Coronavirus mars Juneteenth’s end of US slavery celebrations, race reforms offer hope

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Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States, falls on June 19 of each year.

This year, celebrations are being held in different ways amid rising calls for an end to systemic racism. But given the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, some were unable to celebrate.

Not many celebrations or events have been publicized in previous years to mark the day. But after the recent death of George Floyd, June 19 will be a paid holiday in many states and companies.

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Several black residents that Al Arabiya English reached out to said they had not done much to acknowledge the day in the past, but that they had been aware of what the day meant.

“The only thing I’ve done differently [this year] was having a conversation with a friend about how Juneteenth is undercelebrated nationwide, for how big of a historical event it was,” Isaac, a northern Virginia resident, told Al Arabiya English.

Isaac said the circumstances with coronavirus do not allow for much celebration aside from posting on social media, “which I don’t really consider celebrating.”

Juneteenth being declared a holiday is one of the many changes that have taken place since nationwide protests and demonstrations over the killing of Floyd in late May.

Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer dug his knee into the black man’s neck for more than seven minutes.

Riots ensued in many US cities with stores looted and vandalized and more deaths, including police officers and protesters.

Policing reforms and policy changes

National and local officials were quick to promise reforms, and, in some cities and towns, police chiefs and officers were fired.

US President Donald Trump had initially scheduled to resume his electoral campaign rallies on Friday, which would have coincided with the anniversary of the end of slavery in America. He later postponed the event for Saturday

With widespread calls from some politicians to “defund the police,” experts were quick to point out the need to prevent the momentum built from taking a political turn.

Major companies announced the rebranding and renaming of products - some 130 years old - that were based on racial stereotypes.

Trump has also signed a reforms package that provides funding for different training programs to police departments and bans the use of chokeholds.

Police secure a perimeter following a night of rioting sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 29, 2020 in Minnesota, US. (File photo: AFP)
Police secure a perimeter following a night of rioting sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 29, 2020 in Minnesota, US. (File photo: AFP)

Police chiefs were fired or asked to resign in three major cities in less than one week, while on Friday, a police officer in Louisville was fired.

Many of the decisions taken are “all good ways to start police reforms and a step in the right direction,” Chernoh Wurie, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Al Arabiya English.

However, Wurie, also a social justice reformer advocate, said he thinks people are acting too quickly.

Wurie said changes would need time and that police reform is a long process that requires strategic planning.

Rather than go with policies of defunding the police, which has become a popular slogan of some protesters, Wurie said there needs to be a reexamining of the entire police training system.

He spoke to Al Arabiya English about his time as a police officer for more than 10 years. “Police officers are being asked to do too much in terms of mental health and social work, on top of going after bad guys.”

Most police officers go through six months of initial training, while some departments require up to nine months. “We can’t keep asking them to take training. This is burning them out,” he said, adding that his training involved “90 percent of how to apprehend the suspect.”

More sensible reforms should involve including community service outreach and wellness safety during the training and cutting back on just focusing on how to make an arrest, Wurie said. “Most police are quasi-military.”

Political campaigning and calls for self-policing

Republicans and Democrats alike have made pledges to act to put an end to the racial bias in the US.

Some Democrats have supported calls for defunding the police, while Republicans have used this as a tool against them. “All sides are trying to show good faith, but both sides should not allow this to lose traction of what is going on or lose the momentum necessary for badly needed police reforms to take place,” Wurie said.

Nevertheless, the government and some local police departments’ actions, such as putting together task forces to plan strategically and continuously, are positive signs.

Other calls have been made for ore community-policing. Moving forward, Wurie said that there might be forms of partially private community policing that would include civilians, but with special police and local community members.

“But they’re humans and when you give them too much authority,” Wurie said, problems can arise. “Will communities or folks in localities start policing themselves? This is not all off the table,” he added.

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