The Student
Opinion
Why public opinion matters
by Mila McEwen, 3/07/20

Certain images are imprinted into our memory: tear gas and dogs unleashed on children during the 1965 Selma march or the thousands visiting the glass topped casket that revealed the battered and lynched body of Emmet Till. Yet still this did not prepare the world for the image of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a prostrate man, handcuffed and pleading to breathe. Then after a chilling eight minutes and forty six seconds there was no more breath from George Floyd. It was an end to his life at its most basic level: murder in fact, no less. The death was a haunting reminder that the racist police brutality associated with opposition to the Civil Rights Movement has managed to persist even in the 55 years following the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

Since then there has been international outrage and protests sparked by this killing. All across the world, from Minnesota to Manchester, crowds have taken to the streets in protest against the injustice of Floyd’s killing and the countless other victims of racism or racist violence that have received barely any coverage. Global media coverage has brought these images into our lives and our homes.

In the wake of Covid-19, governments have been asking people not to join the marches and not to gather in public places. Many, mostly young people, have ignored this and there is huge controversy as to whether or not they have devalued the efforts of NHS workers and all those who have risked their lives for others. After all, at first blush, there is no specific action demanded by these protests and nothing that could change racist mindsets overnight – just a show of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Through the lens of social media and news outlets, we have seen the devastation caused by coronavirus. We are seeing people in overwhelming circumstances: grieving relatives; doctors, nurses and care workers working without PPE; people dying in hospitals alone and without family contact. Covid-19 has created a fear of the unknown. Why therefore take the risk of mass demonstration when we have a collective responsibility to control Covid-19? We nearly all can think of a loved one who is vulnerable or elderly whom we dearly do not want to lose. Why can we not voice those same opinions online? Surely this is the era where we have an outlet to reach out to the world with a simple press of a button. The black American Civil Rights activists of the past had to get out onto the streets to reach white middle class America. We do not. All of this speaks to the reasoning that we should not march: we should not get out on the streets to protest in the midst of COVID-19.

Why then? Because the collective – public opinion – matters and public opinion is a force which, properly mobilised, can change the course of history. Because the myth of the inferior race needs to be eradicated. Because, in fact, Black Lives Matter speaks for all of us. If we eradicate racial injustice, just like the MeToo movement, we are also contributing to the removal of one more building block to any kind of injustice. Anyone who belongs to the fringes or constitutes a minority in the workplace or society faces injustice every single day. Yet also, paradoxically, they have to listen to the drone of their leaders telling them how racial injustice or any other form of injustice is not to be tolerated. This is typically a symptom of leaders who endeavour to be seen to be doing the right thing yet who perpetuate the culture of inequality on a daily basis. With effort from the collective, this rhetoric might actually become reality.

Floyd’s death combined with a history of systematic racism and police brutality towards people of colour has focused the collective conscience of people – inequality of any kind is not acceptable. We need to work, as our forebears did, to eradicate the myth of the inferior race and of any inferiority amongst people.

As the inspirational leader, Martin Luther King, said; “Racism is a myth of the inferior race; it is the notion that a particular race is worthless and degraded innately …. It is the idea that the very being of a people is inferior….”

A myth, however unsubstantiated, is almost impossible to eradicate, but eradicate it we must. The myth of the inferior black race began hundreds of years ago during the slave trade but it continued even after countries outlawed the slave trade. As Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens states: “even though the slaves were freed, the racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom.” The result was a vicious circle and a cycle of cause and effect. Even though slaves were legally freed, many people simply assumed it to be a matter of fact that blacks were less intelligent and inferior to white people. You might think that people would realise that these stigmas were myth, but in fact these prejudices persisted as if they were true.

We must listen to Harari’s words of caution that, “Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.”

It is these myths and prejudices which need to be overcome which are so important to fight for, even in the face of threat of death, not just for our sake but for the good of humankind, for the future and for the collective good.

In order for our voices to be heard, we must seize the moment and not wait until the virus is no longer a threat to then take to the streets – it will be too late and yesterday’s news. It is vital to demonstrate through protest and movement that we, as a collective, will not tolerate flagrant racism, especially not from the most powerful country in the world.

Countries, governments and people throughout the world have a collective ‘conscience’; even if this has not increased over the years it certainly is on show and is made more apparent through increased media communication. Young people especially must make their voices heard. Only a powerful display of unity can capture the attention of the nation. This is why these marches matter more than ever.

History has shown that public opinion matters. In the 1950s and 1960s the Civil Rights Movement in the US headed by Dr King saw the power of public opinion. They knew that, despite the fear of imprisonment, of beatings and reprisals, they needed to capture attention such that the government could not continue to ignore their plight. They knew they needed to get the public on their side in order to win widespread support.

The 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, led by King and seeking desegregation in public places, prompted widespread marches which purposefully included schoolchildren who were faced with attack dogs and aggressive police confrontation. These images were used in newspapers throughout the country and were shown on national television. King kept the pressure on with the March on Washington in 1963, attended by 250,000 people, where the infamous “I have a dream” speech was made. It was the power of the collective at work. It was this power which caused the marked swing in public opinion towards Civil rights and one which the President could not afford to ignore. After the Birmingham and Selma marches, 68% of Americans favoured the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

As the Historians David B. Filvaroff and Raymond E. Wolfinger said of the force behind the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s: “This transformation did not originate in Washington or in academia, nor did it come from liberal ideologies. It came from the people represented by Martin Luther King, and others, anonymous marchers – black and white….”

In a similar show of faith in the people, George Floyd’s brother addressed the nation: “you in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd.”

And in the past two weeks we have seen through the media hugely powerful images of George Floyd protests. Women, men and children of all ages and colour raising their voices for Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement were tear gassed or run over with police vehicles. We see NHS or health workers joining the march or the army shaking hands with Floyd’s brother, a reminder of the 1963 March on Washington.

Consequently, American voters’ support for the movement has increased in the past two weeks as much as it had in the previous two years. The brother of George Floyd has asked the UN to investigate the killing of black people at the hands of the US police, Minneapolis has committed to dismantling its police and a database has been set up to record police brutality at protests.

This progress demonstrates the power of the collective mind – what first distinguished humans from other animals. In Sapiens, Harari describes this: “fiction has enabled us to not merely imagine things, but to do so collectively … such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large number. That’s why Sapiens rule the world…” Seeing people taking to the streets generates that power and unity that captures the attention of the world that cannot be ignored; not during the Civil Rights Movement and not today. And eradicating the myth, the myth of the inferior race, is worth fighting for.

Image Credit: Johnny Silvercloud (via Flickr)