Because I want to get back to the purpose of my blog—discussing COVID-19 and the reponse to it—I’m not going to say a whole lot more about what is going on in the US right now in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. But I’ve had enough conversations sparked by my last two posts that I want to clarify a couple of things. It goes without saying that looting and violence are not the answer, and that protests quite frequently devolve into that sort of behavior. Certainly, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, has spoken eloquently and angrily about the riots in Atlanta.
There tend to be at least three different groups of people with different agendas in any protest that turns this ugly. The first group is comprised of peaceful protesters of injustice, generally the organizers of the protests. The most easily condemned group is the opportunists who use the protest as an excuse for violence or for stealing, etc. I don’t think this is generally a very large group, but it is a very visible group that does a lot of damage. The group that’s more difficult to deal with and also easier to understand is made up of people who have had enough. They don’t see peaceful action going anywhere. In this case, we’ve had two incidents of the slaughter of a black man in rapid succession, one by civilians hunting down a man for having the temerity to jog in their neighborhood and another by a policeman whose three fellow policemen stood by and allowed it to happen—and threatened bystanders who were trying to help. Is it any wonder this group is feeling angry and hopeless?
This angry group is also the group that’s the easiest to use for political motives. They are lumped together with the opportunists by law-and-order advocates who think, as our president does, that they are all a bunch of thugs. They are also the most easily goaded into violence. My son lives in Los Angeles. I saw a tweet of his that suggested he might be going to one of the Los Angeles protests. I texted him saying something like, “I sure hope you’re not going to that protest.” I felt the kind of fear that Mayor Bottoms talks about, a glimpse into what black mothers in America feel every time their young sons leave the house, although even at a protest, he is probably safer than the young black men with whom he is protesting. Knowing how much I tend to panic, he responded quickly that he was already back home, and told me his observations about what had gone on. The protest itself, he said, was peaceful, with people “taking knees,” until police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and “flash bangs,” which created chaos.
This whole cycle of frustration and violence has been going on for a long time—anyone who hasn’t seen it already should watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—so we can’t blame President Trump for causing the problem. But we can blame him for engaging in the kind of rhetoric that increases the anger on one side and fear and the justification for using force on the other. Mayor Bottoms is very legitimately angry at the protesters in Atlanta, but she doesn’t escalate things by suggesting that she’ll give the order to shoot if they don’t go home. Trump doesn’t even seem to be truly angry. He just sees an opportunity to use the situation for political gain. In that sense, he’s not all that different from the opportunists who are looting. Both are using and escalating an already terrible situation in order to benefit themselves. The difference is, of course, that he is our president. He is supposed to be leading the country and trying to unify it, not goading the country and trying to exploit the divide.