The US has been gripped by its worst social unrest since 1968
James Astill in Washington DC | 05 Jun, 2020
Police officer Derek Chauvin chokes George Flyod in Minneapolis, US, May 25, 2020
The death of a black man, George Floyd, from injuries inflicted by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, on May 25th, triggered an outburst that has raised questions beyond racial justice and pandemic-induced unemployment. These questions will linger after the street has completely calmed. And all eyes will remain on the current occupant of the White House whose presence probably lent an edge to the unrest
HE WAS SIX-AND-HALF-FOOT tall and built like a heavyweight. And by and large his size served him well. Growing up in Houston, he had been a highschool sports star—at American football and basketball, mainly—good enough to win a sports scholarship to South Florida State College. And even after his life went south, thanks to the drugs, the temptations of easy money, some jail time, he could always count on work as a security guard to get himself by. People were intimidated by him. Perhaps the four policemen who were sent to arrest 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, after he was accused of buying a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, were scared of him, too.
Floyd didn’t give them any reason to be. He didn’t resist as they handcuffed him, manhandled him in and out of a police car, threw him into the gutter, sat on his back and stuck a knee in his windpipe. He just groaned, told them he couldn’t breathe, asked them to please, please get off his neck. He asked them that at least 15 times. Then as he slowly asphyxiated, he cried out for his dead mama.
It took six minutes for Floyd to lose consciousness. But even then it was another three minutes before Officer Derek Chauvin felt secure enough to remove his knee from the African American’s lifeless body. This was despite the fact that a couple of passersby had all the while been filming the incident on their phones—and remonstrating with the officers, asking them what they were playing at, telling them to listen to the dying man’s pleas for air. Chauvin just stared back at them, as he slowly killed George Floyd. He looked as if he just didn’t care.
In a sense, why would he? America’s police kill far more people than those of any other developed country—between 900 and 1,000 in an average year. And they do so in the knowledge that they are unlikely to face any serious investigation or sanction. Chauvin (who, it would turn out, had worked as a bouncer in the same nightclub as Floyd; though it seems the two men didn’t know one another) has been involved in four police shootings, one of them fatal. His behaviour has triggered 17 investigations; but only a single mild disciplinary charge, for the time he yanked a woman out of her car after pulling her over for speeding. Since 2005, only 35 police officers have been convicted of an offence related to the roughly 15,000 people they have killed in that time.
There are a few explanations for this extreme impunity. America is a violent place, which makes its police officers trigger-happy and its citizens generally more tolerant of bloodshed than Europeans or Asians. Its decentralised police system is also resistant to reform. Most of the country’s 800,000 police officers answer to elected sheriffs and mayors, not governors; there are some 18,000 law enforcement agencies in all.
Racism also plays a part. Black Americans are three times likelier to be killed by the police than Whites. If charged with a crime, they are also likelier to be convicted: African Americans represent 13 per cent of America’s adult population and a third of its prisoners. It is monstrous. Yet the starkly polarised conflict between Black Americans and the police has also made it grist to America’s bigger partisan polarity—a fatal development. On almost any given issue, Democrats side with the non-White victims of police violence. Republicans side with the police. And so deadlock is assured.
Still, it is one thing for millions of Americans to bewail the racial injustice this leads to. It is quite another to have it depicted to them, on the internet and TV new channels, minute by excruciating minute, in the casual murder of a healthy, frightened man face down in a Minnesotan gutter.
Within minutes of Floyd’s death—maybe even before it—videos of his killing were circulating on social media. This led, the following day, May 26th, to Minneapolis’ police chief sacking all four officers. Their official report of the killing, he admitted, bore little resemblance to the actual footage he had seen. Unplacated, protesters gathered, chanting Floyd’s name and his dying words—“I can’t breathe”—in Minnesota’s capital later that day. And soon the demonstration turned ugly: crowds of young Blacks and Whites rampaged through the Midwestern city. They fired a police precinct where the guilty officers had been based, burnt offices, looted shops. And on successive nights last week, they kept on gathering, trashing and looting; even after Chauvin was charged with murder. And each night the violence got worse. Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Tim Waltz declared himself unable to defend the city. There were too many rioters, he said, “attacking civil society, instilling fear”.
