The protests which have erupted all over the US reflect the past when repressive legislation and overzealous policing were used against blacks. A show business president lacking empathy has only made matters worse
By Kenneth Tiven
A cross-section of Americans is out on the streets, risking a viral infection, to demonstrate against racism and the economic inequality baked into the social system. The coronavirus pandemic has made inequality brutally clear. Presidential wishful thinking and inaction enabled the virus to kill twice as many Americans as those fighting the Vietnam war, while some 40,000,000 people lost employment, either temporarily or permanently. This crisis tests democracy in ways not felt here since the Great Depression 90 years ago. The outcome will impact the entire globe, not just the US.
Events and undesirable statistics have exposed the mythology of America’s claimed exceptionalism. In reality, nearly 90 percent of people in the US live from paycheck to paycheck. Political and economic leadership dominates the other 10 percent.
As the pandemic overwhelmed the medical sector, the healthy were required to stay home in some form of quarantine as the economy was shuttered. This left many people time to consider how the government, especially at the federal level, seemed incapable of mounting opposition to the pandemic crisis. However, others argued the virus and its death toll were either a hoax or merely collateral damage from a health issue at an acceptable level. Partisanship can be more convincing than honest empirical evidence.
Small events often reflect larger issues. This is exactly what happened a decade ago when a single Tunisian named Sidi Bouzid immolated himself to highlight police corruption and treatment. The resulting cry of populist pain brought people out into the streets, ultimately igniting the Arab Spring Revolution, toppling dictators and governments in North Africa and the Middle East.
The spark for the US was televised: an 8 minutes and 46 seconds video of a police officer nonchalantly murdering a handcuffed black man, George Floyd, while three other cops watched passively. Black Lives Matter is a rallying cry against the police unpunished for mistreatment and/or killing black people in unexplained circumstances. That Floyd was murdered while handcuffed lying on the ground was beyond dispute. Minneapolis, a major city in Minnesota, erupted in demonstrations, amplified because it took three days beforeprosecutors charged the police officer with murder.
This incident, one of dozens in the last decade, seemed as unambiguous as any in memory. On TV, murders and killings take a few seconds and the camera cuts away. A viewer can turn it off knowing it’s just theatrical. Not in this reality moment captured by mobile phone cameras. Social media provides an exponential boost in the visibility of such events. Television news coverage is best at capturing the smoke and noise of disturbances, rather than the cause. Videos of a few looters taking advantage of a demonstration can easily be confused with many protesters who are using their constitutional right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
President Donald Trump talks tough about law and order, criticising state governors for not “dominating” the protesters. “You look weak,” he told them by phone. So cops in riot gear used teargas and rubber bullets against protesters in multiple cities, knowing this is what Trump appreciated. An increasingly agitated president had little to say about the killing of Floyd, while encouraging cops to be even tougher. Demonstrations spread to cities, large and small, with amazing diversity in age, race and gender. This gave Black Lives Matter an enlarged sense of collective intensity.
The notoriously thin-skinned president was miffed by reports that he spent time in an underground bunker as demonstrations ringed the White House. He tweeted it was just an “inspection” of the bunker. Trump decided to walk to a nearby church to counter the “Bunker Boy” meme circulating on social media.
The White House is across Lafayette Park from the 200-year-old church attended by dozens of past presidents. The Park has hosted demonstrations against the government for decades. This is what was happening when Secret Service and federal agents, without warning, attacked a peaceful gathering to clear a path for Trump’s walk. Whiffs of teargas still hung in the air as Trump took a Bible from his daughter Ivanka’s designer handbag and stood silently while holding it upside down.
The clergy at St John’s Episcopal Church were outraged for many reasons—nobody asked permission to use the religious setting for a photo, clergy got teargassed, the president doesn’t attend there or anywhere, did not pray or even open the Bible for the photo-op. Collective solidarity increased across the nation as a rainbow of Americans joined anti-racism demonstrations. This also seemed to discourage agitators and looters. In some instances, police showed solidarity—or at least awareness—by taking a knee with demonstrators.
Cops everywhere had harassed so many journalists with rubber bullets, batons and rough treatment that it seemed premeditated, perhaps to impress a president who derides journalists as “fake news”. The Minnesota state police embarrassed themselves by arresting a CNN correspondent in the middle of a live national television report, only to release the CNN team an hour later without any explanation.
Washington, the nation’s capital city, is not in a state but in the federal District of Columbia, located between Maryland and Virginia. While it has home rule and a mayor, the federal government controls much of what happens. DC Mayor Muriel Bowseris, unafraid of the president, politely asked him to remove the National Guard troops. Then she had “Black Lives Matter” painted in huge gold letters across two blocks of 16th Street NW, which leads to the White House. She renamed the area near Lafayette Park “Black Lives Matter Plaza”. City workers quickly put up new road signs.
The American military is ultimately responsible to the Constitution, not to the political leadership. Active and retired military leadership made clear Trump was wrong to propose “dominant” military force to repress the constitutional right to protest. When Trump withdrew the National Guard, he claimed it was because demonstrations were smaller than expected. Most observers contradicted this, saying they were bigger than expected.
Some historical perspective: The Civil War fought between 1860 and 1865 ended legal slavery, but the former Confederate States in the southern part slowly introduced a replacement form of oppression called Jim Crow laws which made life difficult for people of colour. The litany of murders, bombing of black churches and deprivation of voting rights seemed endless for nearly 80 years. This imposition of white privilege ensured that most African-Americans would be worse off than the poorest whites.
Hundreds of shocking videos and images exist from this past week. One involved no violence: riot-clad soldiers guarding the steps of the Lincol Memorial where nothing was happening. It was just another photo-op for an embattled presidency.
As a young reporter in August 1963, I stood on the top step quite close to Dr Martin Luther King as he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. That famous section was not in the printed speech handed in advance to journalists, but was ad-libbed as only a formidable preacher could manage. Watching from the White House that day, President John Kennedy could observe 2,50,000 people fill his backyard, which is essentially the mall space between Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Exactly three months later, he was assassinated. King would similarly die five years later.
Helped by the sombre mood of the nation, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, himself a Southerner from Texas, pushed massive civil rights legislation through a recalcitrant Congress. It didn’t stop state governors such as Lester Maddox in Georgia and George Wallace in Alabama from behaving badly towards African-Americans, but it did give the federal government more power to intercede.
In more recent times, economic and social inequality has increased across America, often because Republican-controlled state legislatures passed laws intended to discriminate. Southern state politicians worried the election of President Barack Obama meant federal civil rights laws would be rigorously enforced. Opposition to any renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a “mission”. Alabama challenged the rules in court but lost and lost again in the appeals court. However, the US Supreme Court consented to review the issue in 2013.
The five white male conservatives on the Court ruled that the provisions were no longer necessary, writing the country “has changed and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions”. Few were surprised when within hours of the decision, Texas and Mississippi pledged to enforce voter ID laws that had not been pre-cleared by the US Attorney General.
Suppression of voting and equal rights has been energetically deployed over centuries, forcing serious societal change to come incrementally. Decades of marches, rallies, unsolved political murders, repressive legislation, overzealous policing and now a show business president lacking leadership and empathy reveal the perilous condition of democracy. Trump’s authoritarian admiration for the behaviour of dictators reminds people of what German Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote about the Nazis:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As American democracy wobbles, anti-racism protests grow in scope and support across the globe. Meanwhile, the pandemic is growing as well, even if pushed off the top of news bulletins for the moment.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels
Lead picture: UNI