Black Lives Matter graphic. Image: Pexels/Cottonbro Black Lives Matter graphic. Image: Pexels/Cottonbro

As Trump and the far right try to capitalise on urban unrest, pro athletes take the movement to new heights, reports Kate O’Neil

While Jacob Blake lies handcuffed in a hospital bed, paralysed from the waist down, the policeman who shot him seven times at point-blank range on Sunday and has now been identified as Officer Rusten Sheskey, remains a free man. Why prosecutors have not yet arrested him and pressed charges five days on for what appears a self-evident case and why the Wisconsin Department of Justice seems so slow to release information about its investigation into it is unclear.

But the wait has certainly provided a convenient opportunity for Trump, the right-wing media and far right vigilantes to gain political traction. At Republican National Convention this week, both Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence were able to divert attention from their disastrous record on Covid-19, whip up fears of public disorder and pin the blame on Democratic politicians. In his Wednesday night speech, Pence did not once mention Jacob Blake, referring only to ‘the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country’ and to standing ovation called for ‘law and order on the streets.’ In his speech last night, Trump went so far as to say,

what we can never have in America – and must never allow – is MOB RULE. In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York.

Some reports suggest that this kind of rhetoric, combined with ongoing unrest, could sway a section of middling voters towards Trump in November in towns like Kenosha, where Trump won the election in 2016 by fewer than 250 votes. This has stirred some liberal pundits like CNN’s Don Lemon into a panic. ‘The rioting has to stop,’ he pleaded on Tuesday.  

It’s showing up in the polling. It’s showing up in focus groups. It is the only thing right now that is sticking.

Since then, Biden has condemned the burning and looting as ‘needless violence.’

But this misses some very critical points. Firstly, the vast majority of protesters have demonstrated peacefully and have not participated in any burning or looting of shops. Secondly, those who have done so, clearly have done so out of rage and a belief that justice will only be served if these destructive measures are taken. Sadly, it would only be ‘needless’ at this point if the officer were already in jail and charged appropriately. Finally, property destruction, as devastating and unfair as it may be to small business owners, is not the same as violence perpetrated on human beings.

The real violence in the unrest has been perpetrated not by anti-racist protesters but by the far right and the police and media that buoy them. It has come to light that Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two protesters on Tuesday and has now been charged with first-degree murder, was not a local resident but a member of a vigilante group that had come to Kenosha from Illinois to act as a kind of citizens’ patrol. He is a young police enthusiast and passionate supporter of Trump.

But while Kenosha police were quick to shoot down Jacob Blake—he was full of holes only three minutes after the officers arrived—and arrest peaceful protesters in unmarked vehicles yesterday, video footage revealed they were quite friendly with Kyle Rittenhouse and the other vigilantes, offering them water and even thanking them for coming. Whether deeper links exist between the KPD and far-right groups, as there are in police departments in other parts of the US, is not yet known. But there is a disturbing undertone to the way in which Sheriff David Beth has talked about Blacks in the past, and that is raising questions for activists.

A slew of figures in the right-wing media have not only justified but applauded the vigilante violence. One commentator on Fox News called it a ‘justified killing,’ and Tucker Carlson of Fox News has asked, “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” The celebrity author Ann Coulter has even indicated Rittenhouse would make a good president. There is no need for the Democrats to get defensive about violence when their accusers put such a low price on human life.

Thankfully this week the Black Lives Matter movement has not had to look to the Democrats for leadership. Instead, we found it in a new sector of the trade union movement: professional sports. On Wednesday, players from the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team refused to play in protest to Blake’s shooting.

These triggered refusals from teams across Major League Baseball, and players in the National Basketball Association completely shut down the final “playoff” tournament of the season for days. The movement has now touched most professional sports. Major League Soccer games were cancelled, the National Hockey League has postponed their Stanley Cup final tournament, many National Football League teams have postponed pre-season practices, and women athletes from tennis to the Women’s NBA have joined in as well.

Lebron James, the star player for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball who has led the stoppage of the NBA playoffs, spoke for many of his fellow players when he explained their actions.

We are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified… Why does it always have to get to a point when we see the guns firing?

The media has widely referred to the athlete protests as a boycott. But socialist sports commentator, David Zirin sees broader implications. In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, he said he believed the movement

is best described as a sports strike wave for social justice. It’s more than a boycott. It’s them withdrawing their labour and taking money out of the system and saying the games will not go on…I think it’s a challenge to the labour movement as a whole to say if this country is in fact non-functioning…then labour has to assert itself in this battle and stand up.

This is an important lesson for activists to draw, as it now looks like players will return to work this weekend. Activists must continue to push for justice for Jacob Blake and link this fight with anger felt in the broader public about Trump’s handling of the economy and pandemic in the streets and in the workplaces. Only this will sideline the far right’s attempts to benefit from this crisis.

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