The coronavirus pandemic has ripped the remaining tatters of cover off this country’s racial inequality as black Americans are dying in much higher numbers than white Americans. Racial inequality is not new, but racial brutality has become more and more obvious in the past several years as cell phones have recorded the deaths of black Americans at the hands of authorities or white Americans who took it upon themselves to police their black neighbors.
On Monday night, a Minneapolis police officer killed a handcuffed man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for ten minutes as other officers either held him down or looked away. It took only five minutes for Floyd, who had initially begged “Please, please. I can’t breathe,” to stop moving. A passerby captured the murder on video, and it has been widely shared on social media.
Last night, in Minneapolis, and then Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and Manhattan, protesters took to the streets. In Minnesota, the protests turned into riots and looting after police greeted the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. This morning, after two nights of violent protests, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would make a federal investigation into the killing a “top priority.” Tonight, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D) called in the state’s National Guard to keep the peace.
It didn’t work: as I write, it appears the Minneapolis precinct police department whose officers were involved in the murder is on fire. Police are reporting that 170 businesses in St. Paul have been damaged and dozens of fires have been set. Protests have spread to Phoenix, Arizona, and to Louisville, Kentucky, too, where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed in her home on March 13 by plainclothes police executing a warrant for a man who lived in a different part of Louisville and had already been arrested.
Historically, political rioting in America is an attempt to call attention to a perceived injustice. In its aftermath, ordinary citizens decide whether or not the rioting was justified. Usually, they support social justice movements and shut down reactionary mobs.
When associated with a political riot, looting takes on a political meaning as well. If a population feels that the law is oppressing them—as it did for African Americans during slavery times, for example—they often break the law deliberately to illustrate their opposition to it (as African American abolitionists did in the years before the Civil War). There are always bad eggs in any mob scene, but in this case the larger story of the looting, after an event where an officer of the law murdered an unresisting man in full view of an audience, demonstrating his sense of untouchability, falls into a pretty well established historical pattern.
Crucially, white Americans are finally paying attention to the violence against the black community. I suspect the reason for this attention is that the current leadership of the Republican Party has gone so far toward consolidating power in favor of an oligarchy that ordinary white Americans are identifying with marginalized people. This is precisely what happened in the 1850s, when even desperately racist white Americans pushed back against the elite slave owners taking control of the American government because they recognized that they, too, could be sacrificed if leaders thought they stood in the way of the economic system that enriched a few.
Another story from last night illustrates exactly this point, showing the lengths to which Republican leaders are willing to go to achieve their legislative goals. In Pennsylvania, a member of the state legislature tested positive for Covid-19. He told his Republican colleagues, who engaged in appropriate quarantining and distancing, but neither they nor the Republican House Speaker, Mike Turzai, told the Democrats, who learned much later that one of their colleagues had tested positive for coronavirus from a reporter.
People outside the legislature learned of the situation last night, when Democratic Representative Brian Sims posted a passionate video on Twitter, angrily calling out his Republican colleagues for putting lives at risk. Sims revealed that he had recently donated a kidney to a patient dying of kidney failure, putting him at particularly high risk of contracting the coronavirus. His outrage that his Republican colleagues would keep such vital information from him and his Democratic colleagues, in order to make sure their goal of reopening the state did not falter, resonated. The idea that Republicans who, theoretically, were supposed to be working with Democrats for the good of Pennsylvanians, would deliberately endanger the life of a man who had secretly donated a kidney seemed the epitome of partisanship gone toxic.
More stories today illustrated that the Republicans are determined to cement their ideology into law no matter what voters want. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told judges over 65 that they should consider retiring to make sure Trump could fill their seats. "This is an historic opportunity. We’ve put over 200 federal judges on the bench. I think 1 in 5 federal judges are Trump appointees. ... So if you’re a circuit judge in your mid-60s, late 60s, you can take senior status; now would be a good time to do that if you want to make sure the judiciary is right of center. This is a good time to do it," Graham added.
Yesterday, Senate Democrats released a report examining how Republican leaders, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have packed the courts. Funded by millions of dollars of “dark money” contributions, they are “rolling back the clock on civil rights, consumer protections, and the rights of ordinary Americans, reliably putting a thumb on the scale in favor of corporate and Republican political interests.” The report notes that the House has passed more than 350 bills this session, nearly 90% of which are bi-partisan and popular, but that McConnell has refused to take them up, focusing instead on judicial confirmations. This “judicial capture” is designed to rewrite federal law “to favor the rich and powerful.”
Their point had another illustration today, when we learned that Marc Short, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, owns between $500,000 and $1.5 million worth of stocks in companies linked to the administration’s pandemic response, in apparent disregard for the law.
But it appears that ordinary Americans have had enough. CNN reported today that GOP operatives are afraid that Trump will both lose the White House and tank the Republican Senate majority in 2020, something borne out by Graham’s call for older judges to retire and be replaced by partisan Republicans while they know they can be.
Knowing that the economic crisis is hurting the president’s chances of reelection, the White House announced today that it will not release the usual economic forecast this summer. Those projections would show the skyrocketing unemployment and ballooning deficit shortly before the election.
Symbolically, it also appears that the anti-maskers are losing ground to those advocating mask wearing. While Trump still refuses to wear one, McConnell, and FNC personality Sean Hannity, among others, have called for wearing masks to help contain the coronavirus.
And finally, Trump’s executive order today attempting to clamp down on social media so that it will not fact-check his inaccurate tweets about the election seem designed not to change policy—legal analysts say it will not withstand legal challenges—but to continue to push the idea that there is a grand conspiracy against him and his supporters. A Washington D.C. District Judge appointed by Trump threw out a lawsuit against Twitter and Facebook today, that claimed they were biased against right-wing users.
Trump’s executive order will shore up his supporters’ sense of grievance, and add more fuel to the argument he seems to be preparing: that any election he loses must be “rigged.”