‘A nation enraged’: America’s worst failure

 

COMMENT

One of the more dispiriting things about the protests and riots still raging across the United States is how unsurprising they are.

This unprecedented unrest, spanning 140 cities, has not come out of nowhere. And to state the obvious, it is not just a reaction to the horrifying death of George Floyd.

It is the inevitable product of a nation which so often teeters on the brink of violence, and which has consistently, coldly refused to listen to its own people.

It's the last resort of a community fed up with enduring grief and tragedy without justice.

Why is it happening now? And why is there such immense anger? The most succinct explanation I've heard was offered by author and political commentator Van Jones.

"If you speak up and you're not heard, you might yell. If you yell and you're not heard, then you might scream. If you scream and you're not heard, then you might throw something," Jones said.

"You do not have a society that has this kind of thing happen, at this level, without it being a very long series of dominoes that have been falling that we have not attended to properly.

"By the time people are yelling and screaming and burning stuff, that's the reaction to inaction for too long."

The African-American community has spoken up. It has yelled. It has screamed. It has spent years - decades, in fact - fruitlessly pleading with the rest of the US to take its suffering seriously, and to believe its complaints of double standards in the country's criminal justice system.

Those pleas have been met with indifference, scepticism and in some cases undisguised scorn.

Rioting and violence are always to be condemned, of course. Today Mr Floyd's brother Terence issued an admirable call for calm.

"It's OK to be angry. But channel your anger to do something positive," he said.

"(George) would want us to seek justice the way we're trying to do. But channel it another way. The anger, damaging your hometown, it's not the way he'd want."

Former vice president Joe Biden, who is the Democratic Party's nominee in this year's election, struck a similar tone.

"We are a nation enraged, but we cannot allow our rage to consume us," Mr Biden said.

But most of the people marching through America's streets are not setting buildings on fire or seeking confrontations with police. They're protesting peacefully, in greater numbers than ever before.

And what other choice do they have? Nothing else has worked.

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One of those peaceful protesters, taking a knee in front of San Jose police officers. Picture: Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
One of those peaceful protesters, taking a knee in front of San Jose police officers. Picture: Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Consider how many Americans, including President Donald Trump, reacted back in 2016, when black NFL players led by Colin Kaepernick engaged in pretty much the most peaceful form of protest imaginable.

All they did was kneel during the national anthem, in an attempt to highlight the chronic double standard in US policing.

"There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," Kaepernick explained.

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Did the rest of the country listen to his message, or make the faintest attempt to empathise with his cause? Hardly.

Mr Trump labelled the protesting players "disgraceful", saying anyone who took a knee was a "son of a b****" and should be fired.

Fans of Kaepernick's team, the San Francisco 49ers, filmed themselves burning his jersey.

Polls showed more than two-thirds of white Americans disapproved of him.

That is the response African-Americans copped when they tried to protest quietly. It got them nowhere. Meanwhile, the injustices continued to mount.

 

There are too many prominent examples from recent years to cite them all, but let's quickly run through a few.

Eric Garner told New York police he couldn't breathe 11 times while he lay dying on the ground in a chokehold. The officer responsible wasn't fired until five years later, and was never charged.

Freddie Gray died in Baltimore after sustaining injuries and falling into a coma while in police custody. None of the six officers suspended from their jobs in connection with the incident were ever convicted.

In February this year, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed by a white father and son while he was out jogging. No arrests were made until May, when video of the shooting happened to emerge.

Last month a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police and told them an "African-American man" - emphasis hers - was threatening her life because he had asked her to put a leash on her dog in Central Park.

And of course, police officer Derek Chauvin jammed his knee into Mr Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes, slowly killing him, even as members of the public filmed the scene and the victim pleaded for his right to breathe.

There had been 17 complaints against Mr Chauvin during his policing career, by the way, which resulted in two letters of reprimand and nothing more.

These are not isolated incidents. The same things have been happening for decades. The difference now is that everyone on the street has a camera, so we all get to see the incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing.

Without that footage from bystanders, Mr Floyd would just be another sad statistic; one more dead African-American suspect among thousands. White America, as usual, would give the officers involved the benefit of the doubt, and nothing would change.

Even now, amid all this upheaval, there is no guarantee anything will change. Mr Trump does not seem remotely interested in addressing America's racial inequality or even pretending to care about it. He would rather cast himself as the "President of law and order".

Speaking at the White House today, Mr Trump described the violence at protests as "domestic acts of terror" and threatened to deploy the military to "quickly solve the problem".

At the same time, the President - who, remember, called for NFL players to be sacked for the high crime of kneeling during the national anthem - insisted he was "an ally of all peaceful protesters".

Literally as he spoke, police outside the building were firing tear gas and flash bangs at protesters standing peacefully with their hands in the air, so nearby Lafayette Park could be cleared for a presidential photo op.

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Compare Mr Trump's stance in this situation to his unreserved praise for the white anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan last month.

Those protesters were undermining the social distancing rules set forth by Mr Trump's own government. They screamed in police officers' faces, carried assault rifles into the state capitol building, demanded entry to the House of Representatives and posed with their weapons outside Governor Gretchen Whitmer's office.

"The Governor should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry," Mr Trump said, egging them on.

"See them, talk to them, make a deal."

The police also reacted differently. They blocked the Michigan protesters from accessing the House of Representatives, but otherwise took no action.

Contrast that with the tear gas and rubber bullets that have rained down on African-American protesters this past week, often without provocation.

Imagine what would happen if a group of black men stormed a state capitol building with assault rifles to demand a change in the law. Would Mr Trump call them "very good people" and urge the governor to make a deal with them? Would the police stand by, passive and motionless, watching it all unfold?

Of course not. Because America's great double standard doesn't just apply to African-Americans accused of committing crimes. It also applies when the community is merely trying to make itself heard.

 

 

Protesters posing for photos outside Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office.
Protesters posing for photos outside Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

"If somebody is telling you they don't feel like they're free, why wouldn't you listen to them?" one of Kaepernick's fellow NFL players, Arian Foster, asked during the national anthem debate.

There was not a hint of anger in that quote, and yet it sums up so much of the frustration on the streets of the United States right now.

Black Americans do suffer discrimination at the hands of police. That is a fact, not an opinion. No one, having watched the life drain out of George Floyd, can reasonably deny it.

But still, a huge chunk of America just does not want to listen.

Originally published as 'A nation enraged': America's worst failure


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