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On the evening of June 1, I was watching CNN’s live coverage of a peaceful protest near the White House. It was quite encouraging, given that rioting and looting had taken place in various cities the night before. Then, without warning or provocation, a phalanx of military police fired tear gas into the crowd and began violently pushing the protestors with shields and clubs.
Moments later, as smoke still wafted across Lafayette Square, Donald J. Trump walked into the Rose Garden to address the nation. After briefly mentioning George Floyd—and, astonishingly, claiming to be “an ally of peaceful protestors”—he turned his attention to the riots, pledging to “dominate the streets” with military troops if the riots continued.
“I am your president of law and order,” he said, evoking memories of Richard Nixon, who used the phrase as part of a cynical strategy to appeal to the racial fears of conservative white Americans during the upheavals of 1968.
Clearly, Trump had the same racist motive in mind. If you don’t believe me, consider this: In his seven-minute speech that night, he devoted just 15 seconds to George Floyd and did not mention the underlying issues of racism and police brutality at all. Moreover, consider the language Trump had used in Tweets earlier in the week.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he Tweeted on May 29, echoing a line that militant white segregationists had used in the late ‘60s. In another, he threatened to unleash “vicious dogs” on protestors—clearly evoking memories of Bull Connor’s brutal assaults on black men and women during the Civil Rights movement.
I have no doubt that these messages resonated with many people. Indeed, shortly after Trump’s June 1 speech, I saw posts congratulating him on Facebook. For these folks, the riots had overshadowed the horror of the murder of George Floyd.
I was disturbed by the riots myself. But it’s important to consider them in a broader context.
It may be that some of the rioters really were acting out of righteous rage. It was Martin Luther King Jr., after all—the great prophet of non-violent resistance—who once said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The fact is, working-class whites have resorted to such measures many times in the course of our nation’s history. The devastating New York City Draft Riots during the Civil War come to mind. But there are more recent examples. During the summer of 1979, for instance, there were two days of white rioting in Levittown, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. If you want to read more about this, take a look at an excellent article in The Washington Post, published on the 40th anniversary of the event. (“The Forgotten Riot That Explains Trump’s Appeal to the White Working Class,” June 24, 2019.)
“Dozens were hospitalized, nearly 200 were arrested, a post office was vandalized, gas stations were looted, abandoned cars and furniture were set afire, and police and firefighters were pelted with rocks, cans, beer bottles and firecrackers,” the article states. ‘There’s a complete breakdown of law and order,’ the local sheriff said.”
The gasoline shortage was cited as the immediate cause of the riots. But according to the Post, the riots represented the boiling-over of long simmering resentments among working-class whites. The local paper, the article states, “was filled with letters and quotes defending the riots as ‘the only way the silent majority has to fight back’ and ‘the only way the federal government would pay attention to the average people.’ ”
If a white crowd can erupt in violent rage in reaction to gas shortages, surely we can understand such violence—without condoning it—in reaction to videos of police officers killing an unarmed black man.
There has also been widespread speculation that “outside agitators” used the protests as an opportunity to wreak havoc, with no regard for George Floyd’s memory. Trump tried to pin it on “ANTIFA,” the name given to a variety of groups that favor militant action in response to neo-fascism. As “evidence,” he cited a Tweet—calling for violence—from someone claiming to represent the anti-fascist movement.
As it turned out, according to a CNN investigation, the Twitter account from which the post came was “created by a known white supremacist group” that was trying to foment racial tension and smear the protests.
I also suspect that at least some of the rioters were members of gangs, or simply common street criminals, who saw an opportunity when the protests began.
Regardless, we should not allow the riots to define the protests—the vast majority of which were peaceful. It’s important as well to note that many of the protestors themselves spoke out against violence in the name of George Floyd—most notably, Floyd’s own brother.
Fortunately, as the protests rolled into week two, the violence began to diminish. As I watched the live coverage, hour after hour, I began to see more disciplined marches, punctuated by sitting demonstrations in the true spirit of non-violent resistance. At times, police chiefs—and even some rank-and-file officers—joined in solidarity.
And yet, in spite of these signs of hope, the precariousness and urgency of our situation cannot be overstated.
“Time is not our ally right now,” said Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., in televised interview during the first week of protests.
Her remark reminded me of the closing lines of The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.
“Everything now is in our hands,” Baldwin wrote. “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks—do not falter in our duty, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare.”
Given that those lines were published in 1963, they are in some ways disheartening. Here we are in 2020, still dealing with the same issue.
Still, we must move forward. As we do it’s important to recognize the risks.
The most immediate is the possibility of more rioting—and mark my words, if these officers get off lightly, or go scot-free, there will be more. It’s worth remembering, after all, that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were not triggered by the video of four policemen beating Rodney King; they erupted only after a jury acquitted the officers.
Beyond that, there is the risk that if the officers in the Floyd case do receive punishments commensurate with the crime, the national conversation will quickly die out. As CNN documentarian W. Kamau Bell remarked recently, “We need to talk about this when black men are not lying dead in the street.”
If we can keep the issue at the forefront, perhaps we will finally take the necessary action, not just in the form of more marches but by educating ourselves regarding our local police department policies and demanding reforms.
We also must take action at the polls, both local and national. It is certainly imperative that we get rid of Trump. After his monstrous behavior in response to the protests—culminating in his outrageously hypocritical photo op with a Bible—
this should be clearer than ever. Even retired general James Mattis—who’d long held his tongue—felt compelled to speak out.
In an opinion piece, Mattis said he was “angry and appalled” by Trump’s heavy-handed response to the protestors outside the White House.
“We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers,” he wrote. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values as a nation.” At the same time, he went on, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
We must get rid of this mad man. At the same time, we must recognize that Trump did not create the problem of systemic racism. He simply exploits it. In the end it’s incumbent upon all of us to regard racism as our problem—a national problem that eats at our collective soul and undermines our founding ideals. If we fail to do so, we have no business calling America “the land of the free.”