Trump, a far remove from Kennedy, fans the flames of US unrest
The civil uprising after the killing of George Floyd has been centuries in the making, but perhaps Trump’s divisive militance will be US racism’s coda
The protests, riots and unrest that have gripped the US over the past week following the police killing of George Floyd have once again exposed the US as a nation in societal turmoil. While the causes have been deeply entrenched over several decades, it is the recent actions and narrative of President Donald Trump that facilitated a rapid escalation and ensured his nation became a global flashpoint for civil unrest.
The continued anguish of African-Americans over their place and treatment in American society is well studied and is rooted in long-term, socio-economic factors. The events of the past week have served as a vivid reminder that while the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s yielded legal rights and equality under the law, the struggle for respect for those rights and equal economic opportunity continues.
The timing of this latest chapter of unrest, as America grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, has shocked observers across the world. Yet the timing is no coincidence. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected American-Americans, both in high mortality rates and in their propensity to suffer the effects of the ensuing economic downturn. This has created a fertile environment for public outrage over the killing of Floyd to manifest as mass protests and unrest.
This combination of long-term, socio-economic structures with the current environmental factors have created a perfect storm for civil unrest, which requires appropriate leadership to rectify historical injustices that continue to plague American race relations. Review of African-American civil rights history, while painful to reflect on, provides a substantial resource to learn from and steer the nation towards its better history.
Several commentators have compared the current unrest to the riots that followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Indeed, the past week has seen the largest number of public curfews since King’s assassination by white supremacist James Earl Ray.
[Trump’s] lack of condemnation or even basic acknowledgment of the excessive violence against some peaceful protesters entirely discredits any claim that he was genuinely concerned about the police killing of Floyd
The riots of 1968 were particularly painful for the civil rights movement given King’s persistent pursuit of non-violent methods of activism. Yet it was the experience of one American city, Indianapolis, the state capital of Indiana, that demonstrated how courageous and sensitive political leadership could mitigate what seemed like unavoidable violence.
On April 4 1968, senator Robert Kennedy, who was contending the 1968 Democrat presidential nomination, traveled to an African-American district in Indianapolis to campaign. He received news en route of King’s murder. Kennedy was subsequently warned by the Indianapolis chief of police that he would be unable to provide sufficient protection to Kennedy should the district riot. Despite no guarantee of personal safety, Kennedy insisted his visit go ahead.
Instead of his planned rousing campaign speech, the senator delivered a short impromptu address of just five minutes. Kennedy announced that King had been assassinated, which prompted cries and screams from the audience. But as Kennedy continued his speech the event’s atmosphere quickly transformed into one that resembled a peaceful vigil.
Appealing for racial reconciliation, Kennedy said: “What we need in the US is not division; what we need in the US is not hatred; what we need in the US is not violence or lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion towards one another; and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
Kennedy also appealed against reprisal attacks on white Americans through demonstrating genuine empathy and understanding of their communal pain. He commented, in what became his first public remarks on his brother president JF Kennedy’s assassination: “I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed ... he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the US, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”
Kennedy’s words saved Indianapolis from the fate of 60 other US cities, which experienced severe rioting. His remarks remain the greatest example in American history of how providing validation and understanding to a grieving community following a racist murder can channel its justified anger towards constructive activism and peace. As King said himself: “Riots are the language of the unheard.”
The excessive force employed by some police and National Guard officers is also the manifestation of four years of Trump condoning, and at times encouraging, violence against civilians
Fifty-two years later, the incumbent US president ignores and disrespects Kennedy’s legacy. Trump’s words and actions, consistent with his authoritarian instincts, have fanned flames on both sides of the divide.
His failure to provide early validation to the initial anger of Floyd’s killing, as well as his failure to publicly commit the federal government to taking the necessary action to prevent similar incidents in future, served only to reinforce the belief that politicians are not listening.
Even Trump’s press statement on Monday provided only a brief and token reference to Floyd’s killing. He reserved his greatest criticism not for the police officer who killed Floyd, not for law enforcement officers filmed attacking non-violent protesters, but for the minority of protesters who looted shops. His lack of condemnation or even basic acknowledgment of the excessive violence against some peaceful protesters entirely discredits any claim that he was genuinely concerned about the police killing of Floyd.
Trump’s use of military language to demand “overwhelming” force against rioters will have only encouraged the most authoritarian-inclined police and National Guard officers to respond with even greater violence. Yet the most disturbing aspect of Trump’s address was his seemingly open enjoyment of delivering what should have been a sombre speech, as he declared himself the “president of law and order”.
The excessive force employed by some police and National Guard officers is also the manifestation of four years of Trump condoning, and at times encouraging, violence against civilians and political opponents. As many have warned, these calls do not go without consequence.
Despite this, viral footage of law enforcement officers showing solidarity with protesters, such as Sheriff Chris Swanson, who, on Sunday, removed his riot gear and joined protesters in Flint, Michigan, reminds us that there are those on both sides of the divide that seek to serve the US’s highest ideals.
Ahead of November’s US presidential election we cannot say yet whether this chapter of unrest marks the end of Trump’s authoritarian and deliberately escalatory rule, or merely a depressing sign of a new norm. What is clear, however, is that it is ordinary Americans — both peaceful protesters and the enforcement officers who acted with restraint and even joined protesters — rather than the nation’s president, who defend America’s better history.
• Schwarz is a UK-based SA writer and political commentator.