Video recordings and footage of police violence have a powerful emotional impact and attract much more attention than the accounts of witnesses and victims. It has been noted repeatedly that video played a particularly important role in the story of George Floyd’s death by creating the effect of being present for the murder, when a police officer knelt on the neck of Mr. Floyd, who was desperately whispering “I can’t breathe.” This video spread across the internet instantaneously, shocking millions and sparking protests against police violence and racism.
These last words of George Floyd became the battle cry of the protest. They were written on banners, chanted at demonstrations, and printed on the mask worn by Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey when he appeared in public and knelt down in memory of Mr. Floyd. Immediately following George Floyd’s killing, Mayor Frey called for the arrest of the guilty officer, stating “Let them give you a thousand reasons not to do something. To not speak out. But we can’t turn a blind eye. George Floyd deserves justice. The Black community deserves justice. His friends and family deserve justice.”
On June 30, the journalist and photographer David Frenkel was thrown down on the floor at a St. Petersburg polling station where voting on constitutional amendments was underway. A video recording shows him being pushed, falling, crying out in pain, and then repeating “Call an ambulance!” when he realized that his arm was broken. He was later diagnosed with a broken shoulder and needed a serious operation. And what was the mayor’s reaction to this flagrant example of police violence, to the video deemed “intolerable” by many who watched it? No, Governor Beglov did not put on a mask bearing the words “Call an Ambulance!” or demand the arrest of the guilty officer. Instead, he good naturedly called the actions of the police “excessive enthusiasm.”
American experts on race relations noted with some resentment that the video’s effect was much more powerful than the accounts of earlier Black victims of police violence in the United States: “No one listened to us. We needed that video for people to understand what is going on.” In Frenkel’s case, the recording was of no help—this documentary proof of police violence did nothing to convince the authorities. There were many statements to the effect that the scene was staged: Frankel broke his own arm, Frankel fell on his own, Frankel attacked them… There were plenty of anti-Semitic insults as well.
And this all in the case of an educated person, a person who writes and takes photographs, a person with the protected status of journalist, a person quite well known. How vulnerable, then, are people no one knows? In the same way, no one believes the victims of ethnic profiling—the migrants, Roma, and Caucasians who have no platform to speak out from, who are definitely not heard by anyone. Even attempts by human rights defenders to speak about their plight and suffering is met with resistance, often with racist overtones.
It was like this back in 2013, when a court was asked to rule that the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial was an “NGO performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The prosecutor’s charges were based solely on the content of the human rights report “Roma, Migrants, Activists: Victims of Police Abuse.” In the prosecutor’s claim, Memorial’s information, which was collected from Russian Roma, was dismissed and called “the stories of members of the Roma minority.” In court, we noted that: “This approach to the victims of harassment from a vulnerable group of the population is discrimination to the highest degree.”
But neither videos nor human rights reports help—nothing has any credibility, and few understand that it is terrifying for a person of color to walk around in the city or take the metro. They suddenly understood this in the United States—and this is important. Europeans also responded. They started speaking out against police violence, against the aggrandizement of the colonial past. In Russia people generally don’t understand that racism isn’t just against Black people, that the contemporary definition of racism includes any ethnic discrimination. But even when you know that racism can affect members of all national minorities and migrants from countries before which Russia is just as guilty as European colonizers are before African peoples, it’s still hard to measure all of this against yourself.
The first time I understood the strength of the feeling of traveling on the St. Petersburg metro in fear of every police officer was when I was with a young colleague, a Roma from Pskov. The danger of being arrested, beaten, and harassed was faced by him, not me, but we were on this trip together, which meant that his risk was also mine. I had never before noticed how many law enforcement officers were present at each station, how vigilantly they watch for potential victims, how frequently they stop people and lead them off somewhere. I was ashamed: After all, I had never been threatened by anything when I was at these stations every day. I moved around the city without a care in the world, without having to press myself up against the columns in the vestibule, hide in dark corners while waiting for the train, or cover my face with a hat and melt into the crowd.
The Minneapolis mayor acknowledged that George Floyd “would be alive right now” if he had been white. The problem isn’t with the “excessive enthusiasm” of an individual police officer. The problem isn’t with the licentiousness of people in uniform. The cause of this Black American’s death was racism, discrimination. Once society starts to understand this, the authorities also do, and the police will have to as well whether they want to or not. The rights of minorities can be not just violated, but also protected, by people in uniform, but what national minority would ask a police officer for protection from racism in our times? The only thing that can change the situation is the public’s reaction and the acknowledgement that racism is the problem of every person and not just of those eyed by the police.
Stefania Kulaeva – expert, Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial
First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda