Opinionista David Hazinski 3 June 2020

Watching the US erupt and remembering the KKK

Images of the ongoing protests against racism in the US, confirms how little Americans have been able to improve in 30 years… language is important. President Trump is now using words like ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’ instead of ‘protesters’ or ‘demonstrators’.

Watching the protests outside the White House reminded me of a similar protest I covered as an NBC correspondent about 30 years ago. Same place, same issue: race, but with a different twist. The Ku Klux Klan had announced its intent to march on Washington. It said the march would rival the group’s famous 1925 procession when 30,000 Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. But unlike in 1925, only a scattering of Klansmen and women showed up, countered by thousands of anti-Klan counter-demonstrators. The tiny group of Klansmen wisely chose to abandon its plan at the last minute, but that left thousands of counter-demonstrators with no demonstration to counter, so they rioted.

It made no sense and it was ugly. Looting. Horse charges across the street from the White House. Tear gas. A canister went off inches from my producer’s head as he bent down to change a videotape. I thought he would never be able to catch his breath and would die. Fortunately, he recovered, as did the city of Washington and the US.

We went back to the subtle prejudices and inequity that has become part of our daily life. Seeing images of still another round of demonstrations about race now confirms how little we Americans have been able to improve in that time. The “normal” we went back to still treats Blacks differently than Whites. There are new laws that are supposed to administer justice more equitably and new training that was supposed to make police officers more fair, but clearly not enough really changed. More of us now recognise the inequity, but the institutional systems, the built-in racism is still there. We’ve managed to cover up this deeply rooted scar, not eliminate it.

There has always been politicised media but it’s always been on the fringes, hiding in a dark corner of the basement. Now, it’s bold and in your face, clamouring to be heard and seen on the radio and cable news, littering the internet, or hiding behind fake news sites. It is state media for the Trump administration. Much has been written about this propaganda machine.

The irony is, on the surface, a lot has changed. African-Americans make up a significant number of the police officers who are trying to control the demonstrators. They work for city and state leaders who now include blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Even the demonstrators themselves are different, with thousands of whites, Asians, and Latinos as well as blacks protesting against what is clearly an unfair, biased system. It continues to leave unarmed black people dead with no justice for their killers. With all those changes, we just can’t seem to find a way to get at that deep scar and make real improvements.

Perhaps it’s because other things have also changed in the US. We are now far more polarised than at any time in my memory. Many of us use social and mainstream media to find comfort for our beliefs, not unbiased reporting – communications pipes that did not exist two decades ago.

That’s one change that has moved us in the opposite direction. There is now a whole media industry that caters to right-wing issues. There has always been politicised media but it’s always been on the fringes, hiding in a dark corner of the basement. Now, it’s bold and in your face, clamouring to be heard and seen on the radio and cable news, littering the internet, or hiding behind fake news sites. It is state media for the Trump administration. Much has been written about this propaganda machine.

No one wants looting, of course. No one justifies it. The issue with mobs, by whatever name, is how to tell individuals apart. One thing I learned covering that and other riots decades ago is there is no one characteristic of the people involved. Some are protesters. Some are looters.

This is not to say that right-wing media is overtly racist or believes in inequity. We can, however, safely say it is anti-union, anti-socialist, and anti-abortion. It is pro guns, capitalism, law and order, and personal responsibility. Right-wing advocates will tell you there is nothing wrong with those things. There isn’t, unless you have to ignore someone else’s rights to achieve them. Unless you believe you’re “us” versus “them”. Their argument isn’t for more equality. They argue it would be better if everyone thought like “us”.

They never talk about racism, but it’s there. It is between the lines.

Those same advocates would say this analysis is unfair, that racism isn’t one-sided, it does not just belong to the right. Well, there are no left-wing media, advocacy groups, or politicians I know of arguing for using federal troops to stop demonstrations or for getting tough on protesters.

No one wants looting, of course. No one justifies it. The issue with mobs, by whatever name, is how to tell individuals apart. One thing I learned covering that and other riots decades ago is there is no one characteristic of the people involved. Some are protesters. Some are looters.

The language we use is important. President Trump is now using words like “looters” and “terrorists” instead of “protesters” or “demonstrators”. It’s very easy to acknowledge the right to peacefully protest. It’s very easy to shoot terrorists. All you have to do is change the word and image. It’s how propaganda works.

But labels don’t do anything to fix the core issue: institutional racism. Throughout all this, there has been no national leadership, no real plan for how to get at that scab: police killing unarmed blacks.

The issue with every social movement is leaders want to stop the protests and get back to normal, but as soon as they do, nothing changes. Every society, every movement, has faced the same dilemma. Usually, leaders step up and stop protests with a plan to address grievances and sort out what to do. Not this time. The US has no plan. Because it has no real leadership. DM

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