In recent decades, it’s been customary to point out that whatever unrest there is in America, though it may look like breakdown, does not compare with that which occurred in the ’60s and ’70s with successive waves of uprising, or in the ’50s with the ending of (official) segregation in the south.
After all, urban uprisings consumed the US between 1965 and ’68. In 1954 Eisenhower sent the US Army into the south to stand toe-to-toe against state national guards, who were being used to prevent school desegregation. In the ’70s thousands of protest bombings occurred across the country.
Through the Bush, Iraq and first Black Lives Matter period we were told, rightly enough, that the great American ideology machine was wiping the memory of what had been, and the current bout did not compare.
With the current wave of protesting, uprising and riot in the US, that judgement may be coming to an end.
As I write, President Donald Trump is addressing the nation, berating US state governors for being weak and threatening to send the army into states to quell protest.
That is being called a coup, though it isn’t. The US Army has been deployed previously, in the Detroit and LA uprisings of the 1960s.
What’s new is Trump’s real time dispersal of peaceful protesters outside the White House as he speaks, using federal police, not DC locals. Even LBJ, Nixon and Reagan didn’t do that.
With the tear gas comes a whiff of the junta. Trump aspires to be the sort of strongman the US spent decades setting up South of ze border, and the protests appear to have a different air to the Jeffersonian upsurge of previous uprisings.
As the northern summer heats up, exhausted, masked people pushed beyond all tolerance arise in dilapidated, plundered, ruined cities.
America has taken a selfie using the Guatemala filter. The proximate cause was the police killing of black man George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the course of a minor matter arrest. The deeper logic to this sudden explosion was that the killing was the exact copy of other killings — asphyxiation-related death as with the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.
It thus enacted the phrase coined during Black Lives Matter protests after Garner’s killing: “I can’t breathe”.
With these protests, one suspects the phrase is taking on a wider meaning, joining to the COVID-19 economic shutdown, and the US’ manifestly inadequate response to the circumstantial poverty created.
The failure to govern in even the most vestigial interests of the people, the resulting pushback and the state response to that — the promise of dogs and shooting — reminds us that the most prescient US fiction of recent years, was a YA novel.
The Hunger Games are here.
What has been reasserted by these events is that, contrary to claims of the right, the state is still controlled by the right.
After all, despite the torching of hundreds of buildings, the takeover of whole neighbourhoods and looting by opportunistic elements, there hasn’t been any organised response by the right squads that have become more visible in recent years.
Given that they call themselves “militias” and portray themselves as citizen defenders of the republic, that should ostensibly be odd. But of course it isn’t; police forces, by and large, are the militias. The rest seem, overwhelmingly, to be cosplay types — taking AR-15s into Dunkin’ Donuts. (Actual vigilante groups appear to be emerging as things go into week two; especially in South Philadelphia — a pretty heavily racist place.)
That many of the most violent incidents appear to be that most apple-pie American of things, the police riot, is far from surprising either.
The police have a distinct role in the US — a sort of floating, fourth separation of power — precisely because the official American story is that restraint of state power is guaranteed by the constitution.
With that sorted, the endless expansion of police power and right hides in plain sight for many; it must be alright that the Potrezebie, Ohio, police department has a tank, because the Bill of Rights protects us from its misuse. This assumption of police right falls on black people more than, and as opposed to, white people (though the white poor don’t fare much better), but it’s shocking how general it is.
There are cops everywhere in the US; local, state, federal, airport, transit, marshals, sheriffs, private security and on and on. They can and do spread-eagle and cuff you at the slightest excuse. Even the decent ones are so jumpy in the land of 300 million guns that they’ll do it.
Over recent years, that sense of division has made white cops the frontline of white resentment in the US. Hence the easy turn on journalists in the current uprisings, with direct firing at them, causing heavy and near-lethal injuries (including the partial blinding of sometime-Australian resident journalist-writer Linda Tirado), wholly unprovoked. Even the incredible stupidity of Today reporters doesn’t justify it.
That this is all happening under Trump — or the ruling cabal under that brand — has turned what would otherwise be a periodic uprising into a crisis.
Trump reverses Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly, carry a big stick” approach to power. He fantasises out loud about violence, then leaves a vacuum of action that others fill.
If he is still under the sway of the occult right as I have described it, then the chaos is deliberate, the choice of immediate power over the health of the republic.
America, as Thomas Jefferson understood it and created it, has always had a touch of anarchy at its core. Jefferson believed it should bust out every half-century or so to renew the country’s spirit.
But that presumed that its rulers would act with that spirit, as FDR did, as LBJ did.
What happens if the spirit of America is used as a pretext to end the republic in its current form?
What will Donald Trump’s legacy be? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.