Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

A single death, triggers a worldwide conflict. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire was assassinated in Serbia and his death triggered the first world war, which resulted in over twenty million deaths, almost half of them military personnel.  The death of leaders triggering conflict is both more common and understandable, because they are national and state leaders and the affected states get activated. In the case of the Archduke, the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia. Over a hundred years later, a single death of an ordinary black man at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, triggers protest across the United States and spreads to being a worldwide protest movement against injustice. The spontaneous nature of the protests is all the more remarkable, because the incident occurred at the most inhospitable time for any public activity, namely the social distancing requirements of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Nonetheless, the death of George Floyd, caused by a white police officer kneeling nonchalantly on Mr. Floyd’s neck, one hand in his pocket with an arrogant, near sadistic look on his face, while Mr. Floyd, as well as bystanders pleaded with him that the man could not breath,  all of which was captured on phone cameras and subsequently beamed around the world, just struck a chord globally that there was something very wrong with that picture and the situation.

The Sri Lankan protests – FSP style

In Sri Lanka, the black lives matter protests earlier this week were not spontaneous, not least because we were just coming out of a lockdown. Also, because Sri Lankans don’t really take to the streets spontaneously. Our protests are almost always organized whether by trade unions, the government or the opposition. In this instance, it took the belated efforts of a minor party, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), to try and organize a protest in front of the US Embassy. Once courts block a protest at a specific venue on the basis of public nuisance or order, most protest organizers have taken to testing the grey area of the law, by shifting the venue of their protests and thereby claiming (with considerable merit) that they are not violating the order of court. This position generally holds good in a court of law, which of course is only proved upon production before a magistrate. The rather heavy-handed police response to the rather youthful and entirely peaceful protesters, resulted in the responsible police officers requiring quarantining, the unusual statement of support for the right of peace protests against it, by the US Embassy in Colombo and even a protest from the young Namal Rajapakse, mindful that a parliamentary election campaign is just beginning and the youth vote is an important demographic voter segment.

The systemic nature of the offence

The death of George Floyd, was not an isolated incident done by a rogue officer or officers, but the latest in a long list of black people, mostly adult black males, who meet violent death at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. While policing, except for the FBI, is a local and state responsibility in the United States, the head of the US military, General Mark Milley said that he was outraged at the “senseless and brutal killing” of George Floyd and further stated that “the protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing but also for centuries of injustice toward African Americans”.

The incident has also sparked a renewed national debate in the United States, about racial injustice and the centuries of oppression of African Americans, the legacy of slavery and the unfinished tasks of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It has also sparked debate in other countries, where conservative majorities, largely unaffected by past injustice have refused to engage in any meaningful conversations on such issues. Such as in Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently apologized for stating that Australia had no slavery in its past and where the black lives matter protests also have the local twist of better treatment for Australia’s indigenous people. One notable feature about the protests have been the ability of democratic political systems and societies to absorb the pressure and engage in some meaningful dialogue already yielding some symbolic fruit. In the US, confederate and pro slavery symbols and statues, especially in the southern states, have been coming down, the National Football League (NFL) reversed its earlier decision and allowed players to kneel in protest, during the singing of the national anthem and most importantly perhaps the concession that the problem exists.

The other aspect of the protests has been to highlight the role of social media and the smart phone in disintermediating the news and information industry. The murder of George Floyd was captured on video by bystanders, storefront CCTV cameras provides further information and social media allows activists and citizens to communicate, discuss and share ideas, views and plans instantly and in a manner unthinkable before the smartphone. It also makes managing the narrative that much harder for political leaders, who now compete in the information space, rather than monopolize it. A feature that was strongly experienced in Sri Lanka during the 2015 presidential election, when the then challenger was crowded out by the formal media in favor of the larger than life incumbent, only to be carried through to victory, aided not least, by social media.

Ending impunity

The protests sweeping across the United States, has also resulted in some immediate policing reforms including the attempts to establish national standards for recruiting and training police personnel, as well as making illegal the chock holds and other uses of potentially deadly force against unarmed suspects. Minnesota State’s Attorney General Keith Ellison has already charged the four officers concerned with second degree murder and aiding and abetting that murder.

Sri Lanka, also witnessed our own dealing of killings done in uniform. At the start of our lockdown Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, the perpetrator of the “Mirisuvil massacre” in 2000, who was found guilty by the High Court after a thirteen year trial and whose appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court, received a presidential pardon, under the seeming rationale that if you wear a uniform, you can do no wrong. A thesis which is now being popularly debunked globally. It is perhaps the counter-argument once made by former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake and indeed others, that killers in uniform are a disgrace to their service and must be held accountable for their criminal conduct, which will uphold the dignity of the service and justice of the nation they represent.