Does he have a prayer? Donald Trump, George Floyd, and the challenge to America’s character

Does he have a prayer? Donald Trump, George Floyd, and the challenge to America’s character
Illustrative image | sources: Protesters rally during a huge demonstration with thousands of people near City Hall over the arrest in Minnesota of George Floyd, who later died in police custody, in Los Angeles, California, USA, 03 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ETIENNE LAURENT) / People, who gathered in protest of the death of George Floyd, peacefully march to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, USA, 03 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW) / A protester during a demonstration on the Glitterplein near the Erasmus Bridge, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 03 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/REMKO DE WAAL) / A Kenyan man (R) seats next to a graffiti in memory of the late US George Floyd painted on a perimeter wall by a group of Kenyan graffiti artists in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as their way to protest against the Police brutality in Kenya and USA in the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya, 04 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu)

The US has been through days of protests, demonstrations, rampages and destruction, evolving out of the police killing of George Floyd. Donald Trump attempted to show steely resolve with some photo ops, and the US military establishment sent a message that the country’s soldiers were not lightly used by a president eager to show his ‘kragdadigheid’.

More than a week has passed since George Floyd was choked to death (or whose body was so overstressed by his ordeal that his heart gave out) due to a Minneapolis policeman’s full body weight on his neck and throat. That was while three other police watched and did nothing to end Floyd’s agonies.

In the days that followed, there have been protests, riots, demonstrations, mounted police charges, rock throwing, and tear gas launching in dozens of cities. Then there have been Rambo-like official exhortations promising the kind of behaviour usually associated with reviled authoritarian regimes, unless the protests come to an end forthwith.

As a result, opprobrium towards the nation’s policing and its leadership (and the country more generally in some circles) has spread nationally, and then around the world on the part of foreign officials and citizens alike. There have also been the inevitable smirks about US racism and police brutality from China, Iran and Russia. Some reasonable, rational people are starting to question whether the US experiment is about to be wound up, with the notation stencilled on the packing crate: “Unsuccessful, return for a do-over”.

Just two weeks ago, a lifetime ago, seemingly all we had to contend with was Donald Trump’s vividly displayed ineptitude and embarrassing,  swaggering incompetence in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite one Trumpian promise, it has stubbornly refused to die out magically in April, and instead, it has already taken the lives of well over 106,000 victims and does not appear to be willing to go away any time soon. Of course, there had also been his comeuppance over supposed miracle drugs that turned out to be useless or, worse, more likely to induce fatal heart conditions than cure the virus. Then there has been all those scarf-teasing reveals about a viable vaccine against the virus, the so-called project “Warp Speed”, as if a magic cure was just around the corner for all those ready arms waiting to be inoculated.

‘I Can’t Breathe’ is written on the pavement during a demonstration in Los Angeles on June 3. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Of course, there has also been the president’s constant bloviating and fulminating about China, Barack Obama, Democrats more generally, the media, experts of almost any stripe, and each of the US’s various allies globally. Special fire has also been levied against inimical international bodies like the WHO.

However, increasingly, much of this bluster has become a low-level, but annoying tinnitus of the body politic. It helps poison public discourse, but it can increasingly be tuned out as utter babel.

As a result, many have simply stopped listening to the noise (unless one wanted to become addicted to antacids and hypertension medication), or taking any real cognisance of its impact. Instead, it is the annoying audio furniture of our time – that is unless you or your nation were the object lesson of his angry slings and arrows. To absorb, digest, and then rebel against every bizarre statement from this president would be enough to drive most people well past “lives of quiet desperation”. Best let the media specialists cataloguing his fibs, lies, and “liar, liar pants on fire” pork pies do their job. And so, for many, his tweets, speeches, rants, and raves have become like some terrible wallpaper in a rented house where the interior decorations can’t be changed, but must be learned to live with. At least until 3 November 2020, that is.

