How a Divided USA Faces a Convergence of Multiple Crises

This essay is a slightly revised version of the original English-language version of an op-ed translated into Slovak for Pravda, which posted it on June 2, 2020: https://spravy.pravda.sk/svet/clanok/553237-rozdelene-usa-celia-viacerym-krizam/

I appreciate the interest that Pravda, a newspaper in Slovakia, has in covering the escalating situation in Minneapolis and national responses to it, from the White House to the streets of many cities where protesters are assembling to rally against the brutal policing most recently displayed in the wrongful killing of George Floyd on Monday, May 25.  Floyd’s extra-judicial execution is not the first in Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul.  Just four years ago, Philando Castile was shot dead by a police officer who had stopped him for a traffic violation. This tragic incident along with the killing of George Floyd six days ago are part of a longstanding, cumulative pattern of racial profiling and lethal policing that the ethnically diverse Black community in the twin cities has suffered. Police brutality along with non-police, civilian use of violence against racially marked targets is a pervasive problem in U.S. society on a whole. It was the catalyst that in 2013 engendered the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter network and the more inclusive coalition represented by the Movement for Black Lives, which is the latest incarnation of sociopolitical mobilization against state-sanctioned violence against African descendants in this country.  

In the past months as Americans negotiate the spread and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which President Trump has called the “Chinese” plague, Asians and Asian Americans have been scapegoated and, as a consequence, they have become targets for violence from people they encounter on the streets. These xenophobic and racist behaviors have escalated in the past months. It appears that these mean-spirited behaviors have been emboldened by the white nationalist sentiments expressed in the White House in the president’s speeches and tweets.  

The country is dealing with widespread anxieties and uncertainties about personal and public health, the economic decline with its effects on job loss and loss of income, and heightened political struggles over the policies and best practices for mitigating the pandemic and ameliorating the suffering of American people.  Many Americans, for the first time ever, are now dependent on food banks, charity, and limited transfers of unemployment relief.  For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans are facing problems they have never had to deal with on this a scale. The kinds of problems being faced now have usually been externalized as problems other countries and other people face. We in the United States are accustomed to being at a safe distance from catastrophic problems, which we have typically consumed as “international news” coverage. Now we find ourselves being seriously affected by the same global pandemic that is inflicting pain in China, Italy, Brazil and other parts of the world. In fact, the United States has become the epicenter of the global health crisis, which it now leads in the gross numbers of COVID-19 deaths, well over 100,000 people.  The United States is ideologically split on whether the nation’s political leadership is saying and doing the right things for leading the country out of the current crisis, which is actually a convergence of multiple crises around health and health care, economic justice, and systemic, structural racism. The intersecting effects of these interrelated crises are being played out in graphic terms.  

President Trump’s tweet about the unrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota as well as in other cities around the country repeated the racially-charged statement, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”  He did not independently compose this phrase. Its origin is in a 1967 speech that Miami’s Police Chief Walter Headley made within the context of the urban unrest that had erupted during the Civil Rights era. A year later, the infamous segregationist George Wallace, the former governor of Georgia, reiterated the statement during his presidential primary campaign. He amplified his stance on the demands for equality and justice that were being mobilized around by different sectors, mainstream and more militant, of the movement for racial equality.  

The “looting and shooting” approach to social control and “law and order” is one that, as the late Black British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall and co-authors articulate, “polices the crisis,” which is larger than matters related to crime and criminality.  Crime and lawlessness are reflected in the behavior of only a minority of people in the demonstrations we are witnessing all over the country. The majority of protesters engage in legitimate and lawful direct action and non-violent civil disobedience. This is the case in Minneapolis and it was also probably the case in Miami, Florida back in 1967.  The deployment of the discourse on “looting and shooting,” which some social critics consider to be coded language in what it conveys or implies about race, tends not to make a distinction between, on one hand, looters and arsonists and, on the other hand, the protesters exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and public assembly. Right-wing white protesters who assembled to demand “freedom” from stay-at-home and mask-wearing orders included visibly armed demonstrators; yet the president described them in very different terms. In his eyes, they represent responsible citizens, whose rights should be respected.

In his looting and shooting tweet, Trump started out with a reference to “THUGS” whose looting warranted the deployment of lethal police violence against them. His tweet draws on an enduring regime of representation that stereotypes Black men and also women as lawless, ungovernable thugs who deserve the harshest punishment that the police, judiciary, and penal system can mete out. This idea is a rationalization for the mass incarceration that has become an integral part of statecraft here in the United States.  The United States leads the world in mass incarceration, which the international human rights community considers to be a major violation of human rights. The penal system is populated by a grossly disproportionate number of Black inmates, who have largely been convicted of non-violent crimes and, in some cases, for crimes they did not commit, for extended sentences. The racial biases in the criminal justice system in how it deals with whites and blacks even when they commit the same crimes are stark and the focus of intense political debate.    

None of the antiracist activists, advocates, and public intellectuals who have been interviewed or have presented their views on social media and on televised news have condoned the looting, arson, and violence of rioters, but most of them tend to emphasize three things.   First, most of the people on the streets are legitimate protesters operating within the constitutional rights of U.S. democracy, whose liberties and protections permit dissent.  Secondly,  the outrage and anger over the killing of George Floyd and the cumulative record of police and ordinary citizens’ vigilante violence against innocent, unarmed Black men and women–who are also among the most vulnerable to economic precarity, ecologically degraded living environments, and health disparities, including COVID-19 deaths, has reached a boiling point in its intensity and immensity. Third, there is some evidence suggesting that outside agitators may be the main culprits instigating the lawlessness that is at the center of public attention now.

Journalists have reported that among the protesters who have been arrested, quite a few are from outside the cities where the demonstrations have taken place.  Contrary to the claims of the President and William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, who have blamed ANTIFA (the network of left-wing, anti-fascist activists) for much of the violence,  Van Jones, a CNN political commentator, has spoken about “the toxic mix” of culprits who seem to be responsible for the turn to  mob violence. This mix includes white supremacist provocateurs (who aim to discredit and derail antiracist protest), militant anarchists, and lawless locals who take advantage of the cover of mass demonstrations to loot. Together these disparate opportunists are hijacking the protests, diverting public attention from the principal issues that need to be addressed through socially responsible dialogue and substantive policy reform. Anti-police and anti-property violence does not represent the sentiments of community activists and advocates, who, among other things, seek a public space to lament and mourn the wrongful loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky), and others whose lives have been sacrificed in other parts of the country.   

The language of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” is part of an anti-democratic, racist rhetoric that attempts to justify the suppression of dissent, both on the streets and in the media. Trump has also recently expressed his wish to shut down social media for its alleged bias against conservative points of view and its flagging of his “looting and shooting” tweet for “glorifying violence.” 

The Trump administration has established a problematic pattern of discrediting medical science, policy-relevant insights from critical social science as a significant source of public intellectualism, and liberal journalism as “fake” and “false.”  The current political climate in the United States is marked by volatile ideological polarization, an obfuscation of what can be validated as truth, and the criminalization of legitimate dissent and protest. These factors are obstacles to the problem solving and healing that are so urgently needed at this moment of convergent crises.

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