In recent nights, long-standing tensions between America’s black community and America’s police force have finally erupted into a full blown conflict across the United States. The death of George Floyd, a 46 year old black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police last week, was the spark that ignited the flames.
Though the background to the incident with Floyd hasn’t been much discussed in the Irish media, it’s worth laying it out in full. Floyd was approached by cops after they received a call from a local food outlet, alleging that he had tried to pay for a meal with a forged $20 note. No evidence has been presented, nor is it likely it now can be presented, that Floyd knew the note was forged. It’s eminently possible he was an innocent prior victim of a forgery scheme.
In any case, police identified his car. In their subsequent statements, they say that the believed he was under the influence of alcohol and that they asked him to get out of the car. They claim he resisted (although bystanders and witnesses dispute this). They then dragged him from his car and restrained him on the ground for almost ten minutes, with one officer, a Derek Chauvin, kneeling and putting his full weight on Floyd’s neck.
Floyd was heard to say “I can’t breathe”, repeatedly, before he stopped moving. Officer Chauvin kept his weight on Floyd’s neck for two more minutes. Floyd was pronounced dead an hour and a half after the initial phone call to police about the forgery. Office Chauvin has been charged with murder in the third degree, and he and his three colleagues have all been fired from the police department, though only Chauvin has faced criminal charge.
It is, simply, impossible for a white Irish person to write about this story and to be able to express or capture the pain and suffering that many in America’s black community must feel. George Floyd is not the first black man to die in questionable circumstances at the hands of police. He’s not the first this year, and he’s probably not the first this month. Add to that the long record of American juries being suspiciously sceptical of cases against police officers, and you have a legitimate grievance, and one which has not been addressed properly by politicians of either party.
The last time something on this scale happened was in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown. Despite weeks of rioting and looting and protesting at the actions of police officer Darren Wilson, who had claimed that he feared for his safety when he shot Brown, Wilson was never charged with an offence.
At the time, President Obama urged a stop to the rioting and the looting, and promised a full investigation. But nobody was ever charged, or held to account.
That is the context, then, in which the burning cities across America should be seen. Those who defend the rioting and the looting have a simple argument, boiled down to the popular slogan in support of the riots – “no justice, no peace”. Martin Luther King, they point out, said that riots are the language of the unheard.
But retribution is not the same thing as justice.
It is true that not being a black American makes it impossible to fully appreciate the sense of anger, loss, and powerlessness that many must feel in the face of the injustice done to George Floyd. But it is equally true that one does not have to be a black American to see the injustice in the first place, or to see the injustice of that anger being taken out on innocent people of all races and creeds who have seen their homes, churches, and businesses burned in recent nights.
President Trump, frankly, has not helped the situation. Nor has the American media, which, much like the President they claim to despise, seems more devoted to whipping up tensions than it is to calming them:
The media's gaslighting is getting out of hand. pic.twitter.com/T2576nTXH7
— Tom Bevan (@TomBevanRCP) May 31, 2020
Trump has responded to the situation with his typical level of subtle and unifying rhetoric:
The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
The problem is that those two worldviews are almost intractably opposed. On the one hand, there are those with millions of readers who argue that the police are solely to blame for every violent incident across the United States in the past few nights. On the other, a President with millions of supporters who seems to believe that the anger on the streets has solely been whipped up by far-left activists, and has nothing to do with genuine moral outrage at what prosecutors fairly argue was the murder of a black man. What they both have in common is a complete unwillingness to accept that “their side” might have done anything wrong, or that humility might have any role to play in calming tensions and delivering actual justice.
The truth, of course, is that political rhetoric has failed to solve this problem for generations. Hope and Change delivered neither hope, nor change. Make America Great Again has, for the moment at least, conspicuously failed to deliver an era of recognisable American greatness.
The facts are startlingly simple, though: George Floyd was, by any measure, a victim of police brutality, like too many before him. And many Americans are presently the victims of mob justice, like too many before them. Those in Ireland cheering on the riots are cheering on a brutal and savage retribution, not justice.
No proper analysis of the plight of black communities in America can ignore the fact that one in twenty black men will die at the hands of another human being. 5% of all the deaths of black men in America in 2016, the final year of the Obama presidency, were by homicide. The vast majority of those deaths are at the hands of another black man, not the police.
But equally, America is a country where too many police officers feel justified in killing with impunity, and as a first response to a threat. They are supposed to serve, and protect, and in far too many cases they do the opposite.
But the first task is to restore order. Revolutions do not bring justice, they bring suffering and brutality, as too many Americans are finding out at the moment. There’s no negotiating with a mob, and there should be no praise for one, either. Being an anti-fascist, or being angry, however justified your anger might be, does not give you the right to behave like Hitler’s blackshirts.