But George Floyd’s death changed things in the US. His death and the aftermath stemming from it pushed the Covid-19 pandemic right off the front pages of major newspapers, chased Covid-19 reporting from its endless coverage on news channels, and even drove it from the conversations of many globally. This one man’s death drove people out into the streets to march and protest, first in Minneapolis, but then in cities across the country, as it drew on reserves of anger about the treatment of African Americans more generally. These protests also gave opportunities for those with violence, property destruction, and looting in their hearts the space to carry this out, again in many cities across the nation. City and state police forces initially found it virtually impossible to contain the violence and several governors eventually called on National Guard units to supplement the overstretched police.

For those not fully familiar with the term “National Guard”, these are men and women who undergo regular military training just as active duty regulars do, but whose Guard units are under the control of the respective states’ governors. Following initial active duty training, these men and women usually go on yearly two-week summer training periods and weekly or monthly training throughout the rest of the year. 

In the current military table of organisation, National Guard units (like regular military reserve units) are supposed to be available to supplement regular active duty personnel and they can be called to active duty for specially designated service, sometimes as part of foreign assignments in places like Iraq. More routinely, they have been called to active duty to assist during major floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters or, less regularly, to serve as a back-up for state and local police forces coping with civil disorder. (For people the age of this writer, the National Guard, when an opening existed, became a legal way to avoid the very real possibility of being drafted into the regular active duty military and then being sent to Vietnam. Instead, the writer became an infantryman/chef. Really.)

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the man who had killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, and his three accomplices, were all dismissed with immediate effect from the police force and Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. As the demonstrations continued, the prosecution process was removed from the county level and the state’s attorney-general, Keith Ellison, took direct control of the case, and charges are now being placed against the other three former cops as well. Charges against Chauvin have now been raised to second degree murder.

Legal experts explain that first-degree murder charges against a policeman are traditionally very hard to make stick in courts, given the need to prove some serious premedication – preplanning – rather than something that could have happened right at the time of the crime. Regardless, these trials will be among the most closely watched trials in US history – by Americans as well as the rest of the globe – for any signs of leniency towards the former cops, let alone inept trial preparation by the authorities and any evidentiary problems.

The case will inevitably become as big as the OJ Simpson trial did, and maybe the Oscar Pistorius media extravaganza as well. The media will be filled with uncountable hours of commentary by lawyers, social scientists, rabble-rousers, apologists, religious quacks, professional haters, and pretty much anybody else who can find a broadcast or online outlet – any outlet. And millions of people will watch, eager to see if the whole thing becomes just another example of killer cops on the loose, or if such an event actually provokes serious reforms in police training and management, and eventually even in the rebuilding of police-community relations that have been virtually sundered for many in numerous places.

Back in Washington, DC, meanwhile, the president was increasingly agitated as the uproars continued across the country, but most especially as they took place in the streets just across from the White House on Pennsylvania Ave and in Lafayette Square – and beyond. The protesters kept trying to move closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, while police forces and Secret Service personnel kept pushing them back beyond a temporary perimeter fence and there were running confrontations, with bottles, bricks, pepper gas, tear gas, flashbangs, and the occasional charge of police mounted on horseback.

Illustrative image | sources: EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO / / /

This had apparently spooked the president and some of his advisers sufficiently that the president made not one but several “inspection trips” to the bunker below the White House basement. Who really inspects a bunker multiple times in one day, was a question left unexplained. By now, the president and his closest advisers such as, inevitably, his daughter and son-in-law and the attorney-general William Barr, among others, had fashioned on the idea of going across the street, across Lafayette Square, and on to the historic St John’s Church as a show of, well something or other. Barr reportedly gave the order to round ’em up and roust ’em out – the demonstrators, that is.

The police dutifully pushed the demonstrators out of the way and up the streets of Washington, sometimes violently, using those flash bangs and  tear gas and pepper spray – and bowling over a number of international media covering these events in the process. All of this sound and fury was in the service of clearing a path for the president so that he might saunter across the street and then stand on the steps of that historic church, hold somebody’s Bible aloft (upside down and backwards, it should be noted), scowl, refuse to answer any substantive questions, decline to enter the church to pray, and then walk back to the bunker… er… White House. Finis. And, inevitably, making the actual priests responsible for that historic church and the governing Anglican diocese hopping mad.

