Ushering in a US summer of discontent

Posted on June 4, 2020


By Palesa Morudu (first published in Business Day)

WASHINGTON DC. The May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police marks a turning point in US politics.

On Monday evening at the White House, President Donald Trump escalated the US’s political crisis. As the cops launched stun grenades and teargas at peaceful protesters across the street, Trump declared himself “your president of law and order”, and threatened to send thousands of US troops into US cities.

For a brief moment I thought I was listening to PW Botha. I wasn’t — and the US is not apartheid SA. But like Botha, it seems Trump is digging himself into a hole from which it may be difficult to escape.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a political disaster for Trump, and he evidently relishes what he sees as an opportunity to change the national conversation from the more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths on his watch.

“In recent days our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, thugs, looters, Antifa and others. That is why I am taking immediate presidential action,” he declared on Monday.

“First we are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. Today I have recommended to the governors that they should deploy the national guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets … If the city or state refuses to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the US military and quickly solve the problem for them.” 

Then military police cleared demonstrators from the streets so he could walk across the road for a photo shoot at St Johns church, where he clutched a bible. It was classic Trump: hubris, bluster and theatre.

But a day after military helicopters buzzed over Washington DC, people were uncowed. Demonstrations have grown from coast to coast every day since Floyd was killed. Curfews have been declared and the national guard mobilised across dozens of cities. Tens of thousands — young and old, black and white — have marched peacefully to demand prosecutions and an end to the assembly line of racist killings by US police.

There have also been violent clashes with the police and smaller groups, apparently instigated by anarchists and agents provocateurs, along with some general looting. Much of the press, like the White House, has focused on the clashes and looting.
The anger sweeping the streets of the US goes beyond the horrific killing of Floyd. It has been a long time coming. It’s about the violence of poverty. It’s about a criminal justice system that traps African-Americans in a school-to-prison pipeline culminating in mass incarceration. It’s about the racist violence that is baked into the American cake. And it’s about an unequal society that has stopped working for millions of families — black and white. Enough is enough, the protesters chant.

Floyd grew up in a housing project in Cuney Homes, a black neighbourhood in Houston. He dreamed of becoming a supreme court judge, according to the New Yorker’s David Remnick. He dropped out of college where he had hoped to become a basketball player, got into trouble with the law and ended up doing time in prison.

Shortly before a cop’s knee squeezed the life from his body, Floyd had lost his job as a security guard at a Minneapolis restaurant that shut down as a result of coronavirus. He had joined millions of Americans facing the double pandemic of joblessness and Covid-19.

His death touches a chord for working-class African-Americans. They are dying of Covid-19 in hugely disproportionate numbers. They die at the hands of the police in huge numbers. They are now out of work in huge numbers. They are uninsured in huge numbers. They know the system is rigged against them, hence the cry that Black Lives Matter.

The spring of coronavirus has turned into a summer of discontent. And there is a sense that something is different this time.

• Morudu is a South African writer and director at Clarity Global Strategic Communications currently based in Washington DC

Posted in: Uncategorized