Americans, depressingly, have grown accustomed to such spasms. The fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the fatal police beating of 25-year-old Freddy Gray, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015 each sparked riots that raged for two weeks, caused millions of dollars of damage. Not even America’s first Black president Barack Obama could quell them. Yet the ferocity and extent of the explosion sparked by Floyd’s killing is unprecedented in recent decades.
By the end of last week, it had sparked demonstrations in 40 cities, in which tens of thousands of protesters took part. For the most part they were peaceful: protesters chanted civil rights slogans and Floyd’s name, raised their hands in the air in exaggerated surrender to the police, and ‘took a knee’, a nonviolent kneeling gesture popularised by Black American footballers. But in many big cities, an opportunistic minority has gone berserk.
In Atlanta, a mob tried to storm the CNN building; in Detroit, a man was killed by stray firing into the crowd. In Washington, DC, President Donald Trump, was hustled into an underground bunker after a crowd of protesters rattled the White House gates. By the middle of this week, as soaring temperatures signalled the arrival of a hot, quarrelsome summer, the number of affected cities had risen to over 140.
The National Guard has now been deployed in at least 21 states. Eleven people are reported to have been killed in the disturbances—including several by the police. A young Black protester in Austin, Texas, was shot in the head by a policeman. Four officers in Louisville, Kentucky, killed the owner of a popular restaurant while enforcing a curfew—and were promptly sacked, after they were found to have all kept their body cameras switched off.
So much for social distancing: America is now gripped by its worst social unrest since 1968, when Martin Luther King Junior and Robert F Kennedy were assassinated, and riots raged up and down the country.
The explosiveness and scale of the outburst is amazing—as was America’s prior crisis. Last week I chronicled the world’s worst coronavirus epidemic in these pages, as America’s official death toll from the virus topped 100,000. As I write, another 8,000 Americans have succumbed to Covid-19—but no one is talking of that now. New York, scene of almost a third of the total deaths, is no longer under plague lockdown; it is under curfew with National Guardsmen patrolling its streets. Macy’s, its flagship department store, is no longer closed because of the pandemic, but boarded up after being looted.
The more urgent question is how the protests and riots may affect Donald Trump’s prospects of re-election in November. The parallel with 1968 makes this especially intriguing
At least most of the protesters appear to have been wearing masks—though whether for public health reasons or to hide their identity has not always been clear. Even so, it seems likely that America’s consecutive scourges will shortly come together. Even as the protests seem likely to peter out now, as nationwide curfews take effect, America can shortly expect a riot-spread secondary wave of Covid-19 infections.
What, besides the persistence of racist policing, accounts for the scale of the explosion? Here are three likely explanations, starting with the pandemic itself. One in four Americans has lost their jobs or taken a pay cut as a result of it. Younger and poorer workers, who are also most likely to belong to an ethnic minority—the profile of a typical protester—have been especially hard-hit.
The pandemic has also exposed yet another reason for grievance among African Americans: the group’s poor state of general health. A legacy of poverty and inferior access to mainstream healthcare services, their poor health record is manifested in a high incidence of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that the coronavirus kills in tandem with. The result is roughly twice the mortality rate among Blacks as Americans at large—and in some states that racial disparity is even wider. In Wisconsin, 27 per cent of coronavirus victims were Black, though they represent only 6 per cent of the state’s population. Justly resentful, anxious for their health and finances and perhaps grieving, many young Black Americans appear to have considered Floyd’s abhorrent death the final straw.
And having made that determination, they will have found themselves to be well-organised. The emergence of ‘Black Lives Matter’, a media-savvy activist group, in the last years of Obama’s presidency—in part prompted by the killings of Brown and Gray—provided an instant identity and structure to these protests. The rise of thoughtful young Black mayors and community leaders in many cities has also provided a more sober sort of activist direction. “This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King. This is chaos,” thundered the Black mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, after its night of violence. “If you want change in this country, go and register to vote!”
