Ronald G. Suny


Fires in the streets

Americans are divided in their politics, their beliefs, and their values. Moderate voices call for unity, harmony, and working together, all of which are praiseworthy goals. But reconciling the polarized opposites in American society is day by day becoming less possible.

Some seventy-five cities in the United States reported protests and demonstrations in the last few days. The trigger for this explosion of rage was a horrific video of a black man being murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, who pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, even after his victim had stopped breathing. The lethal combination of the American disease of racial injustice, social inequality, the Covid-19 epidemic, and Trump’s vicious tweets erupted in largely spontaneous outpourings of ordinary people with homemade signs registering their despair and desperation. The White House answered this widespread expression of pain with accusations that anarchists and radical Leftists were instigating the sporadic violence; that China, Russia, and Iran were behind the looting; and that the cause of all this discontent was not systemic racism and polarizing inequality but “a few bad apples,” that is, a few rogue cops.

Historians will someday call these mass gatherings, with protestors chanting “I can’t breathe” (Floyd’s dying words), and the police and National Guard confronting them with batons and tear gas, what they truly are – an uprising. This killing of an African-American (usually a young male) by the police has become so common that it led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Institutionalized racism in police forces, and popular racism in the society at large, has been encouraged and exacerbated by the rhetoric, actions, and policies of the Trump administration, but to be fair, the sociopath in the White House is not the cause of these social problems; he is just their most powerful enabler. The United States was founded as a slave society based on discourses of White Supremacy and the inferiority of the slaves forcibly brought from Africa. Even when slavery ended in 1865, the legal system kept Blacks in subordinate positions, segregating them in educational and public institutions and enforcing their inferiority through Jim Crow laws enforced by violence, frequently by vigilante justice. Thousands of innocent people were lynched, their bodies burned or left hanging from trees, as memorialized in the heartrending song “Bitter Fruit.” The United States, it can be said, was never really democratic until the 1960s when thanks to the civil rights movement it was made easier for African-Americans to vote freely and without obstacle. And even after that, the right to vote has been repeatedly imited by conservatives’ efforts at voter suppression.

When a government is oppressive and unresponsive, people take matters into their own hands. They come out into the streets, usually peaceful, as they have in these demonstrations and protests. But such mass manifestations can turn violent, often instigated by a few radicals or provocateurs, or by the police response. This happened in Minneapolis and other cities recently. The Trumpists in Washington are attempting to use what they call “riots” as a means to secure support for the president’s re-election in November. It is difficult to predict how ordinary Americans will feel in six months about Trump’s clumsy and costly handling of the coronavirus crisis (the USA has the highest number of deaths from the virus of any country in the world, over 104,000 as I am writing). Or what they will think about his incitement of racial tensions. In the past, as in the 1970s with President Richard Nixon, the Republican Party has posed as the party of law and order and garnered votes as they presented themselves as the people best able to deal with violence and crime. Trump and his cronies are masters at generating fear of others, foreigners, minorities, immigrants, the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and others. Fear is a powerful political emotion that cynical politicians are willing to use to hold on to power. And Trump’s example has been imitated by other authoritarian leaders around the world.

Americans are divided in their politics, their beliefs, and their values. Moderate voices call for unity, harmony, and working together, all of which are praiseworthy goals. But reconciling the polarized opposites in American society is day by day becoming less possible. How can we reconcile those who favor continuing divisive policies that increase inequality (like the massive tax cuts that benefit the rich and gut the welfare system) and those who search in vain for ways to decrease the social and economic inequalities in this country? How does one reconcile science and fact-based argument with obscurantist and deceptive denials of such things as climate change or the economic benefits of immigration and education? Is it possible to bring together progressive and tolerant acceptance of all citizens regardless of color, creed, or ethnicity with White Supremacy and xenophobia?

In the richest and most powerful country in the world, one which prides itself arrogantly and ever less convincingly that it is a beacon for the rest of the globe, the present government’s politics of social division that favors the wealthy and neglects the most vulnerable can only lead to resentment of those who have and disdain for those without. Ultimately democracy suffers from inequality and the failure to provide social justice. The powerful then must resort to coercion and force – men with guns and tanks in the cities. The powerless lose faith in the system and turn to the streets. Where that will lead, no one can predict.