The killing of George Floyd happened in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking outrage and protests in dozens of cities across America, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Though Derek Chauvin (the officer seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck and ignoring his pleas) has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, tensions have not eased. Through all of last week marches and rallies continued all over the country. Curfews have been issued in at least 39 cities in 21 states, and the National Guard has been activated in at least 15 states.
This widespread response to Floyd’s killing expresses the exasperation, frustration and rage felt by thousands of Americans towards the oppression of black people by state police.
Previously in Minneapolis, Philando Castile and Jamal Clark were both shot to death by police officers, respectively in 2016 and 2015. George Floyd’s killing presents a horrifying resemblance to the death of Eric Garner, who died in New York in 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold. The same year, Michael Brown, 18, and Tamir Rice, aged only 12, were both killed by policemen. All these ‘incidents’ caused mounting outrage and anger, until in 2014 the Black Lives Matter movement was born.
It is not difficult to understand the sheer rage and the profound sense of injustice which has brought Americans, and especially black citizens, to the streets in protest year after year.
This is different
The George Floyd protests are different in many aspects. Firstly, the behaviour of the police has outraged people in the US and abroad. Indeed, at a time when law enforcement should be at its best behaviour, showing the likes of Chauvin and his colleagues to be the proverbial ‘bad apples’, reports of abuses have soaring throughout the country.
Last week, a multitude of videos started to circulate on social media showing a sickening amount of brutality committed by the police. Here are just a few examples: two New York police cars violently rammed into a crowd; in Minneapolis, the National Guard shot paintballs at residents sitting on their porches; and in multiple cities, peaceful protesters were beaten and charged by law enforcement.
But even more worryingly, the police now seem to be actively targeting journalists. The Guardian has stated that more than 50 incidents of violence and harassment against media workers were reported. We are watching videos of reporters being arrested live, pepper-sprayed, and even shot at with rubber bullets and paintballs. Linda Tirado, a freelance journalist and activist, was left permanently blind in one eye after being shot with a rubber bullet in Minneapolis.
When analysing these shocking developments, it’s impossible not to take into consideration the words and actions of the current US President, Donald Trump. Indeed, the attacks aimed at journalists seem to reflect the general animosity towards the press that Trump has steadily cultivated throughout his presidency. Donald Trump has previously referred to the ‘Fake News Media’ as his constituency’s primary opponent and as ‘enemies of the people’. This rhetoric, coupled with the militarization of the US Police and a weakening of local press agencies, has fractured the relationship between media and law enforcement.
Since the start of the protests, Trump has used language which is not only inflammatory but unprecedented and extremely disturbing, coming from ‘the leader of the free world’. After calling protesters ‘thugs’, POTUS tweeted that ‘as soon as the looting starts, the shooting starts’ — a chilling public statement about opening fire on a crowd of citizens. As well as this, Trump has threatened to deploy the military to curb the unrest. This would require the implementation of a law dating back to the nineteenth century.
In order for the President to be photographed outside a church holding a bible, protesters outside the White House had to be tear-gassed and forcibly removed. It is difficult not to liken Trump’s actions and words with the familiar display of police brutality evidenced in America over the years. Trump’s calls to US Governors to ‘dominate the streets’ and his declarations about ‘dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers’, are arguably a central factor for the presence of escalating violence during these protest.
At the same time, it is important not to blame the tensions of US society on Trump alone. They are deeply seated and entrenched in US history. We should not forget that in 1992, President H. W. Bush deployed the military to sedate the Los Angeles riots, using the same 1807 Insurrection Act that Trump threatened to invoke. That time, the riots were ignited by Rodney King’s brutal beating and by the acquittance of the police officers who assaulted him. In 1985, a bomb was dropped by Philadelphia’s authorities on a predominantly black neighbourhood to neutralise the exponents of MOVE, a black liberation group, killing six adults and five children, and destroying 61 homes. Going farther, in the 1970s, Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ and Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ disproportionately affected black people, producing mass incarcerations and strengthening the US prison-industrial complex.
Countless other examples demonstrate that racism has always been present in US society and its politics, sometimes subtly, sometimes in a nauseatingly overt manner. What is happening in the US right now is a consequence of the President’s rhetoric, but it is also a product of America’s institutional racism — that same racism that helped Trump get to the White House.
In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the writer James Baldwin invoked the possibility for ‘the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks’ to finally end ‘the racial nightmare’ which afflicted the USA. However, Baldwin also warned that without the will to dare everything, America would face a future of unrest. After all, God decided to forgive humans after the flood, but only for one last time. And so, Baldwin concludes:
‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!’.
Today, America is witnessing that fire.