Later on, his newest (the fourth) press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, insisted with a straight face that Trump’s journey was just like the famous image of Winston Churchill, grim-faced, cigar in hand, surveying the rubble of the bombing of London’s East End during the Blitz. Oh puhleeze.

Gimme a break. What it was, of course, was some more of that red meat to his (diminishing) base, reassuring them that the president still had their cultural issues – support for churches and such – firmly in some part of his heart and in his official agenda.

The following day, he and his wife then went to the Roman Catholic Church’s St John Paul II Chapel at the National Shrine Cathedral. Although they went inside this time, there is no indication of any seeking of God’s guidance, or pretty much anything else except a second, similarly pugnacious photo op. There has been no public explanation of how the presidential communing with heaven went.

By now, the president and his men were fulminating darkly about the need to bring in some real, battle-hardened troops like the 82nd Airborne Division to dominate the battlespace (wait a minute, this is downtown Washington we’re talking about here), and to teach all those ingrates a thing or two or three. While some actual active duty forces were prepositioned outside downtown Washington itself, so far, none had been used.

And then a bit of lightning seems to have struck. As CNN reported it, on Wednesday, retired Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s previous defence secretary castigated the president, saying he was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us”, in a forceful rebuke of his former boss as nationwide protests have intensified over the death of George Floyd.

Mattis went on to say, “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

“We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s ‘better angels,’ and listen to them, as we work to unite.

“Only by adopting a new path – which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals – will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.” That kind of rebuke of a president is not what one usually hears from a tough as nails Marine, but this wasn’t all there was to hear.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents Bush and Obama, Admiral Mike Mullen, wrote in an opinion piece for The Atlantic, “Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated, and must never become so.”

Former president Barack Obama, meanwhile, told the nation that protest was a strong and vibrant tradition in the US and that the social justice goals of protesters were important, calling their protests following the death of George Floyd “powerful” and “transformative.” Moreover, a second former president, George W Bush, without naming the incumbent said, “it is time for America to examine our tragic failures.” He went on to note that he and his wife both “are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country. Yet we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures – and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.”

It those reactions were not enough, now breaking carefully with the president, the current secretary of defence, Mark Esper, after having been hornswoggled into taking that walk across Lafayette Square with the resolute president, went before a media conference to say that, no, invoking the 1807 Insurrection Law was not on the agenda for the military now, despite what might be coming from the mouths of others. This law has, since its passage, most frequently been used to enforce voting rights during the Reconstruction Era in the Deep South in the 1870s, to enforce desegregation in southern states in the 1950s, or to provide public order support in the wake of major hurricanes and amidst the rioting in Los Angeles in 1992 following Rodney King’s violent arrest.

Then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, issued his own memorandum to all military service chiefs, underscoring the obvious fact that the rights of assembly and speech are guaranteed. 

“We in uniform – all branches, all components, and all ranks – remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution.”

All of these public comments are apparently meant to reassure the country that the citizens’ First Amendment protections are sacrosanct and that the military understands the centrality of these rights in US political culture, society and history. But there also seems to have been one other audience – and that, of course, is Donald Trump, saying effectively to him that the military is not a plaything. It is not a toy to demonstrate your masculinity, and it is most definitely not a way to stifle your political opponents, even if the demonstrations are untidy, sometimes destructive, phenomena.

Of course, with the presidential election now less than five months away, virtually everything Donald Trump does, from calling himself “the law and order president” to threatening demonstrators with “vicious dogs and ominous weapons”, is meant to switch the conversation away from the still-raging pandemic, the collapsed economy, the rampant joblessness, and even, perhaps, the endlessly provocative and non-productive sparring with China. It has become crucial to put some air in his campaign balloon, now, given the uncomfortable fact that a growing number of polls are pointing to a growing gap between him and his challenger, the former vice-president, Joe Biden – and not to Trump’s benefit. 

And Biden, of course, in a speech that virtually oozed compassion and support for a new, more equal, fairer economic landscape that narrows the gap between black and white, is busy trying to paint himself as everything Donald Trump is not. DM


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