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Protesters confronting police, Minneapolis 28 May. Photo: Flickr/Lorie Shaull

Protesters confronting police, Minneapolis 28 May. Photo: Flickr/Lorie Shaull

The current unrest in Minneapolis is an explosive response to endemic police racism, writes Sean Ledwith

Mainstream media commentators in the US have been quick to denounce the wave of popular unrest that has erupted in the city of Minneapolis since the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer on May 24th. Establishment politicians have depicted the revolt as mindless spasms of violence that achieve nothing and only lead to wanton destruction.

However, the sober reality is that before the demonstrations, some of which developed into clashes with police, the four officers complicit in Floyd’s appalling death had only been suspended by the local police department. After thousands took to the streets, the authorities responded by sacking the officers. As the revolt intensified over three days, Officer Derek Chauvin was finally charged with third-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

Does anyone seriously believe that if thousands of citizens of Minneapolis had not taken to the streets the same sequence of events would have taken place? The protestors are now rightly demanding the other cops complicit in the de facto lynching of Floyd face charges.

Racist-in-chief

Donald Trump’s predictably awful response to these events underlines how little has changed for most black Americans since the Civil Rights movement. His recent tweet that When the looting starts, the shooting starts is taken verbatim from the words of the notorious racist police chief Walter Headly of Miami in 1967.

Responding to a wave of riots in the city, Headley went on to say he was targeting young hoodlums, from 15 to 21, who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign. ... We don't mind being accused of police brutality. Trump must be either shamefully ignorant or guilty of crass dog-whistling to repeat this well-known white supremacist trope.

The wave of riots that Headley and others tried to suppress actually played a key role in improving the condition of millions of African Americans in the following decades. Doug McAdam from Stanford University notes:

‘The evidence reviewed here provides consistent support for the view that the urban riots of the mid to late 1960s did help to stimulate a reactive pattern of favourable federal action across a wide range of policy areas of interest to blacks.

Grim reality

The killing of George Floyd is shocking by anyone’s standards but the grim truth is that it reflects the daily reality for thousands of African Americans, young black males in particular. One local resident commented:

‘This is everyday. Every day that these police officers have enforced their protocol has led up to this. This is not just a singular moment. This is a cataclysm. A combination of all the things that happened before.

Floyd was arrested for allegedly using counterfeit $20 bills to buy cigarettes. Footage shows him not resisting arrest but then being forced to the ground as Officer Chauvin presses his knee into Floyd’s neck. The victim’s plea I can’t breathe is a chilling echo of the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2015.

Horrifically, one such killing takes place every day in the US. For every case such as George Floyd that is caught on camera, hundreds more go by barely noticed by the US media every year.  It is also only one of a number of appalling incidents of police brutality that have scarred American society over recent years.

These are only some of the cases that sometimes hit the headlines for a while, before receding again from the consciousness of most media commentators:

  • Dontre Hamilton - shot 14 fourteen times in 2014 in a Milwaukee park for allegedly disturbing the peace in a Starbucks. Hamilton, a schizophrenic, was later found to have committed no disturbance
  • Michael Brown - shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri-triggering a similar uprising in 2014
  • Ezell Ford - another black male in the same year with mental health issues man, shot three times, once in the back
  • Tamir Rice - 12 year old boy, shot in Cleveland by officers in 2014 who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon
  • Akai Gurley - shot by New York police in 2014 as he ascended a dark stairwell returning home with his girlfriend
  • Breonna Taylor - shot 8 times in her own apartment in Louisville in May of this year. The police actually fired 20 shots in total.

Urban revolts

Apart from the rapid escalation of the legal case against Floyd’s killers this week, evidence that what tend to be called riots are actually a necessary form of protest at certain times can be identified from other events in modern US history. The great wave of rebellions in urban centres such as Watts and Detroit in the 1960s forced President Lyndon Johnson to create the Kerner Commission that forced many police departments to open up their ranks to African American officers and introduced civilian monitoring of police behaviour.

Heather Thompson from Michigan University notes:

‘People would say that this kind of level of upheaval in the streets and this kind of chaos in the streets is counterproductive. The fact of the matter is that it was after every major city in the urban north exploded in the 1960s that we get the first massive probe into what was going on — known as the Kerner Commission.

America’s biggest ever urban disorder, the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, also forced reforms out of a judicial system that otherwise was not interested. Triggered by the iconic scenes of Rodney King being beaten by white officers, the uprising led to a greater emphasis on community policing and respect for diversity in the city that saw its approval rating increase from 40% to nearly 80% over the space of about ten years.

Simarly, the 2015 riots in Baltimore that followed the killing of Freddie Gray in custody led to a Justice Department investigation that identified racism in the local police department as an accepted norm and a major contributor to Gray’s death. The report also forced Baltimore PD to pay out over $5 million to 100 other victims of police abuse-the vast majority of them African American victims.

Without the media attention on protestors in the street, it is unlikely such findings would have come to light or redress been awarded. One of the protestors in Baltimore observed: I walked about 101 miles in peace. But if you protest peacefully, they don’t give a shit.

From riot to revolution

The hypocrisy of mainstream condemnation of the rioters conveniently omits to mention the entire edifice of the American state is founded on riots against the British in the eighteenth century. The Boston massacre, the Boston Tea Party and Shay’s Rebellion were all spontaneous insurgencies that contributed to the overthrow of colonial rule and the birth of the modern US state. In their time, these uprisings were all no doubt condemned by the status quo as pure criminality and non-political.

The second of these is the explicit inspiration for many of the white supremacists whose anti-lockdown protests that are noticeably not confronted by police forces in the same manner as those angered by the death of George Floyd-even when they stormed the state capitol in Michigan!

If the demand for justice from the rebels of the American Revolution is understandable, even more so must similar demands from the black community in the US today. A 2015 estimate indicated that the slave trade that was the bedrock of US capitalism in the pre-Civil War era amounted to the looting of its victims of $14 trillion. Moralising condemnation of looters in Minneapolis and other cities today should perhaps be put in the context of this giant crime against humanity.

Ignoring the knee

One of the icons of the US political establishment, President John F Kennedy, shrewdly observed:  ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. African Americans have sought peaceful change for many decades but still suffer from disproportionate level of systematic inequality.

Nothing symbolises more pointedly the limitations of exclusively peaceful protest in the modern US than the moment in 2018 that Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President, walked out of a football stadium at the actions of Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers footballer initiated the ‘taking the knee’ protests against police violence-the most peaceful form of protest imaginable.

Trump, Pence and the other hypocrites of the US elite cannot be surprised if thousands of Americans, of all colours, decide that more militant street protest is the only way to force the system to pay attention.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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