Author: Irina KHALTURINA
The death of the African American George Floyd by the American police provoked large-scale protests and riots in the country compared only to the events of 1968 after the murder of civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Despite social distancing rules because of the coronavirus pandemic, people in Minneapolis took to the streets to protest police brutality. Protesters in Minneapolis were supported by thousands of the residents in a dozens of American megacities and smaller cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas... Slogans Black Lives Matter and I Can't Breathe (the last words of Floyd) quickly triggered pogroms with arson, looting and clashes with law enforcement officers. Amid mass detentions, wounding and killing of protesters, and curfews, national guards began to patrol the streets of American cities for the first time since World War II.
The photo and video content on the Internet and in the media shows that during the arrest, Floyd was handcuffed, thrown to the ground, while one of the policemen pressed on his neck with his knee. Floyd repeated several times that he could not breathe, but the policeman did not respond. This punitive measure, as it was calculated later, lasted exactly 8 minutes 46 seconds. It was enough for the detainee to die in intensive care later...
A few days later it turned out that Floyd had little in common with the legendary civil rights activist. He was prosecuted seven times for robbery, possession and distribution of drugs and at the time of death was under the influence of a strong psychotropic substance. But he was already made an icon of protests against police arbitrariness.
Certainly, no one has the right to kill anyone, even those who have committed violation repeatedly, without trial and investigation. But the disproportionate use of force by the police officers is not the first incident that takes place the United States. The US has the largest number of prisoners in the world, the highest percentage of prisoners in comparison with the rest of the population. This is the country where firearms are used most often.
As for racism in America, it has been part of the American history in the past and present. The black population of America has long been represented in all walks of life and in all professions. But in its entirety, it is still more socially and economically disadvantaged compared with the white population. So why exactly did the death of Floyd provoke such a wide public response, repentance and real anger against the police? Why was the protest against police arbitrariness accompanied by looting and hooliganism? Is this a protest and a demand for observance of American values, or is it a spontaneous wave that Trump’s political opponents tried to take advantage of?
The answer to this question might lie in a detailed analysis of the protesters. We should try to understand how many of them were citizens who consciously came to the rally, and what percentage of protesters simply decided to take advantage of the situation, especially amid the rising unemployment and economic crisis. After all, people who were taking TVs and other stuff out of broken storefronts didn’t look like angry activists. The graffiti on the walls of supermarkets (Eat the rich, Fuck capitalism, Make America pay) do not seem to go well with anti-racist sentiments.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts
Interestingly, we could not see mass interviews with protesters in media outlets. But there were many elements of a typical show, such as joint kneeling of policemen, hugging of demonstrators by police officers, white Americans kissing the shoes of black Americans (!). Or a too emotional farewell to Floyd by the Mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey. Leaning on one knee at the gilded coffin and hiding his face behind a medical mask, the mayor was shaking from crying for eight and a half minutes, that is, exactly as much time as police officer Derek Chauvin kept Floyd under his knee.
US President Donald Trump himself, in one of his tweets, accused the riots of radical left anarchists and "weak" governors and mayor democrats indulging the protesters. He also called on the National Guard to “keep the street situation under control” and condemned the riots as acts of “internal terror”.
Many commentators argue that the indirect reason for the protests was that black people suffered more than whites from the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic collapse. So, in Minnesota, where Floyd lived, the African American community accounted for up to a third of all patients, although it makes up only 9% of the state’s population. The same ratios were indicated in some American media outlets for New York, one of the major cities hit by the coronavirus. At the same time, the same outlets point out that Trump has repeatedly made racist comments both during the election campaign and during his presidency.
But Trump did not seem to be too embarrassed by these allegations. On May 29, he wrote on his Twitter: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This phrase belongs to Miami police chief Walter E. Headley, who said it in response to an outbreak of violent crime during the 1967 Christmas holiday season trying to justify cruelty in suppressing protests in African-American neighbourhoods.
Risk of social disintegration
Twitter flagged Trump's post as “glorification of violence.” Twitter was just one of the many social networks, which continues to criticise the incumbent American president. The former US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who resigned in 2018 after Trump decided to withdraw American troops from Syria, accused the president of deliberately trying to split society. Other politicians speaking out against Trump in this situation are urging the nation to see its failures, make changes and unite, inviting people to contrast with the president, who says that protests can be suppressed by military force. That is why the Democrats introduced a bill restricting police powers to the Congress.
The problem is that the Democrats risk finding themselves in the same trap they are pushing Trump into. After all, the former Vice President Joe Biden, whom the Democratic Party Congress nominated as a presidential candidate for the upcoming election on November 6, is a typical representative of the white political elite. During his long political career, he has also made a lot of ambiguous statements that can be regarded as racist. Therefore, it is unlikley that the black population of America suddenly recognises Biden as their leader.
While many European politicians supported the protesters in various degrees, then one could find a lot of ironic comments in the Russian media. It’s not surprising since even in the Soviet times, the discrimination against blacks in the US was part of the anti-American propaganda. Pogroms in American cities are compared with those in Kiev back in 2014. Remarkably, one of the main TV channels of Russia inserted, sort of accidentally, footage from protests to the final credits of the Russian cult film Brat-2 with the song Good buy, America in the background. According to The New York Times, “smarting over decades of American criticism of its human rights record, Russia is now getting some payback.” NYT complains that video materials about the burning buildings and robberies helped the Kremlin once again demonstrate its favourite argument about the destructiveness of any, even peaceful, protests. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to her counterpart from the US State Department, who had previously expressed support for the protesters in Hong Kong, in the same vein.
The protests in the US are the obvious result of contradictions in American domestic politics. Racial motives and economic consequences of the pandemic are just convenient factors that triggered them. Apparently, we can expect a new wave of protests with the approach of the presidential election in November. For example, Al Sharpton, a Baptist preacher, former presidential candidate and adviser to Barack Obama, said a new march on Washington would be organised on August 28, following the example of the famous rally organised back in 1963. In addition, after the November elections, he might not recognise the results and will try to challenge them regardless of the winner. This seems to be a real threatening factor that can split the country.