New York has rarely seen curfews and businesses boarding their store fronts. Such extreme measures are usually spared for natural calamities, disease and disasters. But the country’s financial hub and dozens of cities have endured curfew, not to tame the Coronavirus pandemic or escape the harm of a natural calamity. Rather to stop the unstoppable popular uprising over the country’s failure to defeat police brutality and a centuries old enemy, racism.
The US is virtually under siege by a huge backlash over the heart-wrenching death of George Floyd, the unarmed 46 years old black man, on May 25 at the hands of white officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cities, big and small, across the US have witnessed spontaneous protests, and in some cases violence, arson and looting. The National Guards, and in some military police, have been on the streets to maintain order.
Joined by people of all colors, the growing unrest has attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters not just across the US but also in Europe and Australia. These protests have remained peaceful during daytime in the US, and in some instances morphed into looting and arson during the night, forcing imposition of night time curfew. The results are painful — glittering cities have been turned into surreal war zones with boarded store fronts and streets crowded with protestors and riot police. In New York City, the iconic Macy’s super store, the largest in America, was among the hundreds of businesses ransacked by rampaging gangs of looters just in one night. In Chicago, looters drove U-Haul vans to break the stores and speed away with expensive stolen merchandise. The reports of protesters and police officers getting injured have become a daily routine during tense standoffs.
Donald Trump, who calls himself the “law and order president” and shares the grief of the Floyd family, has taken a hardline on violence and looting. He has warned a tough response to the violent protests. In a June 1 nationally televised address, a Trump warned deployment of the military to quell violence by invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act. “If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary,” Trump said, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” A day later, Trump told the state governors during a conference call that they would look like “jerks” if they did not take tough action against the rioters, and failed to “dominate” the streets. He has been receiving serious reaction and pushback from not just some of the Governors but also the military. News of discomfort in the US military over the troops’ prominent role in tamping down the protests have already started making the rounds.
James Mattis, the former defense secretary, slammed Trump in a letter published in The Atlantic. “I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis wrote. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
The rage on American streets is not new. The reasons for the unrest are also not new. The last time Americans witnessed such chaos was following the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. At least 100 cities saw violent protests following MLK’s assassination, leaving 40 dead and more than 15,000 arrested.
Racism has remained America’s endemic and pernicious problem for more than 400 years. Critics say the problem is systemic, especially in the law enforcement apparatus, which is often accused of disproportionately targeting the blacks and people of color. Blacks are one of the most marginalized communities in America. The political leadership has for generations acknowledges this ugly reality but has done little to change it.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden calls it an “open wound”. He draws an implicit contrast with President Trump. “The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” said Biden, in remarks broadcast from his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden served as Vice President under Barack Obama, the first ever black president the nation elected. “It’s time for us to take a hard look at uncomfortable truths.”
But is America really ready to take a hard look at the malaise that now threatens to destabilize parts of it and tear its social fabric apart? May be not, at least for now. Trump, who condoled with the Floyd’s family during a brief call, has been accused of being divisive, blowing hot and cold in his messaging in the middle of an already explosive situation. He initially condemned the police actions in Floyd’s death. But later agitated the unrest by tweeting that protesters could be met with violent law enforcement. Trump threatened to take direct action to bring the situation in Minneapolis “under control,” called violent protesters as “thugs” and revived a civil-rights-era phrase fraught with racist overtones.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump wrote in a tweet that was flagged by Twitter as violating rules against “glorifying violence.” The White House insists Trump’s tweet “did not glorify violence. He clearly condemned it.” The administration’s clarifications aside but Trump’s hardline in dealing with the protesters is no longer a secret. The eviction of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park in front of the White House on June 1 and his walk for a photo op at the historic St John’s Episcopal church has been widely interpreted as a political stunt. At a time when the nation needs a healing touch from its leader, to many Trump’s actions show little seriousness in uniting a polarized nation.
Trump and his closest advisors, including the national security advisor and attorney general, are focusing more on protests than what they are demanding – justice to Floyd’s family, reforming the justice system and ending racism. On his part, Trump is accusing left-wing anarchists and extremists of hijacking the peaceful protests. They correctly insist that the rioters and protesters are not the same.
The way forward
Floyd’s death has brought America at a crossroads where it has no choices but only challenges to tackle. It has to fix not just its faltering police and justice systems, but also come up with a convincing roadmap to put racism to rest for good. It will need a solid black agenda that can narrow down the shocking disparities that the country’s 40 million black population faces. But that would require a more assertive political leadership in the White House that shows both empathy and urgency and a clear direction to deal with the situation.
Joe Biden, who enjoys considerable support among black voters, has an opportunity to do a better job than his former boss and America’s first black president, by coming up with a more pronounced and compelling black agenda.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza agrees that Biden needs to use this moment to connect further with black people and create a more robust black agenda that specifically tackles the need for policing reform and more. Will Biden deliver what he could not during eight years as Obama’s vice president remains any body’s guess. The leadership test is even bigger for President Trump who has to make sure justice is done to the Floyd family, the “open wounds” of racism are healed through sweeping police reforms and a polarized nation is united through a more proactive and warmer outreach to the aggrieved Americans. None in the US knows how he will do it. But for now, America is in crisis, fighting a killer pandemic and a divisive racial chaos.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Matrix Mag. Click here to read the original