Drawing Asian Parallels with the Minneapolis Riots

The current chaos in the United States shows where centuries of racism can take a society.
Tuesday 2 June 2020
A woman poses as she wears a mask saying "I can't breathe" at the makeshift memorial in honour of George Floyd. Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP

The world has been watching the past week’s riots in the United States with a mixture of interest, despair, and in some cases, schadenfreude. The conversations on social media outside the US have re-illuminated age-old conflicts of race and authority common to every country.

In Asia, arguments have raged about what the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by (now-former) white policeman Derek Chauvin, and the subsequent uproar now sweeping the US, says about the effectiveness of violent protest.

The parallels are obvious. Hong Kongers, for example, are intimately familiar with street protests and the usage of brute force by police authorities. The Philippines is no stranger to tear gas and rubber bullets; in more unruly parts of the country, lethal force is a part of everyday life.

The conversations here in Malaysia are more racially tinged. The Bersih protests that rocked the nation more than two years ago are an example; they symbolised a clash between the then-government’s conservative Malay Muslim-majority support base and the opposition, deemed by its detractors to be too liberal and controlled by the nation’s minority Chinese and Indians.

Malaysians will also readily attest to the fact that race and religion are intimately tied here. It is baked into our constitution – and indisputably so, according to the ruling social contract. However, hot debate on race and religion has been alive and well over the past few years, now fanned into new flame by riots half a world away.

What’s going on?

Floyd’s death occurred after a deli employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit US$20 (RM86) bill. 17 minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.

Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds; the New York Times, however, says that videos show he maintained his hold well after paramedics arrived.

Protests started in Minneapolis the next day. They were initially peaceful, but on Wednesday some groups’ interactions with police became more violent and looting of local businesses began. 

By Thursday evening, larger stores were being looted and the conflict between protesters and police had escalated to the use of fireworks and projectiles. Minnesota paper the Star Tribune reported 170 fires were lit overnight. The riots spread to the neighbouring city of St Paul.

On Wednesday and Thursday, protests had begun in cities including Memphis and Los Angeles.

The United States is quite literally aflame right now, with the latest developments (as of last night) seeing protesters lighting fires across Washington D.C. outside the White House and sending the president scurrying into a bunker for safety. It is now a war zone outside the White House.

Blind hypocrisy

Malaysians have mostly responded to the news with sympathy. However, many have also jumped at the chance to point out the hypocrisy in many of those speaking in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is central to the US riots.

Examples of this hypocrisy include Malaysian attitudes towards immigrants, especially African expatriates and students working and living here. This was recently amplified by pandemic fears and a recent triple-digit spike in infected numbers that comprised immigrants.

Encouraged by the current conversation, Africans living here have spoken up about their experiences with racism here in Malaysia.

They include being treated with suspicion even in places of worship; a Muslim African man who declined to be named said that other men in the mosque he prayed at were reluctant to pray next to him, despite how men are required to pray shoulder to shoulder in Islam.

Pictures of Chinese signs in residential areas urging house-owners not to rent to “African/Negro” tenants also sparked outrage several years ago after they were reported by the local media.

Such experiences aren’t the sole domain of Africans, of course. It is perhaps even worse coincidence that the US riots are occurring in the same month that the infamous Malay-Chinese violent riots took place in 1969. 

Minority Malaysians are familiar with odd threats on social media to “revive 13 May” from extremist quarters, usually whenever the minorities are perceived to overstep their boundaries. These threats have increased somewhat in recent times, possibly emboldened by the upsurge of conservatism globally. 

Indians face the worst in race-related violence here in Malaysia. They are often portrayed as the most vulnerable to death whilst in police detention, a stereotype human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen said holds some truth, according to a report by news portal Malaysiakini.

“Indians do die in custody more. I think that’s not surprising. Proportionately, they are the ones who are arrested more. You can see all the crackdowns – the crackdowns under the Prevention of Crime Act 1959, etc – I would say the vast majority are Indians.”

According to the 2010 census, Indians comprise 6.73% of the country’s population. Overall, there were 257 deaths in police custody between 2002 and 2016, according to official statistics provided by the Home Ministry in a parliamentary reply on March 28, 2017.

These cases are worth bearing in mind, considering especially how the past week in the US has also highlighted the shocking brutality of their police authorities on protesters. 

Cars have been driven into crowds; protesters have been beaten, tased and shot with rubber-coated metal bullets that stretch the definition of non-lethal. Videos show 12-year-olds being beaten and protesters losing their eyes to rubber bullets.

What is happening there now is a stark example of what can go wrong when racism is left unchecked. It is our responsibility as a relatively young country to learn from the mistakes of our much older global neighbours – our souls can choose to do so, at the very least. There is still time.