Special Notes from the US: May and June protests

“If you can tell me something better for me to do… if you can tell me a way that we could change the world without trying to make noise like that, then I’ll get out of the streets. If you can show me the path, I’ll get out of the streets… I won’t stand in front of no cars anymore if there’s an easy path.” (Max Bailey, Denver)

“You have to remember that they ain’t mad at one situation. It’s systematic change that needs to happen.” (Greg Jackson, founder of Heal Charlotte (North Carolina))

“There are no words in the English language that will convey the despair that I felt watching that man’s life leave his body and him scream out for his mother. I heard my son saying, ‘Mama, save me.’ My kids are little boys, and my son asked me, ‘Am I going to live to be a grown-up?’ I’ve got to ruin his innocence and tell him how to exist as a young black boy in this country.” (Alicia Smith, community organiser Minneapolis)

“I protested tonight to show my solidarity with my black brothers and sisters that are being openly murdered in the streets by the people that are supposed to be protecting them. I protested for all of the black women who die disproportionately in child birth compared to their white counterparts. I protested for black men who are disproportionately arrested and convicted for crimes compared to their white counterparts. And I protested for black children that are shot over bags of Skittles. I protested because black lives matter and because it is not enough to simply share a post or use a hashtag, and because silence is complicity. It was important for me as a white person to actually show up because it is our responsibility to dismantle the systems of oppression that we have created.” (Chelsea Peterson, Portland Oregon)

George Floyd

In the evening of 25 May an assistant serving in the ‘Cup Foods’ grocery shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called the local police because he thought that 46-year-old black Texan, George Floyd – a regular and welcome customer of the shop – had just used a suspicious banknote to buy cigarettes.

Less than 30 minutes later Floyd was dead.

In under a week there were predominantly peaceful – although always agitated and intense, focused and purposeful – protests in every major city in the USA.

This was – and remains – unprecedented. Trump was even moved to an underground bunker at the height of the protest outside the White House on Friday.

This is neither a revolution nor civil war.

But it is beginning to look as though the motivation, determination and justified anger expressed by the quickly-growing numbers of people on the streets might be credibly compared with other mass movements which have led to major change. On the other hand, the very events which ignited this extraordinary nationwide protest demonstrate all too well that the US élite is equally extremely powerful. It seems unlikely that it could be confronted head-on in any affective way just yet.

Nevertheless…

Murder

A cellphone video of Floyd’s arrest was taken by a passer-by. Later in the week, footage obtained from surveillance cameras and even from the police showed that Floyd neither resisted arrest nor failed to co-operate with the four white police officers on scene throughout. Floyd’s acquiescence surprised neither members of his family nor his community. He was seen as kind, helpful and friendly.

One of these police was 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, who apparently (had?) worked with Floyd and knew (or ought to have known) how pleasant were Floyd’s temperament and non-confrontational approach to life.

Derek Chauvin then murdered George Floyd.

Pinned to the ground almost under the police vehicle for eight minutes, Floyd pleaded to be allowed to breathe. Despite repeated cries from concerned onlookers insisting that Chauvin and his partners move Floyd into the police car for custody, the police proceeded to kill Floyd.

They went past the initial violent abuse, past the choke-hold, past the asphyxiation, past knowing that Floyd was crying for his life, past not caring that he no longer had a pulse and eventually past finishing George Floyd’s murder off – in public. Whilst being filmed. Probably expecting that such a permanent record need not have consequences. In the absence of danger or threat to themselves. In a peaceful neighbourhood. With a small crowd of onlookers.

The resultant protests began the next day – but only in Minneapolis. Although the four police had been summarily sacked, none had been charged with any criminal action. As if protest were not a legitimate reaction, those present were met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Throughout the middle of the week the numbers – and number of protest locations – slowly grew. Trump reacted with comments about the political complexion of the authorities in cities involved and the way they appeared to want to handle justified community outrage… “A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right.” This is abusive, inaccurate and implicitly racist (Frey is Jewish).

On Friday 29 May, only Chauvin was charged. And with the weakest ‘degree’ (third) of murder possible. As of Sunday night (31 May) the remaining three involved still have not been charged with any crime. That Friday night the protests became significantly more insistent and forceful. And they spread to many more cities across the US.

By the end of this last weekend (29 – 31 May) protests had been swiftly and apparently efficiently organised and mounted in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller towns throughout the country.

Why?

