Dubai: The US protests may have been sparked by the death of George Floyd, however, the nation-wide demonstrations, which turned violent in some cities, are just the latest display of rage that has been simmering for decades over institutionalised racism, especially within the law enforcements agencies and the increasing distrust in the government, particularly among minorities in the US.
With President Donald Trump’s blatantly polarising tweets and the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, the world has gotten a probably prolonged ‘perfect storm’. Despite this, however, few believe that the protests will have a major impact on the 2020 presidential elections.
The protests began nine days ago following the news of the killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who died after a police officer pinned him down for almost nine minutes. Trump, who described the nation-wide protesters as “thugs” and “lowlifes”, has repeatedly threatened to deploy the military to stop the protests and urged governors to use the National Guard. Trump is up for reelection this year.
His rival, Democratic former senator Joe Biden, has been sympathetic towards the protests hoping to capitalise on the all-important black vote.
Racism and police brutality
“We have a legacy of racism that goes back to the beginning of the country,hundreds of years ago,” said James Zogby, managing director of the Zogby Research, which specialises in opinion polling. “Even after these hundreds of years, our cities are still physically divided - you have white neighbourhoods and black neighbourhoods,” he told Gulf News in an interview.
Zogby, a well-known civil rights advocate, said racism among police forces in the US is endemic. “Floyd is not the first victim [of police brutality and racist practices] and won’t be the last,” he added, noting that there is “an increasing militarisation of the police force” in America.
He said a great number of the member of the police forces in the US have been trained by the Israeli army in Israel, under training tours organised by pro-Israel groups in the US. “Some of the police behave in black or minorities neighbourhood as they were in occupied territories,” he remarked.
On Tuesday, the state of Minnesota filed a human-rights complaint against the Minneapolis Police Department in Floyd’s death. The officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved were fired but have not been charged.
Governor Tim Walz said the investigation into the police department’s policies, procedures and practices over the past 10 years will determine if the force has engaged in systemic discrimination towards people of colour, and work out how to stop it.
The move is aimed at calming down the protesters but it might do little to soothe those who point at futile initiatives that followed similar incidents in the past decades.
A little over a month before Floyd’s killing, a black woman, Breonna Taylor, was shot at least eight times after three officers entered her flat in Louisville, Kentucky, to serve a search warrant in a drug investigation. The police department claimed the officers used their weapons after Taylor’s boyfriend fired at them. Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
In the past six years alone, dozens of black Americans have been shot dead by the police in different parts of the country. Today’s protests remind us of the May 1992 Los Angeles riots, a watershed moment that began in south-central Los Angeles on April 29, after a court acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for brutality in the arrest and beating of a black man, Rodney King, which had been videotaped by a bystander and widely viewed in TV broadcasts. By the time the riots ended after the intervention of the National Guard, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people injured and more than 12,000 had been arrested.
“The police enjoy some sort of impunity,” Zogby said. The powerful police unions protected those police officers who have been accused in the past of racism and brutality. “These officers know they will not be punished,” he added.
Racism, coronavirus and unemployment
The perception of institutionalised racism was also displaced during the coronavirus crisis, which led to unprecedented crunch in global economies. More than 40 million Americans lost their jobs in the past three months alone, according to official numbers by the Department of Labour. The rate of unemployment among blacks is twice that of white Americans.
In Washington, DC, the percentage of out-of-work black residents outpaces white residents at a rate of about 6 to 1, according to a report by the Washington Post, on June 1.
“There’s nothing that says you don’t belong in an economy more than a police officer shooting you dead in the street. It is a symbol of exclusion,” the newspaper quoted Andre M. Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of ‘Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities’ as saying. “The underlying attitudes that lead a cop to kneel on the neck of a person in custody so cavalierly is the same attitude that corporate executives have, as reflected in the disparate economic outcomes.”
According to his research, black workers with résumés equivalent to white workers are paid less, given worse benefits and are more likely to be underemployed compared to white counterparts.
The high unemployment, because of the COVID-19 impact, may not be a key motive for the protests, but Zogby believes that the protests offered “a release” for those who have been sheltering at home without income for months. They may have seen the protests as a way to get back at a government that failed to protect their jobs.
When official institutions fail to “serve the people in the wake of coronavirus, more political unrest” is expected, said Milos Maricic, an expert on revolutions and a World Economic Forum contributor, as more people lose faith in the government.
Distrust of the government
The prevailing distrust, especially among the younger generation and minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics, in the government’s ability to deal with the major issues plaguing US society is a key driver behind the rage displayed in the Floyd protests, he noted.
He pointed out recent studies, by Pew and Deloitte, that show more people in the US are losing confidence in their government’s ability or willingness to deal with such issues as racism.
The Pew survey, conducted late last year, shows that white Americans show high levels of trust in the government (27 per cent ) that is twice as high as the share of black (13 per cent ) and Hispanic adults (12 per cent).
“With minorities and young people trust in government to ‘do the right thing’ is even lower,” Maricic told Gulf News. Two thirds of Americans, he noted, say that low trust in government is “a hindrance” to solving the country’s problems; therefore, people tend to take matters into their hands, such as protesting and clashing with law enforcement officials.
The apparent poor initial response of the current administration to the coronavirus outbreak is another reason for the increasing mistrust. President Trump did little to bridge the gap. On the contrary, he initially dismissed COVID-19 as a ‘hoax’, the same way he has been dismissing the Floyd protesters as ‘thugs and lowlifes’.
The Trump factor
At the beginning of the protests, Trump posted his now-infamous tweet, which was flagged by Twitter because it was considered by the platform as an incitement of violence. Trump wrote: “These THUGS are dishonouring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
The controversial tweet itself was more problematic as Trump borrowed the phrase ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ from a statement by the notorious 1960s white chief of the Miami police Walter Headley at the midst of armed robberies and unrest gripped black neighbourhoods in the city in the late 1967. At a press conference, Headley, declared war on what he described as “criminals.”
The police, he warned, would use shotguns and dogs. “I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Headley threatened moments later.
Trump, supported by most white Americans, has poor record when it comes to issues relevant to minorities. That record may not be a factor in the current protests, but his tweets and statements in the past week “inflamed” the situation, Zogby contended.
“Racism predates Trump. But in these events, he put gasoline on the fire,” he noted, pointing to such statements as the “lowlifes” tweet. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted on the protests that gripped New York city. He wrote: “NYC, CALL UP THE NATIONAL GUARD. The lowlifes and losers are ripping you apart. Act fast! Don’t make the same horrible and deadly mistake you made with the Nursing Homes!!!”.
These statements don’t make Trump look like the president of the nation, Zogby said, but “more like a white nationalist leader.”
Trump’s statements led police chiefs in many part of the US to ask the president to ‘keep quiet’ as his tweets fan the protests.
“Please, if you don’t have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo addressed the president in an interview with CNN on Monday.
However, Zogby and others don’t think protests and the president’s reactions would significantly impact this year’s presidential elections. But they will likely add to the intensity of the polls.
“Those who support Trump, among the white population, will continue to support him and those who don’t will oppose him,” he explained. But his attitude will lead to more people voting- those who support him would insist to vote to keep him in office and those who oppose him to get him out.
This perception has caught the attention of Trump’s rival, Joe Biden. He has been meeting Black community leaders lately and has seen his campaign contribution surge during the last seven days.