EDITORIAL: US violence highlights the need to get our own house in order
SA dare not ignore the death of Collins Khosa and the actions of law enforcement officers who abuse the rights of citizens
Talk about having absolutely the wrong person at the wrong time in history. That is where the US finds itself with its president, Donald Trump.
On the corporate scale it’s also interesting to observe the leaders of social media giants Facebook and Twitter, and the same might apply to one of them. The latter has been Trump’s favourite medium for spreading his message, until it said “enough”.
Twitter first acted on the president’s tendency to post misleading and false statements by introducing fact checks, a step CEO Jack Dorsey stood by even as it attracted criticism and accusations of left-wing bias.
It went a bit further last week, hiding some of Trump’s tweets about protests in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer on the grounds that it violated its rules about inciting violence. Apparently quoting a police officer from another era of America’s history of policing and racist violence, Trump stated that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
While Twitter “has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible”, it also attached a warning that obscures the message until whoever wants to view it has clicked on it.
And then you have Facebook, which has refused to do the same. CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the rare position for a corporate leader of being publicly assailed by his own staff, some of whom used Twitter to voice their disapproval. Credit to them for potentially risking their livelihoods to defend a principle. When the history of this particular episode is written it is likely to be kinder to them than to their boss.
In writing about current events many have looked back to history and the reaction of another president when the US was engulfed in protests similar in intensity and longevity. That was Lyndon B Johnson after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr half a century ago.
While Trump promotes more violence and division, Johnson’s approach was about reconciliation and putting oneself in the “other’s” position, making a point to appear in public with civil rights leaders. And even when he did send in the troops, as Trump is threatening, that was by some accounts done to limit bloodshed rather than to escalate the crisis.
In the context of the time it seems scarcely believable that these words, as quoted in the Washington Post, were uttered by a sitting president. They are scarily prescient when seen in the context of the events that have set off the current violence. Johnson is reported to have said to an aide: “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”
Trump couldn’t be more different and less suited to a time that requires calm and empathetic leadership. The current leader of the US is not looking much beyond November 2020 and the opportunity to exploit racial conflict for electoral gain.
As we observe events in the US, it would be remiss of us not to take a look closer to home and our own response, or lack thereof, when law enforcement officers take the law into their own hands and abuse the rights of citizens. The death of Collins Khosa after an encounter with soldiers and Johannesburg metro police on Good Friday was not the first and won’t be the last examples of such brutality.
Despite a military inquiry finding that he had died of “blunt force head injury”, accompanied by haemorrhaging in the brain, the army incredibly cleared itself of wrongdoing. It is clear that the response of some of our leaders will also fail the test when the history of this period is written.
As the world’s pre-eminent superpower, even if one in decline, it is natural that the violence in the US is making headlines across the world. If we don’t use this opportunity to reflect on how we can get our own house in order, history will judge all of us harshly.