America explodes - again
As Trump exploits middle class fears we should expect more tyranny, not less, writes Daniel Lazare
Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Less than 11 weeks after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, triggering the greatest economic collapse in capitalist history, America has exploded.
The trigger could have been almost anything - 100,000-plus virus-related deaths, 40 million unemployed, an “avalanche of evictions” bearing down on tenants unable to pay their rent,1 or a political system that in general gives new meaning to the word ‘dysfunctional’. Instead, it was the murder of an unarmed 46-year-old black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop.
A video showing Floyd begging for mercy, as police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for close to nine minutes - three of them after the victim had stopped breathing - immediately went viral, sparking the worst civil unrest in more than half a century. Besides Minneapolis, major protests erupted in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a number of smaller cities as well. Among the hardest hit was Washington, DC, where rioting across the street from the White House caused Donald Trump to take refuge in a special underground bunker.
When a president has to flee an angry mob, then surely some kind of Rubicon has been crossed. Nonetheless, protests like these in the United States have a certain ritualistic quality. Violence erupts in response to some new racial atrocity, the fires burn bright for two or three days or more - but then they die down, as the hunger for change dissipates and life returns to normal. If things are any different this time around, it is due to the stunning economic collapse, a yawning class chasm and a political atmosphere that grows more and more explosive, as the November elections approach.
That may be why the crowds are more multiracial - because young people across the board sense that the system as a whole is collapsing under the strain. “I think we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment,” the preacher-turned-academic, Cornel West, declared - a failure now evident on a growing number of fronts.2
Things are also different due to the establishment response - angry and militant on the right and even feebler than usual on the part of the liberal centre. Trump was unrestrained, threatening to unleash “the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons”, vowing to declare Antifa a “terrorist organisation” and assailing the “lamestream media” for “doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy”.
“Looting leads to shooting,” he tweeted, echoing the of words of a famous Miami police chief, who, in response to growing black unrest a half century earlier, declared: “I’ve let the word filter down that, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
On the liberal side, ‘No Drama Obama’ was his usual laid-back self, declaring that, while the protests “deserve our respect and support”, protestors should refrain from violence and concentrate instead on working for state and local change, because, “It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct.”3
As for Joe Biden, the all-but-official Democratic nominee, he posted an emotional five-minute video on YouTube calling on Americans to “stand up as a nation with the black community, with all minority communities, and come together as one America”:
The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone. I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it and to grapple with it now. With our complacency and our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence. Nothing about this will be easy or comfortable, but if we simply allow this wound to scab over once more without treating the underlying injury, we’ll never truly heal.4
Both Obama’s and Biden’s statements rang with weakness and ineffectuality. Obama’s, for instance, fairly begged a multitude of questions. To begin with the most obvious:
- Why should young people follow his advice, when he failed to make a dent in racism after eight years in office?
- If swarms of local officials had done nothing in the past to address police brutality, what makes him think that electing a slew of new ones will make the slightest difference?
- Doesn’t his emphasis on local reform amount to a tacit admission that national politics are broken beyond repair?
Indeed they are. The only time American government works is when Congress votes to invade some hapless third-world country or provide military aid for neo-Nazi militias in the eastern Ukraine. Otherwise, Washington is a gruesome mess - a centuries-old structure rife with corruption, double-dealing and obeisance to the rich. Obama was so busy trying to hold the ancient contraption together that he ended up kicking civil rights down the road - along with a host of other issues as well.
As for Biden, urging Americans to come together as one may cause liberal eyes to moisten. But there is an obvious problem with spreading the blame so widely: if everyone is complicit, then no-one is any guiltier than the rest and the real perpetrators go free.
That means the ex-vice president first and foremost. Compare last week’s greeting-card sentiments with a ferocious speech he delivered in November 1993 in the course of shepherding an omnibus anti-crime bill through Congress. He said:
We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter, or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents - it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter or not - whether or not they had no background that enabled them to … become socialised into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is, they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons. So I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.5
Racism, poverty, social isolation - all paled in comparison with the pressing need to put young black people away for as long as possible. The result was a 365-page monstrosity known as the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that created 60 new death-penalty offences and provided for financial incentives for states to impose longer sentences and construct more prison cells. The Biden crime bill did other things too: eliminate inmate educational programmes, establish ‘boot camps’ for young lawbreakers and mandate a ‘Three strikes and you’re out’ provision resulting in draconian penalties for repeat offenders. Two years later, a California court thus sentenced Leandro Andrade, a 37-year-old father of three with a string of petty offences on his record, to 50 years in prison without possibility of parole for the crime of stealing five children’s videotapes worth $153.6
In 1995 Biden said:
I like the idea they keep [them] in jail longer. I’m the guy that wrote the bill requiring federal judges to keep people in jail one hundred percent of the time for which they’re sentenced ... So I’m all for tougher enforcement.
