In July 1999, the writer Joe Wood vanished while attending a conference of journalists of colour in Seattle. He was 34, a brilliant essayist, ferocious in his critiques of racism – not least as he experienced it in the ‘liberal’ publishing world. The last time we met, a week before his trip to Seattle, he was wearing a Malcolm X cap and carrying a well-worn copy of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions. On 8 July, after a breakfast with the Democratic presidential candidate and former basketball star Bill Bradley, Joe went to Mount Rainier to do some birdwatching. He never returned. The most likely explanation is that he fell down a ravine and lost consciousness (he had a heart condition), but Washington is a very white state, and some of his friends and family suspected racist foul play. At the time I doubted this; now I’m not so sure. One of his friends told a reporter that he hadn’t packed any provisions because he was only ‘going out for a couple hours … sort of like going to Central Park’.
I thought of Joe when I read about Christian Cooper, the black birdwatcher who crossed paths with a white woman and her dog in Central Park on the morning of 25 May, the same day George Floyd was killed when a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nine minutes. There are ‘white spaces’ in Central Park, and the Ramble, a wooded area popular with birdwatchers, is one of them. Cooper is 57 – almost exactly the age Joe would have been – a Harvard graduate, a member of the Audubon Society and a civil rights activist. He politely asked the woman to put her dog on a lead, as is required in the park. She refused and grew increasingly aggressive, eventually calling the police to report that ‘there’s an African American man … threatening me.’ As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in a 1932 essay for the Crisis: ‘Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime.’
The same could be said today, more than half a century after the end of legal segregation. In 1989 five black and Latino teenagers, described by the police as a pack of ‘wilding’ youths, were wrongfully convicted of the assault and rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. Donald Trump took out advertisements in four New York City newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York; although the men were later cleared of all charges, he continues to insist on their guilt. Amy Cooper may have known to use the polite expression ‘African American’, but she grasped intuitively that in the eyes of the police Christian Cooper would be guilty until proved innocent. In fact, as Ida B. Wells pointed out in 1895, black women ‘have always had far more reason to complain of white men in this respect than ever white women have had of Negroes’: one of the engines for maintaining the supply of slave labour was the rape of black women. (The fact that Christian and Amy Cooper have the same surname is a reminder that many white and black Americans have mixed ancestry.) But the idea of the violent, rapacious black male is deeply embedded in the American unconscious, and Cooper tried her best to tap into it, even if, this time, the strategy backfired: she lost her job at an investment firm, and her dog. But her performance provided an extraordinary demonstration of the way the myth of white female fragility is used against black men.
Later that day, in Minneapolis, there was a harrowing demonstration of black fragility, which is all too real and has been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘crime’ that cost George Floyd his life was (reportedly) buying a packet of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. (No wonder if he did: he was one of the forty million Americans who have lost their jobs since the pandemic began.) Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds as he complained he couldn’t breathe and called for his dead mother, had faced at least 17 previous misconduct complaints and taken part in three police shootings, one of them fatal. His three fellow officers also applied pressure to Floyd’s neck and protected Chauvin while he stared defiantly at a woman filming the incident. Police officers in Minneapolis are seven times as likely to use force against blacks as against whites; while the city’s population is only 20 per cent black, they represent 60 per cent of those subjected to physical force on the part of the police.
In his letter from Harlem in 1960, ‘Fifth Avenue, Uptown’, James Baldwin writes that the police officer moves through the inner city
like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes … He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up.