Each murder by the police in a long sequence (of Philando Castile, William Chapman II, Jamar Clark, Terence Crutcher, Sam Dubose, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley, Eric Harris, Jeremy McDole, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling to name a few) has attracted some degree of media attention. But in many cases no action was ever taken against the police forces and individuals responsible. And the protests in response have tended to be limited to the communities, towns and cities in which they were committed. Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in Florida by a white supremacist, George Zimmerman, in 2012. Zimmerman became something of a positive icon with the Right.

Even in 1992 the so-called ‘Rodney King riots’ in Los Angeles, which also followed the acquittal there of four police who had used excessive force when they arrested and beat Rodney King, were confined to certain areas of the US’ second-largest city; and took place mainly over one weekend.

“This is Different”

Almost every media correspondent ‘on the ground’ says, many of the social media posts describing events each afternoon and night as they have been happening suggest, much of the commentary from the participants indicates the same sentiment: “It’s different this time”.

Initial analysis of the participants’ own comments, almost 24-hour coverage by the broadcast networks, posts online, and police and politicians’ tweets and press-releases enable us to get a sense not only of Where and What. But, importantly, of Why.

Five years ago, the number of murders of (often young) black men by the police in the United States had already reached an average of three each day. Although African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 make up only 2% of the total US population, their deaths at the hands of law ‘enforcement’ account for nearly eight times that.

In all cases, and all over the United States, black families, children, teenagers, women and men are disproportionately harassed, bullied and targeted by the police. They are still disproportionally poorer; still live in (economically and environmentally) ‘disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods; are still largely employed in lower-paying jobs with fewer prospects, and continue to account for five times as many incarcerations as whites. African Americans are three times more likely to die from particulate air pollution than whites because of where they live. Twice as many black children have asthma as do white; the death rate therefrom is 10 times as great. Black unemployment is disproportionally greater in many places.

The same is true, in different ways, for ‘brown’ (central and south American), some Asian, Native American and other populations. There are also the white poor, white unemployed, white marginalised people.

Women, too, are still discriminated against in the United States… rape, assault, (unrecognised and unremunerated) domestic workload, gender pay gap and work opportunities. The same goes for schooling and higher education… attitudes, opportunities, graduation rates and so on.

Many of those protesting in the last week made it achingly clear to the few national media outlets (chiefly CNN and MSNBC) whose reporters would listen that the prevailing culture in Trump’s America is white, male and for the rich. That black lives are worthless to the élites’. In August 2017 after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, Trump said that some of the white supremacists and fascists protesting against the removal of Robert E Lee’s (an icon for the Confederate (pro-slavery) cause) statue were “fine people” when several of their number killed Black Lives Matter supporter Heather Heyer. Trump responded to protests by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick against the murder of black men a year earlier with “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”

Other examples of Trump’s allegiance to and (tacit) support for white supremacy are legion.

The COVID-19 pandemic (the severity, effects and spread of which Trump personally could have done much more to attenuate and mitigate) affects African Americans disproportionately. Over 40 million workers in the United States have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Many worry for their very livelihoods. Protesters understand that Trump’s sole priority in responding to Covid-19 has been to try and secure his prospects for re-election in November; not to work to promote the safety and health of the population. This may be because he is a fascist thug whose sadistic narcissism makes him incapable of any other response. It may be a function of his ignorance, stupidity and incompetence. It may be a combination of all of these.

In any case, this continuing conduct re-inforces the message that the ‘underdogs’ (because of their race, gender, demographic, social ‘status’, location and economic prospects) have little or no place in the country. It consistently suggests to them that they have little to contribute; and a right to expect even less.

So it is understandable when those young people who have known nothing else in their entire lives see little or no point in believing in the country’s structures, institutions, systems and even its well-being and public health.

There can also be little doubt that many people have reached various stages of distress – between discomfort and panic – in coping with the (now almost entirely abandoned) ‘stay-at-home’ measures to counter COVID-19. Indeed, some will have been out on the streets last week for the first time in weeks during these events. It would be interesting to know how much overlap there is between such frustration and the more extreme actions of burning, which can follow looting, by those who have felt they have so little to lose and so little invested in an oppressive, unequal, excluding world. The only time many of them will ever get their hands on many of the (luxury) goods which the rest of the country takes for granted is when they help themselves in situations like this.

