opinion

Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd & Christian Cooper: The 'weapon' that could change everything.

Minneapolis is on fire.

The major city in Minnesota has seen dozens of fires deliberately lit since Wednesday with more than 170 businesses damaged.

Alongside the social unrest have been a series of peaceful protests. At the centre of these protests is a man named George Floyd.

Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who died on Monday. The last thing he ever saw was a white police officer restraining him with force, a knee heavy on his neck. Some of his last words were: “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts… I can’t breathe.” In the span of four minutes, Floyd repeated the words I can’t breathe more than a dozen times.

Eventually, he fell unconscious. His unresponsive body was examined by paramedics at the scene. He died in hospital soon after.

Floyd was accused of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. He was unarmed, and according to video evidence, did not resist arrest. Police initially claimed that he “suffered a medical episode while struggling with officers”, a defence which might have otherwise worked.

There was just one problem.

A phone.

Bystander Darnella Frazier happened to draw on the most powerful weapon she had at her disposal and filmed the white police officer pinning down Floyd. Other bystanders can be heard yelling, getting increasingly agitated as it becomes clear Floyd is unable to breathe. Now he is dead and no hashtag or judicial process will ever bring him back. But what the camera in Frazier’s pocket did do was ensure that Floyd didn’t become just one more of the hundreds of black men killed every year by police, without ever facing trial.

That officer, Derek Chauvin, is now in custody. He has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd’s death.

“We have evidence, we have the citizen’s video,” Mike Freeman, a Hennepin County attorney told a media briefing about the arrest, “the horrible, horrific, terrible thing we’ve seen over and over again.”

Black boys and men have a one in 1000 chance of being killed by a police officer in the United States. Which brings us to 57-year-old Christian Cooper.

Cooper was in the Ramble, a section of New York City’s Central Park, when he asked a woman named Amy Cooper (no relation) to put her dog on a leash.

It is a rule of the park that all dogs are kept on leashes in order to protect the 230 bird species that visit there.

Cooper then began filming the woman, who demanded he stop filming her, before threatening to call the police.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she said.

The woman then called the police, telling them: “I’m in the Ramble and an African American man with a bicycle helmet, he is recording me and threatening me and my dog.”

This was on the same day, in the same country, that police would be called to a Cup Foods in Minneapolis for a minor, non-violent allegation made against a black man. That black man – Floyd – would end up dead.

American history is rife with cases of white women falsely accusing black men of violence, drawing on existing racist tropes and knowing that in a court of law not all voices are equal.

Listen: We discuss the viral video of Amy Cooper falsely accusing Charlie Cooper on the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

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What Cooper did on Monday was an act of peaceful protest. His ‘weapon’ was a phone – an object of defence rather than offence. Its purpose was not to inflict harm but to document. And while the ensuing pile-on is an unfortunate byproduct (Cooper has said himself “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart”) it has given way to a ‘fear’ of sorts that’s awfully constructive. Twitter and Facebook and every news outlet have delivered us a pretty clear cultural message: You don’t want to be Amy Cooper.  And when everyone has a phone attached to their bodies at all times, the only way not to be an ‘Amy Cooper’ is to not ever behave like an ‘Amy Cooper’.

If there is anyone competing for Amy Cooper’s level of infamy in the US right now, it’s the three men who have been charged with the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.

In February, Arbery was out on an afternoon jog in Brunswick, Georgia when a white pickup truck blocked his path.

Two white men, who we now know to be a father and son named Gregory and Travis McMichael, then fired three gunshots, killing Arbery in broad daylight.

For two months, neither of these men were arrested or charged, despite admitting to police that they were responsible for the shooting. According to the two men, Arbery looked like a suspect that had committed a burglary in the area and so they pursued him. They told police that when Travis McMichael exited the vehicle, Arbery “attacked” him.

Police did not press charges because they saw Arbery’s death as a case of “citizen’s arrest” and “stand-your-ground”.

A video posted anonymously in early May, however, tells a different story.

It depicts Arbery attempting to run away before being shot dead. The evidence does not suggest there was any such ‘attack’.

If it weren’t for the video footage, Arbery might be just another person senselessly killed in a racially motivated attack. Forgotten to history. No trial. No conviction. Because sometimes in America, you’re shot in the middle of the day for being a black man.

The video did not change his fate, but it has changed the course of justice. Three men have now been charged in connection with Arbery’s death.

As we know though, charged is not enough. Neither is standing down four police officers. That is why civilians are storming the streets of Minneapolis.

That is why Minneapolis is on fire.

A phone, with the capacity to film and broadcast to the entire world in a matter of seconds, isn’t entirely new. But as more of us become inclined to meet injustice with a phone camera it does seem that the phone might just be a democratic lightning rod. A tool that turns power structures on their head. A way of exposing the unexposed.

George Floyd, Christian Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery are three names we would not have known if it weren’t for a phone camera. For each of these men there are thousands we will never see, whose deaths were never documented. Who were falsely accused and we never knew.

Now it’s up to us. What will we do with what we have seen?

Sign this petition: Justice for George Floyd. 

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