The killing of George Floyd falls into the gruesome pattern Baldwin described, but it’s also different; and the difference helps explain why the explosion has spread to three hundred cities and developed into a near insurrection. The Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged during the Obama presidency, succeeded in drawing attention to police violence against black people, but the protests against the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were mostly confined to the cities in which the deaths had occurred. Obama was seen as sympathetic to BLM’s concerns, even if he offered little more than memorable speeches. Floyd’s death not only follows the killings of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medic shot dead while asleep in bed in her home in Kentucky by police officers looking for drug dealers operating out of a different house, and Ahmaud Arbery, a jogger murdered by a group of men who claimed to be making a ‘citizen’s arrest’ (a term that harks back to slavery, when any white person could arrest any black person), but it took place under a president who has made white supremacy a pillar of his administration’s domestic and international outlook. White nationalism has found expression not merely in Trump’s defence of the Charlottesville white nationalists as ‘very fine’ people, or in the building of the wall against migrants from Mexico and Central America, but in his attack on ‘shithole countries’ and his decision to remove the US from the World Health Organisation in the middle of the pandemic – ‘white flight’ translated into foreign policy.
And then there’s the pandemic itself. Floyd’s murder came just as the US death toll exceeded a hundred thousand. An alarming number of those who have died have been people of colour, especially black people, many of whom suffer from pre-existing health conditions and don’t have access to adequate healthcare. Covid-19 has made clear how little black lives matter in the US, even as it has underscored the country’s dependence on black and brown ‘essential’ workers, who provide care, deliver packages and prepare food – all lines of work that have exposed them to the virus. The growing awareness that Covid-19 is a ‘black plague’, as the Princeton academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called it, has inspired a call to action among civil rights activists. But many whites, especially in red states, have responded with demands to end the shutdown. Trump cheered on the armed and unmasked white protesters in Michigan who seized the state capitol and advocated ‘liberation’ from the shelter-in-place order issued to limit the spread of the virus. When Georgia (whose governor, Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican, won the election from the Democrat Stacey Abrams through brazen voter suppression) reopened, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of a black woman in a white mask, serving coffee to a white man without a mask at a lunch counter, a reminder that Jim Crow hasn’t so much died as been reconfigured. The message of such scenes was that whites had no reason to concern themselves with a ‘black plague’, except to make sure the help was taking precautions.
The method of Floyd’s killing is no less significant. It almost doesn’t matter whether Chauvin intended to kill him; he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Trump did not kill Floyd, but he has fanned the politics of white supremacy and sanctioned the humiliation of black Americans. It is this assault, on Floyd’s dignity as well as his person, that has provoked the most serious challenge yet to Trump’s presidency.
Trump ran in part on his opposition to costly overseas engagements, but he’s no pacifist and has always looked at domestic politics as a theatre of combat. Opponents are to be bullied, and if they can’t be bullied, crushed. Nothing has infuriated him as much as challenges from people of colour: it was, after all, Obama’s mockery of him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011 that made him decide to run. Some on the left drew a strange consolation from Trump’s hostility to foreign wars, as if it meant he could be a tactical ally against American imperialism. They failed to see that he wanted to wage war at home: his furious inauguration speech with its talk of ‘American carnage’ was a declaration of war on urban racial liberalism, especially as represented by New York, the city that had rejected him.
Trump’s outlook was formed during the bitter racial conflicts of New York City in the Koch and Giuliani years, when blue-collar whites – joined by many ‘liberal’ members of the white middle class – embraced ‘tough’ policing measures such as stop and search, which were aimed almost entirely at black and Latino men. One of those men, a Haitian immigrant called Abner Louima, who in 1997 was sodomised with a stick in a Brooklyn police station, claimed that one of his torturers had said: ‘It’s Giuliani time.’ Although Louima later retracted this, ‘Giuliani time’ is what Trump wants to institute on a national scale with his calls for state governors and law enforcement officers to ‘dominate’ the protests and his denunciation of domestic ‘terrorists’. (Trump has promised to classify ‘antifa’, the network of antifascist groups, as a terrorist organisation, though US law grants him no such power.) He has styled himself as a war commander, talking tough to Democratic governors and mayors, deploying the National Guard, surrounding the Lincoln Memorial with soldiers and promising to use the military’s ‘unlimited power’ against American citizens if state governors fail to do the job. The protesters in Lafayette Park, outside the White House, were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets so that Trump could strut across to St John’s Church, flanked by an entirely white group of officials, and pose for a photograph holding a Bible.