Nor does it help when the mainstream propaganda each night systematically misrepresents protesters’ feelings and the causes of their anger and distress. Fox News, for example, now claims to have been the most-watched network on basic cable for the last four years. And the most-watched cable news network for over 18 years. Thirteen of the most watched 15 ‘news’ programmes are on Fox. For Fox being black equates to wanting to protest without real cause. A Fox ‘police consultant’ on Thursday night explained to the channel’s millions of viewers that “…there is no institutionalised racism anywhere in this country’s police forces…”. For Fox, protesting equates to looting.

Many protesters and organisers have expressed sentiments such as, “Riots were not part of the protests. The looting and rioting isn’t in George Floyd’s name”. Yet the thought must go through the minds of some of the more ‘abandoned’ rioters, “If they’re never even going to try to understand us, why bother?!”. Them vs us.

Build a society on greed, materialism, belligerence, on ephemeral cultural values, on competition, coercion and hierarchy. Try to control people with fear and threats. Allow only those who shout the loudest simplicities to be heard. Incite violence as your first answer. Elevate “me first” and selfishness. Praise hatred as a means to advance the self. Work tirelessly for division.

And this week’s actions become inevitable.

Then, refuse to acknowledge and correct your misconduct. And things get worse.

At the time of writing, reports are spreading that the police and paramilitary confronting the protesters are turning more violent. Some states claim to have white supremacist agents provocateurs. And as of Sunday night (when an oil tanker drove at full speed into a crowd of protesters in Minneapolis), the level and severity of the authorities response seemed to be growing. Few have yet been killed. But it’s only a matter of time.

Clampdown looks inevitable this week. Trump tweeted on Sunday night that he will label Antifa a terrorist organisation – even though it isn’t actually an ‘organisation’ as such. Both he and Attorney General, William Barr, have blamed ‘anarchists’ for all the protests. They can have less understanding of our political philosophy than they do of Jack Frost or the tooth fairy… bearded Bolsheviks emerging from alleys to hurl bombs from underneath their overcoats probably.

In fact, it seems more likely that far-right infiltrators and white supremacists are being co-opted, or co-opting themselves, to attempt to discredit the legitimacy of the protests, which even presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has allowed himself to call “…right and necessary… an utterly American response.”

With desperate prospects for the future; an economy in decline; rampant racism; an atmosphere of vicious and foul (presidential) pronouncements; threats; incitement; with the seeming impossibility of effecting any kind of change; and given the size of the inequality, of the ominous opposition from the élite at the present time to any spirit of change; with the enshrining of ignorance and blundering stupidity amongst the rich and powerful, it’s remarkable that this hasn’t happened before now.

With 40 cities attempting (and failing) to impose curfews by 1 June, this is far from over.

And even when – for whatever reason, after whatever provocation, following whatever immediate outcome – the situation changes, or even stabilises, the crowds on the streets will have taught themselves just how powerful they are. They all now know that they can – and will – act again.

(Those in the US who understand the epidemiology of the pandemic know that there ought to be only one response to the coming trends upwards of COVID-19 cases and deaths peaks: lockdown. But as Freedom has reported over recent months, ignorance, stupidity and selfishness have already resisted ‘stay-at-home’ policies as an unnecessary response by ‘communist governors’ to a ‘fake pandemic’. Observers fear that the ground is set for further ‘civil unrest’ as those two constituencies face off.)

So two sets of perspectives might be helpful.

For the protestors there seems to be a sense that both “Enough racism really is enough this time” and that “We don’t (yet) know how, but we will no longer tolerate your oppression.”

Observers would do well to celebrate the dedication, largely peaceful intentions, determination and focus of the protestors. We might also hope that the movement(s) come to expect the right things. To understand the dynamic between their power and what they are really up against is one of them. Police ‘accountability’ is not one of them… that was tried in the UK in the 1980s, and seen as pointless.

To make sense of the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead (soaring COVID-19 cases shouldn’t go overlooked or unfeared), zoom out from the surprisingly orderly lines of young people – black and white – helping themselves to luxury goods from a national chain store valued on Wall Street at many billions of dollars. Look at the CNN crew being arrested on live TV as they film tear gas being fired at protesters who are reading Donald Trump’s provocative tweets about shooting them. Scan what surrounds you: boarded-up homes, inadequately lit streets with rusting chain-link fences enclosing… nothing but weeds and stones. Shops permanently shut. Only the church and police precinct suggesting activity. Certainly no work. And always… the sirens suggesting superiority more strenuously by far than in ’68. Yet assailable.

Louis Further

Photo: Hungryogrephotos, Public Domain