Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Jun 02, 2020
America in triple crisis: Police brutality, protests, pandemic

“I can’t breathe” is the new American anthem as violent protests engulf the United States in the wake of the murder of yet another African American man by police, a phenomenon that occurs with alarming regularity.

George Floyd died on May 25 in Minneapolis when a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Three other officers either watched or helped keep Floyd down despite him gasping for breath.

The video has stirred the conscience of the nation – not that more proof was needed for routine police brutality against African Americans. Many suspects are killed even when accused of a minor crime. Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a fake $20 bill.

By contrast, the police did nothing to stop white militia members last month when they walked into the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, armed with heavy weapons to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order during the current pandemic. Their rights and freedom to carry arms were duly observed.

Anger among African Americans is palpable. Protests have erupted in 140 cities and 4,000 people have been arrested. That streets have burst into flames against symbols of the establishment, including graffiti on national monuments, is not surprising. The promise of equal justice and racial equality has remained largely unfulfilled for decades.

In fact, it remains callously ignored as yet another political season unfolds. President Donald Trump’s response to the crisis is mostly focused on using more force against protestors, not on healing the gaping wound or addressing the causes.

On Monday, he declared himself the “law and order” president Richard Nixon-style, completing the comparisons of 2020 to 1968, when violent protests over the Vietnam War, assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and economic distress similarly plagued American society.

It is said that unrest and disorder push voters to the right, especially in the white community as they did in 1968. Trump’s actions and reactions indicate he has made his bet. He wants state governors – who are akin to Indian chief ministers – to deploy enough force on the streets or he would, using the 1807 Insurrection Act.

Military presence on American streets is not normal in 2020 even though US troops are common on Iraqi or Afghan streets. Some are asking whether the US is coming full circle under Trump by declaring war against its own people to quell vandalism and looting by some elements even though a vast majority of the protests are peaceful and multi-racial.

The social conflagration comes on top of the pandemic and economic distress. The Coronavirus (COVID19) has claimed more than 106,000 lives, making the US death toll the highest in the world. The pandemic has disproportionately affected African Americans, as has the economic slowdown, which many say might be worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. More than 40 million Americans are unemployed.

The country was already on the edge when a display of police brutality came into view, laying bare the racism that bubbles just below the surface and triggering outrage and frustration in the black community.

The police response has been hard-edged, menacing and even mindless, further breaking what remains of the fragile trust between them and the black community. The police have not only attacked protestors but also journalists, and arrested them for no reason except for being on the job. In New York, police cars ploughed into small crowds of protestors to force them to disperse.

In other places, a few police officers have joined the protesters, listened to the anguished cries and marched with them. But they are in a minority. The dominant image is of a heavily militarised police force unleashing tear gas and pepper spray, sometimes on children brought to street protests by their parents.

But it is also true that opportunists, the fringe left and the fringe right elements, and some foreign agents working through social media might also be trying to inflame an already volatile situation. The destruction of stores by random rioters even as some protestors tried to protect the buildings and the piles of bricks being hauled to protest sites have been caught on phone cameras.

Trump has used his Twitter pulpit to exacerbate rather than calm tensions. He has called the protesters “thugs” and warned that “vicious dogs” await them if they break the parameter of the White House. He even used a slogan of a notorious Miami police chief from the 1960s to warn demonstrators, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Trump tried to walk back as he does every time after throwing fuel into the fire already burning bright, but his audience is far from convinced. He has made no attempt to lead a national conversation on racial injustice or police brutality.

The country stands at a precipice because successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have refused to seriously tackle the endemic problem of racism. Instead, they have diverted black anger with a few token gestures but never instituted real reform that would address the problem through education, employment, housing, policing and enlightened politics.

For those who follow cases of routine brutality of police against African Americans will remember Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, because they are the same words that came out of Eric Garner in 2014 as a white officer held him in a chokehold while arresting him. Both Floyd and Garner died on the spot.

Garner’s alleged crime: selling loose cigarettes in New York. Between Garner and Floyd, there have been countless other black men and women shot dead in their own homes, or as they tried to show their driver’s license, or as they played in the park or as they jogged in their neighbourhood.

According to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings, 1,252 African Americans have been killed since Jan. 1, 2015. That the federal government doesn’t document all police shootings because reporting by police departments is “voluntary” is in itself a comment on the system.

Cornel West, an African American professor at Harvard University, asked: “The fundamental question at this moment is: can this failed social experiment be reformed? The weakness of the labour movement and the present difficulty of the radical left to unite around a non-violent revolutionary project of democratic sharing and redistribution of power, wealth and respect are signs of a society unable to regenerate the best of its past and present.”

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Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...

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