Once again, Trump has shown a flair for evoking some of the most hideous periods in American history. ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ he wrote in one tweet, a phrase coined in 1967 by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, who also said: ‘We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.’ Trump claimed not to know the source of the quote, but his advisers did. And no one with even a rudimentary knowledge of American history could have failed to spot the implication of his threat to set ‘vicious dogs’ on the protesters outside the White House. Slave owners used Cuban bloodhounds to hunt down escaped slaves; Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, attacked civil rights protesters with snarling dogs. Trump also said that in his effort to restore ‘law and order’, he would protect not only property but ‘your Second Amendment rights’ – a message to reassure his white supporters that they need not hesitate to use armed ‘self-defence’, a practice legalised in recent years by ‘stand your ground’ laws (walking or driving in some white neighbourhoods has become an increasingly dangerous activity for black people). He has stoked divisions and released his followers from any inhibitions. ‘Maga [Make America Great Again] loves the black people,’ Trump says, and the ‘the’ tells you everything you need to know about his ‘love’.
In the early days of the protests, as Trump fulminated against antifa and the ‘spilling of innocent blood’, and police sirens and helicopters were an almost constant soundtrack in my Brooklyn neighbourhood, it was easy to slip into fatalism. New York’s profoundly disappointing mayor, Bill de Blasio, who often boasts about his biracial children (his daughter was arrested at a protest), offered shameful excuses when a police car rammed into a group of protesters. Then came the curfew. ‘I lived under a dictatorship for more than twenty years,’ a Syrian friend wrote to me, ‘and I know how it usually starts: link the media to outside actors, call journalists “fabricators” and publicly shame them so they get scared, cast doubt to create rumours and conspiracy theories.’ A journalist in Sacramento sent me a photograph of armoured personnel carriers in the street: he’d been followed home from a protest by National Guardsmen with rifles.
There’s no denying the authoritarian aspirations behind Trump’s response. But he is finding it increasingly hard to pass himself off as a latter-day Nixon, come to rescue America’s cities from chaos, as Nixon claimed he would do in 1968. For one thing, he’s the incumbent – the explosion occurred on his watch. As Jamelle Bouie has argued in the New York Times, a president who thrives on permanent disruption, let alone a leader whose gross mishandling of Covid-19 has brought about real ‘American carnage’, can hardly present himself as an agent of stability. (And Nixon’s ranting wasn’t broadcast on Twitter.) Trump has also conspicuously failed to steer the conversation away from police brutality to rioting and looting. The American press has been supplying the kind of context it has usually ignored when covering urban uprisings; the space for radical criticism, even with regard to attacks on private property, has noticeably expanded. Although some police departments have doubled down in their attacks on protesters – especially in Washington DC – others have shown solidarity by kneeling, a gesture popularised by the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racism and police brutality. The following year Trump said teams should fire players for kneeling: Kaepernick hasn’t been offered a new contract since his protests, but the NFL, oblivious to the irony, has issued a statement condemning the murders of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery.
Still more significant are the criticisms of Trump by the military establishment. ‘It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel – including members of the National Guard – forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St John’s Church,’ Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic, under the title ‘I cannot remain silent.’ Mullen criticised Trump’s ‘overly aggressive use of our military’ and said he was ‘deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes’. American cities, he added, ‘are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so’. He was echoed the next day by James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defence, who explicitly compared Trump’s divide-and-rule tactics to those of the Nazis. Mattis’s replacement, Mark Esper, who accompanied Trump on his walk to St John’s Church, also spoke out against deploying troops, contradicting his boss. In his January 2017 speech at CIA headquarters, Trump boasted that he and the military were ‘on the same wavelength’. As it turns out, they aren’t – at least not all of them. And if he succeeds in sending troops to the states, over the heads of governors and mayors, he will upset some of his strongest supporters, who, after all, are advocates of states’ rights.
