In the US, black people are being systematically erased

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis was all too familiar. 

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“MAGA is ‘Make America Great Again’”, US President Donald Trump said by way of explanation of his political slogan on Saturday (30 May). “By the way, they love African-American people, they love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” 

To say that MAGA loves black people is to imply that black Americans are not included in Trump’s Make America Great Again. A surreal statement for the president to make, but an unintentionally revealing one, for indeed, black Americans are not included in the president’s plans to return the country to earlier, “greater”, whiter days.

The hours ahead of Trump’s comments were similarly surreal and all too real. On Friday evening, white police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. On Monday 25 May, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he had killed a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd. Floyd had allegedly tried to use a fake $20 bill. The grocery store that accused him of doing so called the police, and Chauvin held him to the ground, his knee on Floyd’s neck, for almost nine minutes while Floyd said “I can’t breathe” (as Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, did before his death in 2014) and “don’t kill me”. 

For days, people took to the streets of Minneapolis to protest; some peacefully, others not. The protests were, after all, a response to an act of violence and to many other deaths before Floyd’s; five people have died at the hands of the police in Minneapolis since 2018, and, as NPR put it, “almost all have been black”. On Thursday night, parts of Minneapolis were on fire. Finally, on Friday, Chauvin was charged, having already been fired from the police force along with the three other officers who were present. 

That evening, people protested across the US. They protested in Minneapolis, yes, but also in Louisville, Kentucky, where a 26-year-old woman named Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own home in March; in New York City, where an officer was filmed appearing to throw a woman to the ground; and in Atlanta, Georgia, where the CNN headquarters was damaged amid the protests.

Killer Mike, the 45-year-old rapper, delivered a speech at the Atlanta mayor’s press conference, saying, “I am duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation”. His speech went viral. Commentators and pundits, many of them white, hailed the speech, tweeting, “everyone should watch this” and “leadership”. 

Another televised moment with a somewhat different message went viral, too; Cornel West, the philosopher and activist, said on CNN, “I thank God that we have people in the streets. Can you imagine this kind of lynching taking place and people are indifferent? People don’t care? You know what’s sad about it though, brother? At the deepest level? It looks as if the system cannot reform itself”. This, too, was hailed by commentators and pundits and onlookers, many of them white, and albeit further on the left. “I can't believe they let Cornel West on TV, speaking uninterrupted for so long”, tweeted Chris Sturr, the co-editor of left-wing magazine Dollars and Sense

Protests happened in Washington, DC, too, surrounding the White House. Trump, in a bizarre series of tweets on Saturday morning, said he’d not been afraid, and appeared to threaten protesters with dogs and weapons. 

Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService. They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe. They let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them... Nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”

Trump added: On the bad side, the D.C. Mayor @MurielBowser, who is always looking for money & help, wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved. ‘Not their job.’ Nice!” 

Bowser, in turn, tweeted, “My police department will always protect DC and all who are in it whether I agree with them (such as those exercising their First Amendment Right) or those I don’t (namely, @realdonaldtrump)...While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism. There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…”

On Saturday, the conversation shifted from the mayor and president taunting one another on Twitter to the subject of who was responsible for the protests. Some noted that it was white would-be allies who had to be told by black protesters not to engage in violence, and who were more eager in confronting the police. Some worried about law officials instigating violence, or about people using the protests as an opportunity to loot. Some suggested that protests in cities were made up of people from outside the cities; Minnesota’s governor claimed 80 per cent of instigators were from out of state. US Attorney General Bill Barr said the violence appeared to be organised by extremist leftist groups. “George Soros” started trending on Twitter; surely, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist was behind all this. “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!”, Trump tweeted Saturday.

In fact, county jail records showed that, contrary to the Minnesota governor’s claim, 81 per cent of those arrested were from Minnesota. And while there were white people acting up and centring themselves, to say that the protests spreading across the country were organised by interlopers or radical leftists isn’t just untrue (or, in the case of Soros, anti-Semitic, playing on the trope of a Jewish puppeteer). It also takes the events of the past week and ensures they are no longer about the killing of George Floyd. It erases the black people protesting, and the pain that’s led them to the streets. It makes this week’s protests like Trump’s MAGA; somehow related to, and yet not of, black Americans. The erasure of black Americans from the story is all-American; it’s also wrong.

Meanwhile, in an improbable and yet somehow completely predictable twist, in the middle of all this, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched two astronauts into space in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is led by Elon Musk, whose net worth is estimated to be $37.2bn dollars. It’s the first time astronauts from the US have journeyed into space since 2011. 

We watched the launch from down below, with more than 100,000 Americans dead from a global pandemic, and 40 million more out of work, and thousands across the country protesting police brutality, looking at the liftoff as we might have stared at the flag in school while saying the pledge of allegiance. One nation, under Elon Musk’s rocket, entirely divisible, with liberty and justice for some.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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