On Monday, Donald Trump, the President who has dragged the Republican Party further away from its Lincolnian heritage than any of his predecessors, also walked across from the White House to the church. He came with his trusted allies, including his daughter, the defence secretary, and a bemedaled general.
To clear the path for this entourage, Trump’s attorney-general, William Barr, had instructed the security forces, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful demonstrators protesting the atrocity in Minneapolis, where a white police officer had murdered a black man.
At the patio of the episcopal church, Rev. Gini Gerbasi had been volunteering, offering comfort as protests raged. She wrote in an impassioned post on social media: “We were literally DRIVEN OFF…. (from) a place of peace and respite and medical care … SO THAT MAN (sic) COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH!!!"
When Trump showed the Bible to the media, he held the book upside down. When a reporter asked him if the Bible in his hands was his personal copy, Trump replied, “It is a Bible." Trump is not known to be an avid church-goer. He does not need to be, but he relies on a core base of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, and to appease them, he is willing to do anything, even walk across from the White House, with the security forces clearing the way for him, and hold the Bible—even if it is upside down, inverting a faith, subverting a constitution.
In sharp contrast, speaking out for the real American values was a first-generation immigrant, an Indian-American businessman in Washington called Rahul Dubey. He opened his house and sheltered some 70 fleeing protesters and journalists, shielding them from the police who were using pepper spray and tear gas against protesters.
The police surrounded his house, but he did not let them in. The police tried to trick the demonstrators into leaving from the back door, but Dubey did not relent. The police even “hijacked the pizza delivery guy," Dubey told Esquire magazine, to prevent food from reaching his house. “I had never seen anything this evil in my life," he said, referring to the chaos outside. “I have a 13-year-old son (who was away) … I wish he was (there) because he could see these amazing souls that are in my house are safe and they had every right to be doing what they were doing and the police didn’t have a right to just beat them."
America is burning, nearly 50 years after the nation was divided over the Vietnam War. The trigger was the police officer Derek Chauvin choking and killing 46-year-old George Floyd, who was accused of using a forged $20-bill to buy cigarettes. Chauvin placed his knee on his neck even as Floyd gasped, saying “I can’t breathe," as the people standing by and filming the killing told the officer to let him go. Floyd then said “they gonna kill me," but Chauvin did not relent.
Chauvin is white, Floyd was black.
Trump’s main priority is winning the election in November. He has called the protesters thugs and threatened more force. His presumptive rival, vice-president Joe Biden, has looked presidential, condemning Trump’s intemperate tweets and spoken calmly. He called Floyd’s death “elemental, it did more than deny one more black man in America his human rights. It deprived him of his humanity, it deprived him of his life. We are a country with an open wound," and Americans must speak out against racism and “not fail victims with what Martin Luther King called ‘the appalling silence of the good people’."
So low has Trump’s stock fallen, that authoritarian leaders such as Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Floyd’s killing reveals “the true face" of America, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blamed “racist and fascist" approach that led to Floyd’s killing. China’s People’s Daily published a cartoon showing the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, partly undraped, beneath which is the arm of a police officer, while the city beneath is wracked by demons.
The choice of the Statue of Liberty was ironic; for it was this week, 31 years ago, that Chinese troops destroyed the makeshift goddess of liberty Chinese students had erected at Tiananmen Square, and the troops killed thousands in the crackdown to demolish the pro-democracy movement in China.
Under Trump, the US is arguably unwilling but also incapable of providing moral leadership for freedom around the world, although critics of US foreign policy argue that the US has often supported dictators and undermined democracies abroad throughout its history.
Floyd’s killing sharpens the domestic divide. The voters are divided between red (Republican states) and blue (Democratic states), between cities and countryside, between outwardly-oriented coastal states and inward-looking states in the south and in between, and between whites and blacks—and increasingly, all others. In a conversation in Interview magazine, novelist Salman Rushdie said, “This November, America needs to take out its garbage."
The Minneappolis story is outrageous enough on its own, but data from across the country shows a similar dismaying pattern, where blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched, suspected, and subjected to violence. Floyd’s killing was reminiscent of the July 2014 killing of Eric Garner, another black man, after a New York police officer held him in a chokehold, and ignored Garner’s plea that he could not breathe.
According to the Mapping Police Violence project, nearly a quarter of those killed by police violence are blacks, although they form 13% of the population. They are three times more likely than whites in getting killed by the police. To that, add impunity: in almost all—99%, to be precise—of police killings between 2013 and 2019, the officers have not been charged with crime.
