuries-long ‘Zwarte Piet’ tradition, which sees hundreds of Dutch citizens dress in blackface and paint themselves with large red lips at Christmas, supposedly playing the part of Santa Claus’ helper.
And while the same happened in Singapore and Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia, the UK and France, those stories cannot all be accounted here. What should be understood though, is that the political affairs of the United States have a certain magnetism to them. When Americans aggressively pursue the causes of liberty, equality, and justice, whether in the halls of Congress or the streets of cities, it inspires others around the world to renew elsewhere those same fights.
How the World Reacted: Exploitation
“I can’t breathe.” – Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Ministry.
The third and final international reaction, from which the potentially most injurious consequences may arise, is exploitation—the misapplication of George Floyd’s death and the succeeding events for some factional, or otherwise inequitable purpose.
This can be seen in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, notable for having impressed an autocratic tilt upon his country’s politics, saw an opening for military and political gain. Following President Donald Trump’s categorization of ‘Antifa’ as a terrorist organization due to its alleged participation in property destruction associated with protests following Floyd’s death, President Erdogan called his American counterpart.
On the call Erdogan said that people “committing acts of violence and looting” in the U.S. are “cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria,” an accusation that is likely preposterous, seeing as Antifa is “not a unified organization, but rather a loose ideological label” for left-wing radicals looking to use “street-level force” to counter what they see as a rise in fascism within the United States, while the PKK and YPG are two militant groups who seek greater political autonomy for the Kurdish people in Syria and Turkey.
But despite the FBI having found “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in Syria, and despite the YPG having served alongside the United States in the fight against ISIS, it would seem that Erdogan got his way. On June 19th, 11 days after having spoken with the U.S. President, Turkey’s leader authorized an airstrike that killed at least four members of Kurdish groups in northern Syria.
Though tragic, the story of a fiendish player on the world’s stage making use of the George Floyd protests for wrong is not unique to Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be only too happy to use the videos of chaos coming from the States to reinforce one of his favored messages of propaganda, that “protests, even if initially peaceful, invariably risk violent disorder and need to be nipped in the bud.”
The moral of these sad stories is not that Americans should hesitate before taking radical political action for thought of how citizens living under repressive regimes will be affected. Still, it should be remembered that the principles that take U.S. citizens to the streets in protest are truly universal. Those principles’ rightful application should not end at any border, nor should the attention of Americans who are dedicated to fighting on these principles’ behalf. After all, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.