The growing political mobilisation around racial justice is not only among Blacks. In many places a huge number of the protesters have been White or Asian. This is even the case in Washington, DC, which has one of the biggest Black populations in the country. Mingling with the large and mostly peaceful crowds that have gathered outside the White House and Lincoln Memorial this week, I have spoken with young professionals of every hue. DC’s newest celebrity is a healthcare entrepreneur of Indian descent, Rahul Dubey, who took 75 young protesters into his central Washington townhouse overnight to save them from the police. He now claims them all as “friends and new extended family members”. This is the outbreak’s most novel feature and reflects a broader embrace of racial justice on the American left.
The third, not unrelated, explanation for the vigour of the protests is the current occupant of the White House. That would still have happened without Trump. Obama can testify to that. But the fact that America has its most openly racist president in many generations has added an appreciable force to the protests. It has also added a certain irony. While campaigning for election, Trump encouraged his supporters to beat up the Black Lives Matter protesters who sometimes disrupted his rallies. Yet late last week the leader of the ‘Free World’ was hunkered down in an underground bunker in the White House, with its outer lights dimmed, in fear of the crowd of racial justice protesters outside it.
Where, Covid-19 infections aside, will this lead? Probably not, it seems reasonable to predict, to worse mayhem. The violence and vandalism, always more a shocking sideshow than the main event, has already tailed off. Law enforcement agencies, which were caught embarrassingly flatfooted for a while, have restored their grip.
It will probably not lead to the radical change the protesters demand, either. History suggests such protests rarely do. America’s police are anyway too fragmented to reform at a stroke. And Blacks’ broader disadvantages in America—in the justice system, health, employment, housing, schooling—have become an increasingly complicated public policy problem with age. Yet some policy advances will still come from this.
Police in Minneapolis were among the last in the country still permitting the chokehold that Chauvin used to kill Floyd. They will surely put an end to that. Police in Kentucky and beyond will also surely think twice before neglecting to switch on their body cameras before opening fire. Police officers everywhere have been warned once again that, in the smartphone age, their public abuses are never more than a minute or two away from appearing on YouTube.
More specifically, the crisis has also focused attention on some successful recent examples of police reform—not least because the forces who undertook them have tended to perform well during it. In Camden, New Jersey, which recently took its police force apart and remade it on a community-led model, senior officers ended up joining the protesters on their march.
PERHAPS MORE URGENT question is how the protests and riots may affect Trump’s prospects of re-election in November. The parallel with 1968 makes this especially intriguing. In that year, Richard Nixon, the disgraced Republican predecessor to whom Trump has sometimes been compared, won power on the back of his promise to end the chaos and restore “law and order”. Trump has clapped onto this with gusto—indeed he has been quoting some of Nixon’s most famous lines.
Emerging from his bunker, he declared: “I am your president of law and order.” To illustrate that, he suggested he would deploy regular troops to “dominate” the country. He also provided a snapshot of what he had in mind, by sending a line of riot police to charge and rough up a crowd of peaceful protesters and journalists in Lafayette Square. Law and order, as Nixon showed, generally plays well on the American right. Even so, there is a big reason to doubt whether this will work out well for Trump.
Nixon was the challenger to tired Democratic regime. Trump is the incumbent. He has no one to blame for the breakdown in American order, or for that matter the country’s mismanagement of the coronavirus, or the dire state of the economy, but himself. Any attempt by Trump to distract attention from this political reality—for example, by deploying riot police in the central Washington—is a stunt. And to their credit Americans were growing wise to Trump’s stunts even before the twin crises struck.
His approval ratings are languishing in the low 40s. Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, is trouncing him in head-to-head polling. Six month out from the election, for which he cannot currently campaign, things are not looking good for Trump. If only a portion of the thousands out protesting in the street this week were to follow Mayor Bottoms’ advice and get themselves registered to vote, he might have had it. That would probably be the best way to advance racial justice in America.
Also Read: ‘US May Be Heading to a New Civil War’ by Ullekh NP