Mullen’s article has reassured many that there are institutional obstacles to Trump’s naked assertion of force. The deep state, once an object of suspicion among liberal Americans, has turned into an object of longing under Trump; Mullen has won much praise – and no little gratitude – for his article (finally, the military is coming to the rescue!). But even if America’s cities don’t become ‘battle spaces’ in Trump’s war against the protesters, they will remain the scene of a lower-grade battle between increasingly militarised police forces and black people for whom equal protection under the law remains an illusion. That conflict has its origins in the American colonies. The first slave patrols, created in South Carolina in the early 18th century, tracked down runaway slaves, prevented slave revolts through the strategic use of terror and imposed labour discipline. Black slaves were described in legal terms as ‘unfree persons’ and for all the ‘progress’ that black people are told America has helped them to make since then, their freedom remains conditional and precarious – especially in the hands of the police. A twisted road leads from slavery to Jim Crow, and from Jim Crow to the age of mass incarceration. Those ensnared by today’s carceral state are citizens, but in the eyes of the state they remain marked by their blackness.
It is this older war over police brutality and mass incarceration that has brought protesters onto the streets across the country. At the demonstration I attended in Brooklyn on 1 June there was no mention of Trump. The demonstrators understand that he’s merely a symptom of an old American disease – and that victory for Joe Biden is hardly a cure. They chanted ‘no justice, no peace’ and the names of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, George Floyd and others. The slogans I saw included: ‘I can’t breathe’ (Eric Garner’s last words, and now Floyd’s); ‘I’m not Black, but I will fight for you’; ‘Prayer to God to stop the virus of racism in America’; ‘White silence equals death’; and, of course, ‘Black lives matter.’
The protesters are mostly young, multiracial, the generation that came of age in the aftermath of the financial crisis, found themselves saddled with student debt and have spent the last two and a half months stewing indoors, prisoners of a pandemic that has eviscerated the economy. The uprisings in Watts, Detroit and Newark in the 196os broke out when overall unemployment was at a historic low, in communities that felt they’d been denied their share of the American dream; today’s protesters don’t even believe in the dream. They’ve been ridiculed for their sense of entitlement by those who’ve enjoyed far more prosperity and, for all the mainstream criticism of identity politics, they understand far better than previous generations that racism is a system, rather than a matter of individual hatred, prejudice or ‘ignorance’; they know that it’s embedded in institutions, and that unless it’s rooted out, American democracy will remain an unequal and unsafe space for black and brown people. They’re the children of what Matthew Yglesias has called the ‘great awokening’, which seems to have had a stronger effect on young whites than their black counterparts. This ‘awokening’ has absorbed Baldwin’s lessons, though not his eloquence or redemptive humanism; its invocation of ‘intersectionality’ evokes the seminar rather than the church; its characterisation of white supporters as ‘allies’, rather than ‘comrades’ or, as Martin Luther King put it, ‘brothers and sisters’, gives the impression that distrust between black and white activists is not being fought against but institutionalised. On 1 June I saw a group of young people ritually renounce their white privilege in a ceremony led by a black activist. They seemed unaware that such gestures amount to little: it is oppressive conditions that produce racism, rather than the reverse. As Barbara Jeanne Fields has written, ‘People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed.’ The cleansing of white souls doesn’t mean much without radical change to America’s political and economic structures.
It is easy to mock such spectacles of white contrition, which appear naive to the point of narcissism (a ‘guilty eroticism’, in Baldwin’s words), or to regret the absence of a cohesive political ideology and programme. The protesters offer an inchoate mix of Marxism, anti-colonialism, Black Power rhetoric, intersectional feminism, radical self-care and (this is America, after all) appeals to Jesus and other prophets. But this is a time of action, and the protesters are working out their ideas, and their plans, on the streets and without charismatic leaders of the sort who shaped the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s (an initial strength that could, as in the Arab revolts, turn into a liability). They deserve credit for grasping something that eluded their elders, especially the liberal advocates of ‘humanitarian’ interventions in the Middle East: that America’s human rights agenda should begin at home, and that efforts to export democratic principles scarcely observed in our own cities amount to moral evasion. It is in large part thanks to their persistence that Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder (he was initially charged with third-degree murder), and that his three fellow officers were also finally charged, on 2 June. Their actions even compelled the ever reticent Barack Obama to respond, in a speech that was striking for its lack of eloquence – or urgency. His cheerful praise for the demonstrators and moderate calls for police reform felt obsolete, the voice of a well-meaning father whose children have long since grown up.
