Two weeks have passed since the murder of George Floyd, who was suffocated under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis. Protests still sweep cities across the US, despite the imposition of curfews.
Perhaps the most important of these cities is New York, home of the World Trade Centre. The local police department closed the streets to vehicles in downtown Manhattan, fearing for Wall Street, the home of the New York Stock Exchange and the hub of major banks and monopolistic companies.
This did not stop the protesters, despite being described as “violent” following looting, vandalism and the burning of cars by a minority, all of which distorted the image of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which were essentially peaceful, albeit angry, at the outset. The anger spread to Washington DC, where protesters toppled a statue of Edward Carmack, a former newspaperman and politician who once wrote an editorial endorsing the lynching of some black men 100 years or so ago. The image was reminiscent of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in 2003.
Defying the curfew, protesters reached the White House, where a security cordon was formed by the police and the National Guard. A metal fence was erected to keep them at bay as they called for Donald Trump to resign. The President himself was hidden in a secure underground bunker with his family, despite the heavily armed soldiers. It was all very staged, like a Hollywood movie.
Trump seemed to be angry that he was mocked for retreating into his bunker, so he decided on a little demonstration of his own. The crowds were forced back by the police and troops, and he stood outside a local church, Bible in hand and occasionally upside down as he posed for photographs for the benefit of his Christian Evangelical support base. It was theatrical, with a soundtrack of tear gas and rubber bullets being fired.
As the first US President to threaten state governors that he would use the army against protesters if they did not do their job “properly”, Trump cited the 1807 Insurrection Act. Nevertheless, the Secretary of Defence and the Chief of Staff both refused to deploy troops.
Similar demonstrations were seen in Central and South America, Canada and Australia. They also spread to Britain, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Black Lives Matter campaign has gained impetus and solidarity across the world as protesters stood not only against Floyd’s murder but also the institutionalised racism in so many countries which allows such racist crimes and discrimination to thrive. Floyd’s six-year-old daughter said it best: “Daddy changed the world.”
To understand the context of the protests, watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016) which was nominated for an Oscar. It explains the extent of the racism, intolerance, persecution and systematic violence against black Americans from the age of slavery to the present day. The film details the arbitrary arrests, the searches, the public humiliation, the raiding of homes at night and the need for more prison cells due to the ongoing dramatic rise in prisoner numbers year after year, of whom a disproportionate number are black Americans.
Indeed, America’s prisons are the modern equivalent of the old plantations where slaves were exploited. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, from which the film takes its name, was passed in 1865 and stipulates that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” DuVernay reminds us that freed slaves could be arrested under the pretext of committing a crime, no matter how small, and sentenced to “involuntary servitude” on the plantations in the American South.
The film also addresses the Civil Rights Act signed into law in 1964 by President Lyndon B Johnson, and how it was bypassed under President Richard M Nixon by what he called “the establishment of law and order” in the early seventies. There was an increase in arrests, detentions and searches of black Americans with an accompanying expansion in the prison population. Nixon’s policy affected the lives of black Americans in particular. With President Ronald Reagan in the White House (1981-1989), an “iron fist” approach produced more of the same, even though Reagan was a Democrat, unlike Nixon.
Importantly, 13th places the exploitation and detention of large numbers of black Americans in a political and economic context. The intention of the authorities is to use them as cheap labour in prison under the pretext of tackling violence and drugs. Crime statistics, however, show that violence by white Americans far exceeds that of black US citizens.
Republican George Bush Sr. used the spectre of black crime in his election campaign, while Democrat Bill Clinton understood that he could beat Bush with campaign promises to tackle crime and double the security and prison budget. He duly won two terms in the White House (1993-2001).
The documentary includes a Trump speech about “the good ole days” while showing his supporters attacking protesters and footage of racist attacks in the fifties and sixties against those demanding equal civil rights.
DuVernay’s film ends by drawing attention to the increase in the number of prisoners in America. In the seventies, there were 357,292 prisoners in US prisons; in the nineties there were 1,179,200; by 2016, the figure was 2.3 million. Although black Americans make up only six per cent of the US population, they make up 40 per cent of the prison population. Worldwide, the then President Barack Obama is heard saying, Americans represent just five per cent of the population, but 25 per cent of all prisoners held across the globe.
13th presents such shocking statistics in an unprecedented historical document against racism that reveals much of what is hidden from the world and, indeed, most of the American people. Four years ago, it also predicted that mobile phones would show Americans and the world the brutality of white police officers against black Americans; how they kill, wound and abuse them with the apparent blessing of the authorities. The Republican Presidential candidate standing at the time — Donald Trump — used racist language to ensure the enslavement of black Americans to promote his theme of law and order.
With this kind of background, will the angry protests in the US turn into a popular uprising? Is this the beginning of an “American Spring” against racism? I don’t think so, even though the US is not as strong as it was at the end of the Cold War.
This is not the first time that black Americans have taken to the streets to protest. Black civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King headed the “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs” in 1963, when an estimated 250,000 people took part and he made his historic “I have a dream…” speech. He dreamt of all Americans being able to live on the values that the US Constitution claims to uphold, not least that “all men are created equal”. King was assassinated in 1968, his dream still unrealised. Malcolm X was also assassinated in 1965 after calling for equal rights for all US citizens. His words still ring true: “We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Thomas L Friedman wrote in Minnesota’s Star Tribune last week that he had told a friend in November 2016 that, “With Donald Trump now elected president, I have more fear than I’ve ever had in my 63 years that we could… break our country, that we could become so irreparably divided that our national government will not function.” Now, at 66, he added, “We are edging toward a cultural civil war, only this time we are not lucky: Abraham Lincoln is not the president.” He has serious concerns about the future: “I am not at all certain we will be able to conduct a free and fair election in November or have a peaceful transition of presidential power in January.” Instead of Lincoln’s efforts to “establish ‘a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations’,” Trump’s “first instinct, when the country is being ripped apart, was to have peaceful protesters tear-gassed and shoved aside so that he could walk to a nearby church… He did not open that Bible to read a healing passage… He posed… to drive up his support among white evangelicals.”
This was a serious comment by one of journalism’s heavyweights. It should be taken equally seriously, as should the grievances of black Americans. The days ahead are crucial. Will we see the emergence of Dr King’s dream, or will the nightmare described by Malcolm X and feared by Friedman continue to plague America’s black citizens? Only time will tell.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.