Is anybody really surprised about what is happening in the States at present? I rather wondered for quite a while, why this had not happened earlier, because, Obama or not, nothing ever really changed regarding the structural racism in the USA (https://www.myview-wolfgangmebs.de/the-times-they-are-achanging/). But George Floyd seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Black Lives Matter was the last desperate wake-up call after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and the acquittal of his murderer. Then
John Crawford III
died at the hands of policemen – who were not even indicted in the first place, were aquitted or the case was closed. Dead Afro-Americans all over the United States, not only in the jurisdiction of the notoriously racist LAPD. And the list can be continued. For instance with the 12-year-old Tamir Henderson, whose toy gun cost him his life; or with unarmed Kajieme Powell, who was handcuffed even after officers, obviously in fear of their lives, had perforated his body with 10 bullets just 15 seconds after having left their vehicle. Plus all the other cases that remain unnoticed, because there are no witnesses (like the, compared to Europe, high number of American citizens dying in police custody), or because nobody videotaped the incident, like in the current case, or in the up to now probably most ‘famous’ one, the Rodney King case.
Now, it definitely is no news to anyone that there is a strong streak of racism in the American police force, which affects both Blacks and Hispanics. Although racial profiling, i.e., checking on, searching, interrogating and arresting people based on ethnic characteristics, is prohibited in the US, it is a daily reality to members of minorities. This rarely comes out into the open as clearly as in the case of Joe Arpaio, the self-annointed “toughest Sheriff” in the whole of the United States. He was well-known and feared for his brutality and for racial profiling which he openly and officially continued even after a court decision had told him to stop it. Surprisingly he was sentenced to six months in jail for ignoring this verdict, but then Donald Trump pardoned him because of the “admirable service to our nation” by this “American patriot” who “was convicted for doing his job” by “protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration”! Can you tell people of colour more bluntly that whites stand above the law, that some people are more equal than others? Especially those that regard coloured people as a threat?
Apart from racist motifs paranoid training is a serious problem. The German motto: “The police – your friend and helping hand” is a laugh in American policemen’s eyes. For them society is the enemy. The guidelines of training of American policemen inculcate them with the premise that first of all they have to protect themselves, and that at all times they might have to face a barbarian that is ready to do anything – and kill them.1 Now you might think that this presumption is justified in a country in which approximately 300 million guns are privately owned. But in contrast to what Fox News and the never-ending crime serials want to make you believe, being a policeman is not the most dangerous job in this country. Currently they just rank 14th, in some years somewhere in the 20ies, far behind farmers, roofers and loggers. Admittedly, higher than in Europe, but might this be connected with our gun laws? And by the way, here hardly anybody is shot by the police. Between 2002 and 2014 four (4!) people were killed in Norway by policemen, 16 were injured; in Germany 11 people were killed by police in 2018 (one of the highest numbers); with four times as many inhabitants almost 1,000 were killed by the police force in the USA!!! Maybe one problem is that it takes more training in America to become a barber than a policeman.2 Floyd’s brother Terrence called on Blacks to vote and to get an education. The latter is what American policemen are in desperate need of, instead of regularly being drilled in shooting at heads and hearts (not legs!) and being hammered in first too shoot, then to ask.
No, the core of the issue is not the actual threat, although I do not deny that it exists to some degree. But not to the one claimed by police, police officials and police educators. It is the whole attitude, it is the system that relies on violence and repression, on paramilitary training and equipment which was even reinforced by the Trump administration.3
More importantly, what has been African-Americans’ experience since Obama? That nothing has changed. That now as before they unproportionally often are the target of traffic checks. That now as before every district with a high proportion of Afro-American residents is considered a hot spot of crime. That they are sentenced to prison faster, longer, and more often than whites. That their child mortality is higher than that of whites, irrespective of social background. That their schools are badly funded. That they earn lower wages with the same qualifications. That due to an unjust social system unproportionally many Blacks die of Covid-19. That they are governed by an administration that has greater sympathies for White Power and the Ku Klux Klan that for their plight and precarious living conditions.
And at present this could not be more obvious. Instead of unequivocal statements on violence in uniforms and compassion with the Floyd family, instead of calming the waves, Trump irresponsibly fans the flames and threatens protesters with excessive violence. His advisors had to give their best to make him call the Floyd family. A call that was quickly ended without Trump listening to a single word Terrence Floyd might have to say. He probably read his condolescence from a script. Less empathy can hardly be imagined. And when a few justly enraged protesters knocked on his fence, this weakling fled into the White House bunker as if Osama bin Laden had risen from his grave.
Apart from the unfortunately traditional, ruthless aggressiveness of the ‘security’ force4 there also are a few rare, but hopefully growing examples of policemen who have had enough of the harm done by their colleagues, who kneel down in sympathy in front of protesters, who apologize to the black community and do not want to be identified with what has happened in Minneapolis. Like this hero of decency, who – what a symbolic gesture in times of confrontation – took off his helmet, talked calmly and understandingly to the protesters and even joined their march and shook hands with people whose colour frightens so many of his fellow policemen.5 Let’s see how long he will still have his job.
And what is in store for America? The present atmosphere, Trump’s demeanor, the brutal clearing of the street along which he wanted to walk to St. John’s Chapel in order to pose for his evangelical, brainwashed aficionados with the Bible in his hands (on one of the photos he looks as if he is wondering what on earth might be said in this book), his belligerent threats, the deployment of the National Guard, and the right-wing, nationalistic groups that infiltrate the marches – all of this does not bode well. Neither does the official report on the death of George Floyd which seems to want to play down the incident and maybe even pave the way for the exoneration of the culprit, Derek Chauvin (what a telling name!), by stating that Floyd did not die of asphyxiation but probably due to drug abuse and underlying medical conditions. Rightly mistrusting official investigations the Floyd family hired their own medical examiner who substantially disagrees regarding the crucial reasons for Floyd’s death. Whether he prevails against the official institutions which mostly side with indicted police officers, remains to be seen. And what happens to Derek Chauvin will determine if in the next weeks and months ghettoes – and perhaps not just them – will be burning again. With Trump being a crucial factor all signs are pointing to civil war. Let’s hope that governors are more sensible. Let’s hope that they, and the small number of remaining decent Republicans in Congress, will now finally resist Trump and save American democracy.
Needless to say that any form of violence and vandalism, that everything that leads to further escalation, that aggravates the current situation must be repudiated. Naturally I would rather not see looting, violent attacks and arson committed by a minority of the black community. But I can understand these people. Very well, indeed. Their pent up anger is the result not only of their own, present living conditions but of over 200 years of suppression, of injustice, of disregard. And of helplessness! Of helplessness steadily grown out of the realization that basically nothing has really changed for the majority of blacks, not just for a handful of sportsmen and entertainers and one or the other politician. It is born out of the feeling that not even eight years of black presidency have brought about an essential, fundamental change in a country that discriminates against them daily and hourly, and that on the contrary they are faced with yet another four years of backlash into even darker, olden times.
The United States are presently reaping the storm that not only Donald Trump has sowed.
1 For those interested, just compare (shooting) training guidelines in Europe and the USA; or just watch e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETf7NJOMS6Y
3 For a satirical, but all the more shocking depiction of the American police force and officials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUdHIatS36A