To that, add vigilante violence, reminiscent of the lynchings that were once prevalent in the US. A famous case was of Emmett Till, a teenager from Chicago who was visiting his family in Mississippi in 1955. He was accused of flirting with a white woman at a grocery store, was killed, and his murderers were acquitted.
This February, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who are white, shot and killed a 25-year-old black man called Ahmaud Arbery, because they suspected him of committing a crime. (They have been arrested). In 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old child, was killed by George Zimmerman in Florida.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to such incidents of cruelty. While Americans of different persuasions, faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds have embraced the movement, it has also polarized society, with right wing groups condemning the protesters saying all lives matter, and not only black lives.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, who played American Football for San Francisco 49ers protested by kneeling when the national anthem was played. Trump responded by calling on the sport’s administrators to fire athletes who protest. When some stores were looted after protests erupted across America following Floyd’s killing, Trump said, “when the looting starts, shooting starts," invoking 1960s-era statements by a segregationist politician and a white police chief.
To be sure, there has been looting and destruction of property in many parts of the US. In Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York, a police vehicle was set on fire, and eyewitnesses reported seeing garbage cans burning and smoke rising on Sunday. But the large majority of marches have been peaceful.
On Saturday near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I saw hundreds of people walking together, holding aloft banners saying “I Can’t Breathe" and shouting “No Justice. No Peace", heading towards Barclays Center. Demonstrations also took place in Jackson Heights in Queens and at Union Square in Manhattan. Then on Sunday in New York, I saw thousands of people marching peacefully on Atlantic Avenue, raising fists and shouting slogans in English and Spanish.
There have been innovative protests too—in Ocean City, New Jersey, after walking miles, hundreds of protesters laid down in the street in front of the police headquarters for eight minutes and 46 seconds (the time Floyd was restrained before he died) and chanted “I can’t breathe," before they fell silent.
Other cities have also seen non-violent protests which turn vicious after the police arrive and begin beating people. A leaked audio recording shows a man, possibly a police officer, telling his colleague to “shoot the (expletive)," and some police cars have driven dangerously close to protesters. The use of a car as a weapon mowing down protesters has happened often enough in recent years. “Police brutality is scarier than coronavirus," a young protester said.
Some police officers get it. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the police alleviated tension by kneeling before the protesters, as if apologizing, and the protesters walked towards them, shaking hands, in some cases even hugging officers. In Camden, New Jersey, the police chief and officers marched with demonstrators, expressing solidarity. In Flint, Michigan, police officers locked arms with protesters, and a sheriff joined the march.
The risk of being exposed to coronavirus has not deterred the protests; people are turning out in the hundreds, wearing masks but disregarding social distancing rules, as they walk demanding justice. Coronavirus-related lockdown in the US has been patchy, with some states itching to reopen while others insisting on enforcing strict rules.
While most people with secure jobs who work from home want to return to normal life, even as courier services deliver their groceries and other essentials, restaurants bring food, pharmacies get their drugs, and liquor stores are open, the essential work of delivering these products is undertaken by people working at low wages on precarious contracts.
The better-off want the old normal to return; the people doing the work for the old normal to function smoothly are poorer and often from ethnic minorities. Some 43 million Americans have lost jobs, many among them from the minorities. Statistics also show that the death rate due to covid-19 among blacks is three times the rate at which the whites are dying.
If the economy reopens too early, many blacks believe they will suffer—they are more likely to get infected as they will be doing frontline jobs, if they still have those jobs.
At moments of grave crises, American presidents have offered words of solace and comfort to assuage a fragile nation. George W. Bush visited a mosque six days after 9/11 and spoke of respect for Islam. Barack Obama teared up speaking after the massacre in Newton, Connecticut, when 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school.
Those speeches and gestures brought a grieving nation together. This is a tradition that goes back to Lincoln, who said in his second inaugural address in 1865, “With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right…. Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…"
Expecting such eloquence from Trump may be unfair. His response is characteristically combative. He scolded the nation’s governors for not using force and threatened to send troops. On Wednesday, US defence secretary Mark Esper spoke out against deploying the military to quell domestic unrest. Esper is Trump’s fourth defence secretary in the fourth year of the administration, and officials who disagree with Trump have been marginalized or get sacked soon.
Bush and Obama have acted as a president should. Biden is trying to be heard above the din, as Trump prepares for his last election. The stakes have never been higher.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York