I’ve watched violent protests erupt in the United States most of my life.
The first one to make an indelible impact on me was in 1967, in Detroit. For five nights, our family sat around our television set, watching as a city that we knew well was set on fire. The sight of blazes near Tiger Stadium, where my 12-year-old self saw his first professional baseball game a couple of weeks earlier, was jarring.
Of course, there would be more violent protests the following year, in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Then there were the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. And the ones that broke out when an officer shot down Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and the ones after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody a year later, and many others in between.
The U.S. actually has a woeful, centuries-long record of violent clashes incited by racial hatred. The Cincinnati riots of 1829 against African-Americans saw thousands of black people flee for Canada. And just this past Monday, it was the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, one I did not know much about: In the 1920s, the city’s Greenwood district had been dubbed “Black Wall Street” because of the number of thriving black-owned businesses. White envy eventually erupted, sparking a horrible confrontation. The result was 300 dead, mostly African-Americans, with the vast number of their businesses burnt to the ground.
This history is mentioned as clashes unfold today across the U.S., sparked by the gruesome death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. That officer has been charged with murder. The other three involved in the arrest have been fired. But it hasn’t stopped the protests.
I might have viewed this as another tragic milestone in the troubled timeline of race relations in the U.S., one that will sadly be forgotten until the next incident rolls around. But there is a big difference this time: Donald Trump. There couldn’t be a scarier person inhabiting the White House at this very moment.
The U.S. President is the embodiment of white privilege. He is viewed by many as a racist, an opinion I share. At a moment in the country’s history that cries out for leadership, that yearns for someone to speak to a country that is hurting and frightened and doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring, he is incapable of such empathy. He is devoid of anything that even slightly resembles the common touch, one that could help a president relate to the feelings of anger, bitterness and sadness that are pervasive in the U.S. at the moment.
That is why this latest uprising feels different to me: the circumstances that surround it.
The pandemic has thrown tens of millions of Americans out of work, an outsize number of them African-American and young adult men. Of the more than 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, they have been disproportionately visible minorities. In other words, the U.S. was a tinderbox before Mr. Floyd was killed by that police officer on May 25.
And Mr. Trump has seen this moment as an opportunity to politicize the fallout from Mr. Floyd’s death, criticizing Democrat mayors and governors for not being tough enough on protesters. He’s sent tweets from his bunker in the White House, warning protesters that there were “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” prepared to greet anyone who dares breach the walls surrounding him.
Mr. Trump isn’t upset about what’s taking place. He sees a political opportunity here. The worse the protests get, the more violent the images, the better his “law and order” message has a chance of resonating with people. Richard Nixon made it to the White House in the riot-filled year of 1968 riding the same mantra.
Mr. Trump is a divider, not a healer. He specializes in whipping up his mostly-white Republican base. This is, after all, the same President who often used his campaign rallies to incite violence; the same President who tweeted out recently that when the “looting starts, the shooting starts”; the same President who called blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” for kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem before football games. And he’s doing it again now.
I have witnessed a lot of turmoil in the U.S. over the decades, but this feels different. With a long, hot summer still ahead, and an unstable bigot in charge, the country is entering times more perilous than I can remember.
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