Washington – The United States is experiencing its worst racial conflict in half a century, intensified by the trauma of the heartbreaking murder of African-American George Floyd by a police officer amid the coronavirus emergency and months after President Donald Trump faced impeachment.
Five months before general elections, this crisis also shows a president threatening to deploy the Army on the streets and who, according to his former Defense Secretary, retired General James Mattis, does not even intend to try to bring his people together.
Veterans of civil rights movements – like Democratic Congressman John Lewis (Georgia)- affirm that the social upheaval in the United States against racism and police brutality is broader, more intense and diverse than in the 1960s.
Mass protests have been taking place in major cities across the U.S. for almost two weeks.
However, the demonstrations are also reaching the suburbs and small towns, and have spread worldwide.
“These urban rebellions reflect the long history against white supremacy in the United States. The police as a state instrument of social control were, largely, created to control the Black population in the South. Their practice of policing and punishing minorities disproportionately has been a central factor in these rebellions since the 1960s,” said Puerto Rican sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva, a professor at Duke University.
George Floyd was killed May 25 on a corner in Minneapolis during a police intervention for attempting to buy cigarettes with an alleged $20 fake bill.
Like in other recent cases, the power of cell phone videos showed the horrific moment when police officer Derek Chauvin, while holding 46-year old Floyd down, pressed his left knee with all his weight, against him.
Three other policemen were standing next to him, two of them holding Floyd while Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while Floyd was calling for help and asking for his deceased mother until he was out of breath.
Chauvin’s indifference was captured in the videos.
“George Floyd calls out to his mother who gave him life because he feels that he is leaving this world,” considered Luis Gutiérrez, who as a congressman and city councilman in Chicago followed cases of racism and police brutality in the United States.
Over the last few decades, the power of video has made a difference in preventing to cover up police brutality cases.
This was the case with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, the death of Eric Gardner in New York after he was put in a chokehold, and the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2014, among others.
“Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times after the first shot, he fell to the ground, but the policeman continued to unload the gun. It wasn’t until 13 months later when the public could see the video, that the officer was prosecuted for murder. It took 13 months. They hid it because justice is not the same for everyone,” Gutiérrez said.
The Summer of 2020
The beginning of summer 2020 in the United States has hundreds of thousands of people on the streets every day demanding justice and a police and social reform.
It all happens amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected the health and pockets of African Americans and Hispanics, who have died and lost their jobs faster than their demographic profile. Yesterday, more than 109,000 people had died from the coronavirus.
The two other recent cases of African American killed by police or vigilantes that have fueled the protests are those of Breonna Taylor, who was shot dead in Louisville, Kentucky, by police officers who holding a warrant for an alleged drug ring, broke into her apartment without warning, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in South Georgia by citizens – one of them an ex-cop – who were serving as neighborhood vigilantes.
Some calls for protest may be linked to the “Black Live Matters” movement, said Bonilla Silva, but most seem spontaneous and without a leader.
“This rebellion comes at a unique time in American history when the nation is paralyzed. Schools and jobs are on hold and most people are at home maintaining social isolation. Therefore, those participating in this social movement have both the time and the space to continue fighting,” said Professor Bonilla Silva, author of the book “Racism without Racists,” in which he warns that public policies that fail to recognize the historical disadvantages that blacks have faced in American society prolong discrimination.
Bonilla Silva said that “if the state does not do what it should do, the social explosion we are experiencing will continue and this summer will be much longer and hotter than usual.”
Mass protests continued yesterday, even the largest of the past few days in the federal capital, as a large demonstration is expected for August 28, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, coinciding with the 57th anniversary of the historic “March on Washington” led by Martin Luther King.
Gutiérrez said the debate on the need for a police reform cannot ignore other fundamental problems, such as racial segregation persisting in large American cities, the disproportionate number of minorities in prisons, and economic inequality in the United States.
“There have been improvements, but, in my city of Chicago, blacks live in one neighborhood, whites live in another neighborhood, and Latinos live in another neighborhood… in the suburbs, there are no supermarkets, no banks. The economic structures of the United States have abandoned those communities,” said Gutiérrez, who 13 months ago and for the first time since he was a teenager, returned to live on the island.
Last week, when peaceful demonstrations ended in violence and looting in several cities, Trump threatened to use the Army, going over the governors’ will.
Earlier, Trump had said that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” recalling racist expressions from the 1960s.
Trump’s threat came amid a statement that preceded the break up of a peaceful demonstration outside the White House, followed by a photo-op of the President and members of his cabinet in front of St. John’s Church, which was damaged last Sunday.
Trump’s warning raised alarm among more than 50 former high-ranking military officials, including General Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and among Republican politicians, including Senators Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah).
Kelly and Mattis now consider Trump a threat to the U.S. Constitution.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former Chief of the Office of Citizenship under George W. Bush, said the U.S. is “living through an unusual, almost surreal,” and “increasingly polarized period.”
“The president was impeached and we don’t even think about that anymore,” he said, acknowledging that Trump’s behavior, whom he did not support in 2016, but whose re-election he supports because of his economic public policies, is “difficult.” “His way of dealing with the opposition and those who disagree with him is not adequate,” he said.
However, Aguilar also warned that although Floyd´s horrific murder led to widespread condemnation, many others see Trump’s rhetoric as a necessary response to the “destruction of property” during the riots that followed peaceful demonstrations last weekend.
In this sense, Aguilar said that the break up of protesters outside the White House on Monday could have triggered the incidents on Friday, May 29, which led the Secret Service to recommend placing Trump in a bunker.
Trump, according to mainstream U.S. media, decided to walk from the White House, across Lafayette Park, to St. John’s Church in an attempt to leave behind the image of a president hiding in his bunker.
“It would be wrong to think that this is going to hurt the President. In the long run, I think the average American is going to respond favorably,” Aguilar said.
In search of public policy
Following President Trump’s opposition at the beginning of his term to reform the police through lawsuits by the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, as occurred in Puerto Rico, congressional Democrats have begun to push for legislation to establish the parameters of police reform.
In that sense, the protests are also a call for a uniform public policy against police brutality and discrimination based on racial identifiers.
Democratic Senator Robert Menéndez (New Jersey) said this is a moment of transformation.
Along with Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Kamala Harris (California), Menéndez is promoting a bill that would regulate what should be considered excessive use of force, better police training, and a national registry that would prevent sanctioned officers from getting jobs in other states police positions.
Menendez also believes that efforts to fight economic inequality between African Americans and Latinos need to be resumed.
Juan Cartagena, president of Latino Justice, said changes may have to come at the local level, given Trump’s disinterest, and must include removing economic immunity from police officers who commit civil rights violations.
“There must be an impact on their pensions,” Cartagena said so that officers are aware that violating constitutional rights will also affect their pockets.