Overnight rioting in the city of Minneapolis saw protestors burn down the 3rd Precinct police building. This came after days of increasing tension. Video footage emerged on Monday of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year old man who had been arrested for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. The video spread rapidly across social media for obvious reasons. This was death by asphyxiation and was slow as it was distressing to witness. Floyd could be seen begging for help, complaining that he couldn’t breathe. His appeals ignored, Floyd passes out, yet the officer, Derek Chauvin, 44, with 18 prior complaints on his record, still doesn’t remove his weight from the man’s neck. By the time medics arrive, Floyd is unresponsive and was later pronounced dead upon arrival at Hennepin County Medical Center.
Videos of police brutality are hardly new yet this one was particularly disturbing. The sight of a man crushing another person’s neck arouses a primal fear. This is that vision of the future prophesied by George Orwell, of “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It is emblematic of authoritarian control and demands the natural corollary of restraint. Except, of course, if you’re President of the United States…
Trump described Floyd’s death as a “very sad event” earlier in the week but, last night, his response to the violence was contained in two tweets that leant heavily into the tough guy narrative he’s been trying to establish for the past four years. There was no attempt to ease tensions by directing the Department of Justice to address citizen’s concerns. Instead, he complained of a “total lack of leadership” from Minneapolis’s mayor, Jacob Frey, who he labelled, using his favourite slur, as part of the “radical Left”. Then he threatened to send the National Guard to quell the riots.
It was all true to Trump’s form. It is noticeable that this president rarely threatens a meaningful military response against legitimate threats (Iran, North Korea, China) but enjoys wielding overwhelming strength in the face of weakness. It perhaps accounts for the second tweet, which began by calling the protestors “THUGS” and then continued with an even darker tone. “Any difficulty and we will assume control” he continued, “but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Here Trump possibly evokes the memory of Miami police chief Walter Headley who, in 1967, had issued the same warning to protestors also challenging police violence. The President will probably claim the words are his own – the formulation is probably easy to coin – but these are the games that Trump often plays, like those oddly polite formalities that often punctuate his most aggressive orders. That “Thank you!” is the opposite of manners. He is trying to project control and his willingness to make tough decisions. It’s another of his linguistic tics like looking at things “strongly” and responding “powerfully”.
This time, the President had gone too far for Twitter, who responded by hiding the tweet behind a warning. They accused the President of “glorifying violence”. That is, of course, a direct challenge to the executive order that Trump signed yesterday, commanding America’s justice department to respond to such interference by removing the protection that social media companies normally enjoy regarding their legal exposure for material published on their platforms.
Yet Twitter might have a point. Trump’s response is certainly different to the language of just a few weeks ago when armed protestors gathered in Michigan, stormed state capitol building, and were rewarded with praise from the President who described them as “very good people, but they are angry”. Rioters in Minneapolis are also good people with far better reasons to be angry than simply being opposed to temporary restrictions imposed at the height of a pandemic.
There are no doubts about what we witnessed this week. Floyd’s death captured on camera demanded clear action. It was not enough that the police department dismissed the officers involved. Criminal prosecutions have lagged, perhaps because of interference from Washington. Speaking to journalists earlier in the week, Erica MacDonald, Attorney for the District of Minnesota, admitted that “President Trump, as well as Attorney General William Barr, are directly and actively monitoring the investigation in this case.” City residents could not see justice being served and perhaps had good reason to be cynical. It was Barr who, in October last year, decided that there would be no federal charges for the officers involved in the extrajudicial killing of Eric Garner in 2014. The parallels are shocking. Garner was also arrested on suspicion of a minor crime, selling single cigarettes from untaxed packets. He too was held down by police, this time using a rear chokehold. Like Floyd, he also complained that “I can’t breathe” and eleven times his pleas were ignored. He too was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
So much of the story seems accidental yet, like so much that has happened in the course of the past four years, many of the precedents are obvious. In Long Island, in 2017, the new President addressed law enforcement officers and gave them some advice. “When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice’”. Those words sound more chilling given the events of this week. Chilling too was the sight of Minnesota State Police arresting a black CNN journalist and his crew as they were broadcasting live from the city streets in early hours of Friday morning.
Americans began the week anticipating the nation passing 100,000 deaths to COVID-19. Just five days later, they wake up to burning buildings, armed troops on the streets, as well as journalists from the president’s least favourite media network being arrested on live TV. It’s unlikely the president had anything to do with the arrest but the tone he sets is striking. As much as the story demands that the death of George Floyd is treated as an individual tragedy and a possible crime, it is also that rare kind of glass that refracts the manifold injustices of the nation as well as the psychology of a president whose has always needed “American carnage” to make his politics work.