Many are blaming Donald Trump for the escalation of racial violence, but America’s white history reveals that today is merely a repeat of yesterday.
Don’t get me wrong, I dislike Donald Trump as much as the next person. And, in this emergency, he has again displayed not just an appalling lack of leadership, but of humanity and kindness. Talking about looting and shooting on Twitter was, of course, inciting violence. And not allowing the brother of slain George Floyd to get a word in edgeways during his “condolence call” was breathtakingly arrogant. Nevertheless, what is going on in America at the moment is not of Trump’s making. He hasn’t made it better either, that is true, but the problem was there long before granddaddy Friedrich Trump migrated to the USA and sowed the seeds of the orange-haired one.
Let me regale you with a brief and, I think, rather shocking bit of history. We think that the arrival of the ship the Mayflower in 1620 was the start of what would become the United States. You remember: Puritans, “Indians” keeping them alive by sharing their corn. The thing is: the real America began the year before when the White Lion brought the first twenty slaves to the then-British colony of Jamestown, now called Virginia (the headquarters of the National Guard, but more about them later). Tobacco planter John Rolfe had bought them “at the best and the easiest rate they could” and the second they arrived they were put to work on the fields, a white man with a whip close by.
What slavery meant in practice was recently described in searing detail in Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Underground Railroad. Although this is a work of fiction, it was based on life stories of slaves and Whitehead was meticulous in not exaggerating anything. Despite that, it is almost impossible to read without wanting to grab a gun. It is all there: the rapes, the thrashings, the killings, the separations of parents and children.
Early on, it sets the tone by describing the fate of a man called Big Anthony, a runaway slave who gets caught. As punishment, the white station owner organizes a party for his friends; lots of food on long tables under the trees outside. Big Anthony is there too. His penis has been cut off and put in his mouth, after which he is placed on a platform and set on fire. This way he functions as the candle to light the dinner. He burns for hours, most of those still alive and conscious, but not able to utter a word. The other slaves are forced to watch, while they get read the riot act: from now on they have to work harder for less food. And the women, the slave owner makes clear, will be used by him and his mates whenever he wants them.
Slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865, a few decades after the rest of the world. It had taken a Civil War and 246 years, but on the ground it changed little. Instead of slavery, most states introduced a system of apartheid, that only cracked (a little) after the civil rights movements of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s put angry protesters on the ground. By that time, the whole of the black population was suffering from PTSD. Generation after generation after generation, they had been at the receiving end of violence, abuse, poverty, lack of education, and possibilities.
They had been made to grovel to white people, believe they were lesser human beings and had never been safe anywhere. Martin Luther King, now hailed as the great leader of nonviolent resistance, understood them perfectly when he said that “a riot is the language of the unheard. America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.” This was 1965 and he warned that “the mood of the negro population is one of urgency. We got to have our freedom. We have waited too long.” He called on people to be “militant and determined” and strive for justice.
Fifty-five years have passed and nothing much has changed. Black people are dying disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic, at three times the rate of white people. The death of George Floyd prompted CNN to quote a Facebook site that had asked its black male readers, “How old were you the first time a policeman first drew a gun on you?” Not, “Did that ever happen?” but how old; and without exception, the responses talked about early teenage years, and that they hadn’t been able to walk around (or be in their own homes) without being harassed by police ever since.
The death of George Floyd prompted CNN to quote a Facebook site that had asked its black male readers, “How old were you the first time a policeman first drew a gun on you?”
One of the other commentators CNN engaged was Michael Harriot of The Root, which uses as its tagline the sentence “The blacker the content, the sweeter the truth.” Harriot wondered out loud what white people were expecting black people to do. “Why should we not come out and protest? We have been very patient for very long. You guys only get a microscopic fraction of what we’ve been suffering for a long time. You complain about material damage, but we are being murdered. It is like George Floyd’s brother said: this was a ‘modern-day lynching in broad daylight.’ History teaches us that for change to happen you need to burn that shit down. Look at the Boston Tea Party. They did. A few weeks ago, white people took to the streets to protest the pandemic lockdown. Nothing happened to them. No National Guard out then. In fact, Trump called them ‘very good people’.”
Later, Michael Harriot added on Twitter that “People out there in Minnesota are destroying neighborhoods, acting unlawfully and scaring law-abiding citizens. Good. They are acting like the cops.” An extra problem is that Trump’s National Guard members are mostly white; militia shooting paint canisters at inhabitants of a residential street that houses a lot of black people. “Light ’em up,” they can be heard yelling, a sickening reference to the fires of the Ku Klux Klan, celebrating a good day of lynching. Last time the National Guard was let out, in Ferguson in 2014, after yet another killing of a black man by police, the troopers called protesters “enemy forces.” Did I already say that their headquarters was in Virginia, the birthplace of American slavery?
As Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed by “law enforcement” in 2014, said the other day on CNN: “our tax money at work.”
So, here we are, after more than 400 years of abuse of black people in the USA. Of course, there have been protests and riots on the streets before. But I predict that this will be different. Forty million people are unemployed at the moment, an average of 14.7% of the population. The percentage of black and Hispanic people out of work is much higher. Most of the time, they don’t have big bank accounts to give them time to find an alternative. So, they will be homeless, without money to buy food, or education, or health insurance during a time of pandemic.
Their official political choices are not brilliant either. On the one hand, they’ve got an old white guy who says that “if you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, you ain’t black.” On the other, an old white guy who tells Democratic Congresswomen of color to “go back to the crime-infested places from which they came,” although they were born in the US. He was also the man, of course, who took out full-page ads in all New York newspapers in 1989 to call on the judiciary to bring back the death penalty for five very young (between 14 and 16 years old) black boys accused of killing a white woman in Central Park. Although the DNA on her body didn’t match theirs, Trump’s ads, and his television performances (“maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done”) put them behind bars for six to thirteen years.
We are in a post-Obama period. America has a white, right-wing, supremacist president. A plague is killing a lot of poor black people. Racist police are driving into crowds and putting their knees in black people’s necks. Unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are growing. Revolutions have broken out for less. Desperate people, without hope, are dangerous. See the French Revolution. See the Romania of Ceausescu, the Italy of Mussolini. Over the last couple of days, the White House has been surrounded and Trump seems to like the adrenaline, probably because he is bored being president. If he is not careful, his fate will be the same as that of Mussolini, Ceausescu, and the French monarchs.
Then, no underground bunker will help.