New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Louisville, Detroit—the Minneapolis “virus” is spreading and infecting the whole country, revealing the symptoms of a profound pathology.
Perhaps the most symbolic image of this inflamed America is that of the protests in front of the White House, where the President tweeted insults to the protesters and praise for the “impenetrable” Secret Service—never has the dystopian and convulsive Trumpist iconography produced such an image of downfall, of a tyrant barricaded in his place of rule, irretrievably cut off from the outside world and from a country with which he is at war.
As bitter and rancorous as ever, Trump has doubled the amount of bile in his tweets, to the point where the platform is now flagging his posts as spreading falsehoods and apologetic of violence. His dismissal of the protesters as “thugs” comes full circle, having become himself the Thug-in-Chief.
There could be no president more spectacularly unfit to deal with this situation than him, who embodied the “white restoration” after the first African-American presidency. Trump has increased the level of violence in his tweets from suggesting the shooting of looters (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”) to unleashing “vicious dogs” on the protesters outside the White House.
This repertoire is inspired by the darkest historical precedents of the segregationist era: the first is a direct quotation of the words of Walter Headley, Miami’s racist sheriff, and the other recalls Bull Connor, the chief of police in Birmingham, Alabama who loved to use attack dogs against Martin Luther King’s non-violent marches.
Trump is always poking around in the open wounds that are tearing the country apart, and no wonder—after all, just a week ago, in a factory in Michigan, he had extolled the purity of the lineage of Henry Ford, a well-known white supremacist and supporter of Hitler. Now, he finds himself presiding over a debacle which likewise has roots both deep and foul.
Urban revolts with a racial background are part of American modernity, from those in Watts (1965) to Newark (1967), Detroit (1967), Liberty City-Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992) and Ferguson (2015). But it seems they have never occurred on such a large scale as today, except for the ones after King’s assassination. Yesterday, as he mobilized all the remaining units of the National Guard, Tim Waltz, the governor of Minnesota, said that the riots were nothing more than “a mockery of pretending that this is about George Floyd’s death.”
However, this self-serving statement does contain a dose of truth. The “riots” are indeed about more than just the tragic episode in Minneapolis. Like any one of the uprisings that came after police abuse from the incomplete list mentioned above, they express a suffering that has been building up from years and decades of injustice, a pain internalized for generations. And this time, there’s something more. The condition of the US as a “failed social experiment” highlighted by the riots, as Cornell West called it, is now manifesting as the convergence of the old racist scourge and a socio-economic crisis that looks like it will have catastrophic proportions, especially for minorities and the vulnerable.
This national uprising is taking place in a country of 40 million unemployed, after 100,000 dead due to COVID-19, the virus that has been contained in wealthy neighborhoods but is still spreading in workers’ dormitories. The cathartic explosion of anger is ripping through a country that has been through a 10-week lockdown that brought billions in subsidies to corporations while putting slaughterhouses into bankruptcy and forcing regular workers back to their jobs.
Los Angeles and Ferguson had also been explosions of lumpenproletariat communities that were at the end of their rope: a primal scream, as Martin Luther King had said 30 and 50 years earlier, “of the voiceless.”
They were the inevitable consequence of the racist heritage and of the system—starting from the hypertrophic prison-industrial complex—responsible for perpetuating segregation. However, as Robert Reich said, never has the American people been subject to all the pure force of capitalism and social Darwinism, of such a re-establishment of plutocratic interests, as under Donald Trump.
It is under this regime, exacerbated by the pandemic, that the term “essential workers” emerged—to formalize a subordinate class of producers with semi-citizenship, with “freedom” to work but without access to social support, starting from public assistance. A system that at the same time crowned the first “trillionaire” (Jeff Bezos), fully sanctioning the most abysmal inequality.
In the “urban bantustans,” as Mike Davis called the historic ghettos, but also those neighborhoods where immigrants, precarious workers, riders and gig workers are fighting to stay afloat by stringing together jobs and gigs—in these places where the effects of decadent and financialized capitalism are running rampant, people have nothing more to lose. (And this calculation also includes the consolidation of the moderates behind Biden, which has excluded the progressive impulses of Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from the spotlight).
“You want to live comfortably and treat us like animals?” asked an African-American girl in front of the 3rd precinct police station that had been set on fire. “Well, you’re looking at what the pain that has been building up for years and years leads to.”
This is the voice of America that can no longer breathe, something that is not a new development. From behind the protection of his Secret Service and his “vicious dogs,” Trump is now contemplating the inevitable debacle, and it’s not hard to predict that he will double down—that he will base his reelection campaign around the cynical stoking of the conflict, building it once again on the white panic of that base to which he is addressing his thinly-veiled appeals to violence.
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