Riots, Racism and Policing in the USA: Issues in an Election Year

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The USA and India recently got besieged by three crises -- two of them, the Coronavirus pandemic and economic downturns were common. The third, in the case of India, appeared to be the border skirmishes with China; in the US, it was definitely a nationwide protest and rioting in select places against the police brutality motivated by racial prejudices.

It was encouraging to watch over five nights a legitimate, justified and non-violent protest in the US against the strangling to death of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020. The killing of this African-American man occurred when Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The popular uprising was certainly indicative of a live conscious country speaking up against a series of brutality of the police that is so notoriously infamous for its racial bias.

From the sixth night, however, the complexion of the protest began to change particularly when looting and lawlessness got mingled with it. Donald Trump addressed the nation on 1 June 2020, the seventh evening of protest, declaring himself as a “law and order” president and indicated that, if the need be, he would call in the US military to restore order in the cities of the United States. As a result, many law abiding and security frightened people, especially the middle or small-sized businesses found assurance in his speech. The same evening, Donald Trump walked across the street from the White House to a church and infamously held up a Bible in his hands to appeal to his Christian base.

Before the protesters in Lafayette Park were pushed one block away by using a combination of forces guarding the White House to make way for the president, the protesters had not entirely been peaceful as claimed by the media outlets. Projectiles were thrown at the police, buildings including a part of the church were set on fire and filthy gesticulation or language were used around a bonfire. Unfortunately, very few Black leaders had unequivocally condemned looting; the daughter of Dr Martin Luther King and others seemed to be justifying the mayhem and plunder. As the efforts of the organizers of peaceful protests appeared to be sliding, most remarkably, the members of George Floyd's family spoke up against revenge, violence or looting. The genuine protesters must have realized that the looters were not helping their cause, but they were helpless. The cops were also torn between managing the crowd on the streets and the loot going on behind them.

I was looking forward to high-profile Americans who were on the side of Trump up until now breaking ranks with him and offering him advice in statesmanship. Observers of this unprecedented movement were wondering why hadn't a single sitting Republican Congress member or a Senator risen up to the occasion and confronted this President. As the November election approached, was the political consideration so overwhelming?

As the coast to coast agitation entered the second week, a strong voice of dissent against Trump came from two very important personalities: First, his current Secretary of Defense contradicted his boss's statement on the latter's determination to use the US military against the civilian protesters. Second, his past Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, issued a scathing statement against Donald Trump's style of leadership.

It was still surprising why Republican rank and file, except for two Republican Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney, hadn't spoken up. On 3 June 2020, Reuters reported the result of its recent survey which said 64% of Americans were sympathetic to the protesters -- an impressive percentage. However, there was an implied question where the rest of 36% stood. There seemed to be doubters still.

In the end, most worrisome was the unpredictable nature of the president who seemed to be doing things without much deliberation within his own inner circle. His photo op at the church must have made sense to his Evangelical Christian supporters, but to the others, it was absolutely embarrassing. People close to him didn't dare give him the right advice. Not politicians but the military leaders, who Donald Trump used to admire the most, had begun to revolt.

On the 10th night of protest, it became clear to the authorities the curfews weren't working. They called it off. The demonstrators were also by and large peaceful that didn't give enough reason for a massive show of force. However, on the solemn day of George Floyd's memorial service, where Dr Martin Luther King was repeatedly invoked, a disappointing news on the vandalizing of Mohandas Gandhi's statue came in. The protesters (at least one section of them) showed up their side of racism and bigotry as much as they exhibited their trust in violence and looting. Gracefully, the U.S. ambassador to India, Ken Juster, was quick to apologize after he came to know the symbol of peaceful resistance was painted with graffiti outside the Indian Embassy.

Race and racism are ingrained in the American society just as caste and casteism are in India. In both the systems the two are the basic units to mobilize social and political support. There have always been cases of police brutality and excesses and it would be wrong to say there’s no systemic racism in the United States. However, it would also be incorrect to say the police system has not been reformed consistently since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in the 60’s.

Based on 2018-2019 US census Bureau and FBI databases, according to a researcher, there were 9 shootings of unarmed black men in 2019, and 19 shootings of unarmed white men in 2019, that led to death. 70-75% of men killed by police every year are white or Hispanic. For every 10K arrests of black men, three die and for every 10K arrests of whites, four die. Then, the white median household income in the US is only 65.9K, compared to Cambodian 67.5K, Filipino 75.2K, Pakistani 77.3K, Chinese 81.5K, Taiwanese 95.7K, and Indian 119.9K. If systemic racism had ingrained white supremacy so much into the fabric of the USA, it was not reflected in the earnings of the whites, maybe in their electoral strength.

As far as the blacks are concerned, in order to end systemic racism, there has to be a systemic change. In the just-concluded Democratic primary election, the blacks didn’t vote for the institutional/systemic change candidate, Bernie Sanders, but for a more centrist and status quoist Joe Biden.

It should be interesting to watch how the latest upheaval plays out in an election year.


Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.

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