What we’re seeing isn’t so much a movement as a wave of protest. Its concerns are those of earlier black freedom struggles, although its structure and spontaneity are more reminiscent of the Occupy movement, or even the gilets jaunes, than the civil rights era. Some protesters call for prison reform and the demilitarisation of the police; others for the abolition of prisons and an end to police funding. Some want to transform the system, others to smash it. (Some people are there simply because they’re fed up with being indoors and there’s a party in the streets.) In contrast with the almost entirely black urban revolts of the late 1960s, they’re willing to take their protests to white neighbourhoods. Malcolm X said that the
long, hot summer of 1964 … has given an idea of what could happen, and that’s all, only an idea. For all those riots were kept contained within where the Negroes lived. You let any of these bitter, seething ghettos all over America receive the right igniting incident, and become really inflamed, and explode, and burst out of their boundaries into where whites live!
This is exactly what has happened.
The biggest reason for this shifting geography of protest, as the urban historian Thomas Sugrue points out, is that commercial spaces – in sharp contrast with schools – are America’s most successfully desegregated, even if the problem of ‘shopping while black’ persists. Numerous sites of class and racial privilege, from CNN’s corporate headquarters to Macy’s, have been targeted, sometimes violently. Some of the more serious incidents of looting and property destruction appear to have been fomented not by black people but by whites in strange groupuscules – themselves obscure reflections of the nihilistic universe that is Trumpworld. (As Jeremiah Ellison, a city councilman in Minneapolis, pointed out, no one in a black community would torch a barbershop.) Impassioned criticisms of these manifestations have come from black people defending their communities, notably the rapper Killer Mike, who gave a moving speech in Atlanta, and Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother. Some older progressives have recoiled from the violence of the demonstrations, partly out of fear that it will play into Trump’s hands in November, but it scarcely measures up to the violence committed by the police with their tasers, mace, tear gas and rubber bullets. In any case, the protesters have more pressing concerns than an election six months away. Militant but overwhelmingly non-violent, they have succeeded in achieving their first, but hardly their final, objective: Floyd’s killers have been charged and his name won’t be forgotten.
Floyd has rapidly achieved the status of an international martyr, a symbol of racial injustice like the Scottsboro Boys, wrongfully imprisoned for raping a white woman, or Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman. After 9/11, Le Monde declared: ‘Nous sommes tous américains.’ The headline is unimaginable today – who would want to be American now? – but America’s decline has only made Floyd’s killing reverberate more strongly. Holding posters of George Floyd, twenty thousand people marched against police brutality in Paris. Floyd’s image has been displayed in Iraq, Syria and Palestine – countries that have experienced first-hand the ruthlessness of American power. ‘We are the muthafuckin world,’ someone posted on Instagram. This remarkable demonstration of American soft power, which looked as if it had evaporated under Trump, belongs almost entirely to black America.
Trump couldn’t care less about the international outcry. He wants to divorce the rest of the world and retreat to his fantasy of an armed white America as conjured on Fox Television. But the United States now faces a serious challenge to its international legitimacy – as serious as the one it faced during the Jim Crow era. The demonstrators have put not just the police but the nation on trial. As much as structural change, they’re fighting for what Martin Luther King, in his 1967 Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, called a ‘revolution in values’. They may not look on each other as ‘lovers’, as Baldwin urged the ‘relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks’ to do in The Fire Next Time, but they are trying, in their own fashion, and in their own language, to ‘achieve our country and change the history of the world’. For the moment, they are all that stands between us and the ghosts of our ugly past.