Now that the crime bill has turned into a political liability, Biden insists that it had nothing to do with the fact that the US incarceration rate is six times or more that of France, Germany, Denmark or Sweden; that better than one adult in 40 is under the control of the criminal justice system by virtue of being in prison, on probation or on parole, or that black men are nearly six times likelier to wind up behind bars than their white equivalents.7
Biden is the man who last year assured a gathering of wealthy campaign contributors that “no-one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected.8 Now he is all in favour of change, and wants billionaires and the unemployed to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’, so it can finally take place. Obama is also in favour of change. Yet, in February, he knifed Bernie Sanders - the one Democratic candidate who so much as talked about significant structural reform - to allow a know-nothing advocate of the status quo to seize the nomination.
Everyone knows about the monstrous inequities that characterise the US system: a woefully lopsided Senate that gives the same weight to lily-white ‘rotten boroughs’ like Wyoming and Vermont as to multi-racial giants like California and New York; an electoral college that also favours rural, white interests; a House of Representatives marred by racial gerrymandering, etc. But, in addition to such imbalances at the top, policing opens a window onto how an increasingly oppressive system functions at a lower level.
The constitution preceded the invention of the first modern police force - Sir Robert Peel’s ‘bobbies’ - by more than 40 years. So, when police departments finally arose in America, there was no place for them at the federal level. As a result, they proliferated wildly below in an almost complete absence of government control. The pattern since then has grown more and more baroque. Where Britain has 50 or so separate police forces - all, of course, firmly under the control of the home office - and France has only three, the United States has 65 at the federal level and nearly 18,000 below: everything from big-city departments to county sheriffs, airport, transit, and hospital police, and even a special contingent of zoo police in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield. All are lethally armed, with even zoo cops sporting M-14s and M-16s, courtesy of Pentagon giveaway programmes, and all are autonomous.9 They are also poorly trained and accountable to no-one - not even the local officials, whom Barack Obama celebrates.
This is why Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey - by all accounts a sterling liberal - was unable to do anything about a police department renowned for brutality. It is why his chief of police, Medaria Arradondo, who once sued his own department for racism, was unable to make any inroads either.10 Rather than a government service, police are a movement-cum-political lobby. Just as guns have emerged among rural whites as a symbol of resistance to ‘tyranny’ – ie, big-city politicians beholden to blacks and other minorities - cops have taken on a similar function. They may be tyrannical, but the people they tyrannise are poor minorities, who would otherwise tyrannise rural whites. So that makes it OK.
The consequences are murderous. US police kill more people per day than England and Wales kill per year. Where Finnish police fired a grand total of six bullets in all of 2013, police in the small town of Pasco, Washington (population 60,000) pumped nearly three times as many into a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant named Antonio Zambrano-Montes in February 2015 after he allegedly threatened them with a rock.11
It is a case of pluralism in place of democracy. In effect, America has taken an 18th-century British system based on tyranny, tempered by riot (to paraphrase Lewis Namier), and transported it to the 21st. But, with Trump seizing on the disturbances to panic a middle class ‘silent majority’ into voting for the ultra-right, the upshot is likely to be more tyranny rather than less.
‘An “avalanche of evictions” could be bearing down on America’s renters’ The New York Times May 27: nytimes.com/2020/05/27/us/coronavirus-evictions-renters.html↩︎
B Obama, ‘How to make this moment the turning point for real change’ Medium.com June 1: medium.com/@BarackObama/how-to-make-this-moment-the-turning-point-for-real-change-9fa209806067.↩︎
‘Three strikes: cruel, unusual and unfair’ Los Angeles Times March 10 2003: latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-mar-10-oe-chem10-story.html.↩︎
‘Criminal justice facts’ The Sentencing Project: sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts.↩︎
‘Biden tells elite donors he doesn’t want to “demonize” the rich’ Bloomberg News June 18 2019: bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-19/biden-tells-elite-donors-he-doesn-t-want-to-demonize-the-rich.↩︎
‘Census of state and local law enforcement agencies, 2008’, US Department of Justice, July 2011: bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/csllea08.pdf. See also ‘Types of law enforcement agencies’, International Association of Chiefs of Police: discoverpolicing.org/explore-the-field/types-of-law-enforcement-agencies; ‘Pentagon arms zoos and universities with M16s’ Dispatches from the Underclass February 1 2013: raniakhalek.com/what-are-m-16s-combat-helicopters-doing-in-zoo-and-university-police-arsenals.↩︎
‘Minneapolis police, long accused of racism, face wrath of wounded city’ The New York Times May 27: nytimes.com/2020/05/27/us/minneapolis-police.html↩︎
‘Family of man shot by Washington police seeks more than $4 million in damages’, CNN, July 11 2015: cnn.com/2015/07/11/us/washington-police-shooting-damages/index.html.↩︎