Dani Garavelli: Cheerleader for race riots Donald Trump creates perfect smokescreen

To watch the footage of George Floyd dying at the hands of a white US police officer is to shudder at man’s capacity for brutality. For Derek Chauvin to have kept his knee on the man’s neck even after he had passed out, even as bystanders begged him to check his pulse, is an act of depravity.

President Trump faces questions on developments in Minneapolis in front of the media in Washington, DC. Picture:  Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty
President Trump faces questions on developments in Minneapolis in front of the media in Washington, DC. Picture: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty

Sadly, neither the barbarity, nor the racism that fuelled it, is new. Floyd is the latest in a long succession of African Americans to die at the hands of police officers. Some of their names are well-known: Michael Brown; Tyrone West, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray; many more have faded into obscurity. But the toll keeps mounting. As Chauvin was squeezing the breath from Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters were demanding justice over the killing of Breonna Taylor, shot dead by police in her house in Louisville in March.

Nor are the riots that have swept the US entirely unexpected. It is common for police killings to light a touchpaper in cities with pre-existing racial tensions. As in Los Angeles after the attack on Rodney King, Baltimore after the killings of West and Gray, so too in Minneapolis, where the police precinct was set alight and, Louisville, where demonstrators were shot. The trouble follows a familiar pattern: peaceful demonstrations turn violent, and – once the city is in turmoil – opportunists start looting.

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What is unprecedented is that the president should do so much to create the context for the killing and then seek to inflame the violence. When, 72 hours after Floyd’s death, Donald Trump called the protestors “thugs” and told Minnesota governor Tim Walz the military were with him all the way; when he tweeted, “when the looting begins, the shooting begins” – a phrase first used by Miami’s police chief Walter Headley during civil rights unrest in 1967 – he was playing to his volatile alt-right followers, in exactly the same way as when he defended the armed anti-lockdown supporters in the Michigan Capitol earlier in the month.

From the moment Trump announced his candidacy, he has been courting the white supremacist vote. He may have disowned David Duke, but if your slogan is Make America Great Again and you talk about walls and deporting Muslims, then you shouldn’t be surprised by a KKK endorsement. And if your response to the killing of a protester at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville is to suggest “there are fine folks on both sides” you legitimise that rally and justify the KKK’s faith in you.

Furthermore if you tell law enforcement officers not to be “too nice” to suspects, adding that it’s ok to allow them to bang their heads, then you share the responsibility when black suspects die as a result of excessive force.

As for Trump’s response to the rioting in Minneapolis, it makes you pine for the statesmanship of Barack Obama. Back in 2015, Obama responded to the Baltimore riots by expressing concern about the racial and societal forces that fed the unrest; and by calling for “transparency and accountability” in the investigation of Gray’s killing. What he didn’t do was to launch an unprovoked attack on the mayor or suggest looters should be fired at.

The demonstrations in Minneapolis and Louisville are rooted not only in anger over the killings themselves, but by the knowledge that convictions are unlikely. Six officers were eventually charged with murdering Gray, but all were acquitted. They are now suing state attorney Marylin Mosby for wrongful prosecution.

In the case of Floyd, there seems to be insufficient “transparency and accountability”. True, the four officers at the scene were fired almost immediately, but it took days for Chauvin to be arrested, as Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman suggested he didn’t want to replicate mistakes made in the Gray case by moving too quickly.

The clear difference between Gray and Floyd, however, is that there is footage showing Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lost consciousness. He has now been charged with third degree murder (but none of the other officers involved has been arrested).

The significance of recording – for both legal and campaign purposes – is something the #BlackLivesMatter movement understands only too well. Without visual proof, it is easy for police officers to insist a suspect was resisting arrest – and where there are competing testimonies and no hard evidence, whose story is going to be believed? Chauvin had accrued 17 complaints of excessive force, but it was only this last one – captured on film – which resulted in any action.

If footage from camera phones is crucial so too are the reporters covering the unfolding events. But, as we know, Trump sees journalists as the enemy. They have the annoying habit of scrutinising his statements and countering his lies. “You’re a terrible reporter,” he told NBC journalist Peter Alexander, who had the audacity to ask him what he’d say to people who were scared by coronavirus. Trump presents them as fair game; and so, on Friday, we were treated to the spectacle of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez being arrested live on air – an act which ought to be unthinkable in a country which holds the First Amendment sacred.

But Trump holds the First Amendment sacred only in so far as his own freedom of speech is concerned. After Twitter decided to put a fact-check label on two of his tweets last week, he signed an executive order aimed at removing some of the legal protections given to social media platforms.

Trump’s war on objective reality is a war on democracy; in her book, The Death Of Truth, Michiko Kakutani quotes Hannah Arendt. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true or false no longer exist,” she said.

A more contemporary term for this tactic is gaslighting. Only in a country which has been comprehensively gaslit could the document charging Chauvin include these words: “The combined effects of Mr Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.” It’s a masterclass in victim-blaming and posthumous smearing, and it does not augur well for the delivery of justice.

Furthermore, at the time of writing, the ensuing violence appears to be playing into Trump’s hands. Why did the protesters storm the headquarters of CNN – whose journalists had been defending the protests? Whatever the motive, it didn’t take long for Trump to retweet this comment: “In an ironic twist of fate, CNN HQ is being attacked by the very riots they promoted as noble & just. Oops.”

Some commentators have been referring to the fire in the police 
precinct as Trump’s Reichstag (in the sense that his “when the looting starts” tweet was effectively an instruction to override the rule of law). Even if this comparison is overstated, he is benefiting from the chaos. It’s giving him another reason to rail against the woke/far-left/liberal elites. And it has wiped the pandemic off the front pages. Who now is talking about America’s 100,000-strong Covid death toll?

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