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3 June 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 6:32am

The fires keep burning

How the killing by police of George Floyd convulsed the United States. 

By Emily Tamkin

Before he was killed by police in Minneapolis on 25 May, George Floyd had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. The police were called and Floyd was pinned to the ground by one of the  arresting officers, who pressed his knee on to his neck. Floyd begged for his life;  he was struggling to breathe and said so. The officer refused to take his knee off the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, by which point Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who had recently been left jobless by the pandemic, was dead.

The scene was recorded on her phone by a teenage girl – 17-year-old Darnella Frazier – and as a result of the footage the four officers involved in Floyd’s death were sacked from the Minneapolis police department. Online city records show that the officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has had at least 17 complaints filed against him. Sixteen were closed without any disciplinary action being taken.

Protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis after news of Floyd’s killing spread. On 26 May, police fired tear gas at the crowds, a tactic that was notably absent from the predominantly white protests against stay-at-home orders that took place across the US weeks earlier. The next day CNN reported that “protests transitioned to rioting and looting”. The looting of a Minneapolis superstore received particular attention; protesters also set one of the city’s police stations on fire. On 29 May Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; the other three police officers present have not been charged. 

Meanwhile, the protests spread across the country. Some were peaceful; some were not. Police reacted with force, claiming that this was necessary to control the crowds. They used tear gas and pepper spray and fired rubber bullets. These are “non-lethal” weapons. But they are still weapons, turned against a population in pain.

Police brutality is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it is an all-American issue. Michael Brown Jr was shot by police in ­Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015. Barack Obama was the president at the time of both deaths. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis,  a city with a Democratic mayor. 

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Neither the police brutality nor the protests are happening because the US has a Republican president. That said, this  Republican president managed, in his own special way, to make matters worse: “These THUGS are dishonoring 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.” Donald Trump’s tweet quoted a phrase used by the Miami police chief  Walter Headley in 1967; Twitter determined that the message violated community rules on glorifying violence but did not remove it as a matter of public interest. 

When, on 30 and 31 May, protesters surrounded the White House, Trump tweeted that there had been officials with weapons and vicious dogs ready to defend him. (“There are no vicious dogs and ominous weapons,” the mayor of Washington, DC, tweeted. “There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…”) The president who vowed to make America great again then fired off a series of tweets railing against anarchists, the media and “looters”. He called for law and order and for the national guard to take control in parts of the country.

The debate on looting and violent protests is not new. It happened after the deaths of Brown Jr and Gray. But there is an alarming pattern to how the US confronts the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police. A black American is killed, and white America gawks at the violence of the protests that ensue. White America ignores the violence of the system to which the protesters are responding, and eventually it moves on.

We could condemn the looting of a store in Minneapolis, for example, or the destruction of a restaurant in downtown Washington, DC, if such acts took place without the backdrop of racial injustices past and present. But the reality is that George Floyd was killed by the police in a country where police cannot seem to stop killing black men. The problem that characterises the debate about race, inequality and violence in the US is the problem of false equivalence – the argument that protest and looting are somehow as bad as the lynching of a person. There is also the absurd argument that vandalising a superstore undermines the historic cause of the protesters. 

James Baldwin recognised this same obfuscation on the part of white America in 1968, when protests left towns and cities ablaze after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “The question I’m trying to raise,” he said in an interview with Esquire magazine, “is a very serious question.”

The mass media – television and all the major news agencies – endlessly use that word “looter”. On television you always see black hands reaching in,  you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us. And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting.  I think it’s obscene.

This is how white America responds to looting: with diversions. It is apparently unable to let more than a few days pass without arguing that the protests are not actually about black death, but about white life. 

White America claims that the protesters are from out of state – that they have travelled from somewhere else just to protest – when they aren’t. It says that the protests are organised when they are organic. Some – namely right-wing conspiracy theorists – blame the billionaire philanthropist George Soros for fuelling the protests; others blame Russia, as though the issue at stake is foreign influence and not domestic racism, inequality and violence.

That isn’t to say that there are no instigators or agitators or overzealous white boys on skateboards burning what they will for fun – viral videos have shown black protesters attempting to dissuade white would-be allies from confrontational actions. It is, rather, to affirm that the source of these protests is racism and police brutality, and that this violence against black Americans happens in a society that is unequal and inequitable in other ways – in its provision of healthcare, education and housing. 

Black and brown Americans have also been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far killed more than 100,000 in the US and left 39 million people filing for unemployment. There is no ignoring these facts. Yet white America will try. White America will make excuses, because white America still refuses to take responsibility.

The protests have been continuing across the country. In some cities, stay at home orders intended to combat the pandemic have been replaced with curfews to try to keep people from protesting after dark. 

On 31 May in Washington, DC, a curfew went into effect at 11pm. President Trump stayed in the White House, where external lights, usually lit, were turned off. Police and protesters clashed. And in the middle of a city aflame and a nation in mourning, the president who vowed to return the country to its earlier glory sat in the dark.

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This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe