Scenes emerging from the US states of Minnesota, California and many others of riots and violent protests have dominated the TV news despite the prevailing daily dose of gloomy news of the Covid-19 pandemic around the world.
A police officer in Minneapolis was caught on film kneeling on the neck of African-American man George Floyd for over eight minutes and enough for the poor man to die horribly at the scene. The policeman, named Derek Chauvin, ignored Floyd’s pleas and cries of “I can’t breathe” until he died as a result of Chauvin’s knee choking him.
The video then went viral, unleashing massive protests in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Seattle among 13 other US cities now under mandatory curfews. The governor of Minnesota took unprecedented measures and issued a state of emergency, calling on the state’s National Guard to quell the riots. US President Donald Trump also vowed to involve the American military should the riots continue.
At least seven other states have called on their National Guards to curb the growing violence of rioters mingling with peaceful protesters. These hooligans have committed acts of vandalism and the arson of public and private property across many states, exacerbating an already tense situation and overshadowing the death of Floyd by exacting vengeance on the whole of society. Violent groups have capitalised on the situation and have been reported as being involved in acts of violence during the protests.
Dozens of shops, restaurants and private businesses have either been burned, looted or vandalised by rioters who have violated curfews and clashed with police, resulting in the killing of a federal police officer in California and the injury of many others.
The events following the death of Floyd are reminiscent of many others that have occurred over past decades in the US. One of the most infamous took place in 1992 when a court acquitted four police officers accused of assaulting the African-American man Rodney King and brutally beating him. One of the most violent riots in US history then took place in Los Angeles, resulting in 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries and more than 7,000 fires. It also resulted in damage to 3,100 businesses as the riots cost nearly $1 billion in financial losses during the course of six days. Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself as a result of the horrific death of Floyd at the hands of the US police.
This cycle of violence seems to be beyond the control of any US president, whether he be Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or George Bush. The deeply rooted racial issues in the US were not resolved by the existence of an African-American president such as Obama, and certainly they will not be resolved by Trump. The race issue requires a more extensive outlook and more protection laws, and it seems to have been overlooked in the recent past when Obama was elected as the country’s first black president.
Many believed at that time that the majority of the nation had changed and that racism in the US was a practice of the past. But events have proven otherwise. In fact, the rise of the far-right and of alt-right groups in the US has been a clear signal that racism is far from over in the United States and that it must be tackled on all levels, especially within government departments and the authorities that deal directly with citizens such as police departments across the country.
The bottled-up hatred between large sections of Americans towards others also manifests itself in such riots, which emerge to destroy property as a result of a single horrific death. These events are not caused by racial-segregation laws, which were abolished in the US educational system in 1954, but they are an indication that large numbers of Americans still view themselves in terms of ethnicity first and citizen second.
Floyd has meanwhile joined the countless black and non-white victims of police brutality and abuse in the US. While there have been measures to reeducate the police forces, which have had positive results in some cases, racism still lingers within police forces across the United States. A bad apple can spoil an entire basket, and the killing of Floyd should not be seen as necessarily tainting the entire police force of Minnesota. Yet, it does taint the efforts and sacrifices that this police force has been making to tackle racism, along with similar ones made elsewhere.
It is imperative that bad examples such as Chauvin be weeded out early before they cause nationwide disasters. Chauvin had had 18 complaints filed against him in his 19 years in the police department, and he was disciplined as a result of two of them. These cases included deaths and shootings, and yet he was still awarded a medal of valour in 2008.
There is no doubt that a police officer’s job is not easy and involves his placing his life at risk every day. But this cannot be a reason for officers to take the law into their own hands or to overstep their roles as the protectors of the public or enforcers of the laws, turning them into executioners. The video of Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Floyd causing his eventual death is a scene that cannot be allowed to take place again in the United States or anywhere else in the world.
Chauvin has now been arrested and charged with third degree murder, and the escorting officers patrolling with him have also been suspended from their work. Chauvin violated proper police conduct in his act, but alas he is not the only case of such violations that have taken place in recent years. Countless other cases have also been reported in the US of police brutality, many of them involving a white policeman and a minority victim who has been mistreated, abused, humiliated and sometimes even killed during the process of apprehension or arrest. In many cases, police officers are trigger-happy and fire upon suspects at the slightest of excuses.
The threats to the US status in the world are numerous. Some of them are military, such as those from its global rivals such as Russia, or economic, such as from China, or security based, such as from the likes of terrorists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group. But none of these can defeat the United States militarily, as it is more than capable of defending itself from countries like Russia, China, North Korea or Iran. China, despite its exponential growth, cannot overshadow the United States. Even with continued attacks and threats by global terrorist groups, none of these can ever manage seriously to affect the power of the United States.
The real threat to US unity and welfare comes from within because the race issue still has not been resolved after over two centuries of the country’s history. Race and racial identity remain a major cause of problems in the US today and ones that are deeply rooted within US society. It is high time that US-based human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch shift their focus inwards towards America’s own human rights violations and racial issues before dictating what other governments should do in their own countries.
The United States today is at a crossroads, and the divisions in US society are becoming ever clearer and more visible to everyone. They cannot be hidden by the language of political correctness any longer.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly