Since George Floyd’s death widespread protest in the USA and beyond have not stopped.
George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer led to widespread protest in the United States and around the world. From Los Angeles to New York, via Toronto, London or Montreal, demonstrations were organized to denounce police violence against minorities, sometimes leading to scenes of rampage and violence.
After a succession of such incidents against the black American community, can we still think that the current situation can lead to a real change?
But pessimism seems perfectly justified given the repetition of similar cases in which an African-American man, more rarely a woman, is killed as a result of police violence. Measures, such as the generalization of on-board cameras in police cars, were indeed taken under the presidency of Barack Obama following the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, but they remain very insufficient, as we see with current events.
The answer to be given is complex and necessarily long, because it is not only a question of police violence, but also, behind it, of the persistence of very strong racial inequalities in the country. The presence of the Trump administration in power does not bode well for a quick and positive solution that is up to the challenge. However, there is an urgent need to act.
Have police brutality and inequality affecting African Americans receded during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency?
Neither racial inequality nor police violence against African-Americans has declined under the Obama presidency. His coming to power was accompanied by a strong hope for change, but the first black president always refused to be the president of the blacks and he stuck to his vision of colorblind with universal policies to reduce social inequalities.
The economic recovery, after the 2008 crisis, has benefited whites more than blacks and, at the end of the eight years of the Obama presidency, inequalities remain high both in terms of employment and those of housing, education, health, and of course, the relationship with the police and the justice system.
Obama has taken some steps, such as reducing some glaring inequalities in prison terms for drug cases, but the phenomenon of mass incarceration is still there. In addition, the Obama years worsened political and racial polarization in the country.
How can we explain the speed with which the demonstrations spread?
The death of George Floyd finds a very wide echo both in the black population – each and everyone feeling directly concerned in his flesh -, and in a large part of the population, who is exasperated by the repetition of this police violence.
We are witnessing an overflow of anger and frustration fueled by decades of racial injustice. In cases of similar urban violence in response to acts of police brutality that took place recently or in the 1960s, protests also spread very quickly. For example, during what was called the long and hot summer of 1967, 159 riots had broken out across the country. Today, social networks allow a rapid and massive dissemination of protests, but this is not a new phenomenon.
To what extent is Trump’s security response dictated by electoral considerations?
Donald Trump’s response calling on the governors to mobilize the national guard and announcing his will to put the anti-fa movement on the list of terrorist organizations is obviously political. It tries to respond to the expectation of public opinion that the violence is ended, while rejecting responsibility for the unrest on the far left, which can only please the alt-right that he woos.
It reminds him of his reaction at the time of the events in Charlottesville. In so doing, it once again stirs up hatred and strengthens the polarization of the nation, which it has maintained for several years. But the form of his reaction so far – sending tweets instead of the nation’s address one would expect from a president at the helm of such a country – is widely criticized and could serve its electoral interest.
Are the violence and police blunders so often suffered by African-Americans sometimes committed by federal agents (FBI, DEA, etc.) or are they exclusively attributable to local police forces?
The burrs are most often the result of local police forces which are, by definition, in daily contact with the population. It is these local police officers who intervene on a daily basis on the ground and whose members commit violence and blunders.
How did the 1992 riots in Los Angeles end? And have there been improvements in the treatment of minorities by the police since then?
The 1992 riots in Los Angeles, after the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, ended with military intervention and resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people, more than 2,300 injured, thousands of arrests and nearly $ 1 billion in property damage.
White House response
After these events, in the middle of the presidential election campaign that led Bill Clinton to the White House, the response chosen was to toughen up the police repression. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed with the support of the two main political parties, has tightened the security arsenal.
Since the 1980s, the American police force has been militarized, and we see the result of this type of hardening even today. The whole police culture needs to be changed in order for the police to regain the role that should be theirs as protectors, not warriors. This was one of the recommendations of the Obama task force set up in late 2014 to fundamentally reform relations between the police and the American public. These recommendations were buried with Trump’s arrival at the White House.
Can we consider that the death of George Floyd is only the last straw that broke the camel, reflecting a deep unease in American society, especially after the crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic?
The protests reveal the serious unease which affects the United States today: in addition to the serious social and racial inequalities which the Covid-19 crisis recalls and accentuates – let us not forget that African-Americans are affected two and a half times more than white people through the epidemic – we can see once again how divided this country is politically. Many Americans feel the urgency of reforming the country and finding a way to effectively tackle systemic racism and inequality, but they do not feel heard. Hence the current anger.
Did black community leaders, notably those linked to churches and civil rights organizations, take control of these demonstrations?
The influence of black community leaders is both real and limited, especially among younger people, who are most likely to take to the streets. We already had this same generational divide phenomenon in the 1960s during the Black Power movement.
Younger protesters find that moderate and reformist calls for calm calling from churches or civil rights groups will not solve the problem. To this is added today the fact that the protests unite very widely, beyond the black community.
What is the risk of the crisis getting worse? Is a civil war possible?
There is a great risk that the protests will aggravate the Covid-19 crisis in a country already very badly affected. However, this health crisis affects Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds mor severely, including a very large number of African-Americans.
As for the fear that events could lead to a civil war, the simple fact that this eventuality is raised and that it reflects both the militarization of the police and the extreme polarization of the country should cause us to reflect and, above all, to act urgently.