Having usually read the riot act to governments it accused of violating the human rights of their citizens, the US government has itself come in for criticism for the violent way in which it has been handling demonstrations throughout the country over the murder of an unarmed African American by a white policeman. Below is an abridged version of a statement – To Calm Turmoil US Leaders Must Stop Courting Conflict – by International Crisis Group.
FOR more than a week, the world has watched as the United States’ deepest wounds, inflicted by the unhealed legacy of slavery and rubbed raw by sustained racial injustice, erupted into public rage and violence. The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota touched off a wave of protest that reached virtually every corner of the country, with riots and looting in many major cities.
The crisis put the nation’s political divides on full display. In some states and cities, at least some of the time, local leaders and security officials sought to reduce tensions through a combination of empathy and firmness.
But beyond the splintering of leader-level discourse, perhaps the most sobering political development as the protests reached the one-week mark was a growing inclination among some prominent elected and security officials to frame the civil unrest in the language of armed conflict.
Whatever happens next, US policymakers should not let chaos or spectacle obscure the origins of the week’s events. George Floyd’s killing sparked a firestorm of protest and violence in part because it met such an abundance of dry tinder.
The United States has never adequately come to terms with the horrific legacy of two-and-a-half centuries of chattel slavery. Nor has it healed or conquered the institutionalised violence and racism toward African Americans that followed their emancipation in the 1860s.
There are still millions of Americans who grew up under the Jim Crow system of segregation underwritten by the Supreme Court’s infamous 1896 ruling (since overturned) that racially separate but ostensibly equal facilities are constitutionally permitted. The Jim Crow period was a time when lynchings – in which white mobs killed black people expressly to terrorise other blacks – were common.
African Americans born after Jim Crow was dismantled during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s have nevertheless lived with glaring structural inequalities: unequal access to education, employment, housing, health care, nutrition and protection under the law.
Against this backdrop, police brutality toward black men and women has been both a chronic problem and a recurrent source of instability in US cities. In April and May 1992, the failure to convict four Los Angeles police officers being tried for the brutal beating of Rodney King launched six days of violence that killed 60 people.
In August 2014, the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police kicked off 10 days of unrest, which saw protesters squaring off against police clad in military-grade equipment obtained through a Pentagon-sponsored programme. In April 2015, the death of Freddie Gray from traumatic injuries he suffered while being transported in a police van kicked off two weeks of protests and violence in Baltimore, Maryland.
In the present context, George Floyd’s killing came when the memory of other killings was still fresh. Just weeks before Floyd’s killing, a video tape surfaced showing an African American man, Ahmaud Arbery, being hunted down and killed by two white men while jogging through a suburban neighbourhood in southern Georgia. In mid-March, police acting on a faulty arrest warrant in Louisville, Kentucky broke down the door of Breonna Taylor, an African American emergency medic. In the melee that ensued, they shot her eight times and killed her in her own home. To date, no one has been charged in her murder.
But the issue of police violence cannot be so easily shunted aside. Indeed, what the current protests show is that in the absence of fundamental reform, it will remain a source of division and instability for the United States. The more that the US government can do to embrace some of the ideas that have been put forward in this vein – whether forming a national task force to draft legislation that would increase police accountability, or taking steps to constrain how and when police can use force and to make it easier to fire those who do not abide, or reinvigorating the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division – the more reason protesters will have to believe that authorities are finally taking their grievances seriously.
Of particular immediate importance will be to show that authorities are taking all responsible steps to ensure that justice is done in the case of George Floyd. The Minnesota attorney general’s decision on June 3 to indict all four officers involved in Floyd’s death, upgrading the charge against the lead officer to second-degree murder, was a good start.
Perhaps of greatest urgency, the country’s leaders need to stop making the situation worse. For the past quarter-century, Crisis Group has analysed conflicts and crises around the globe, learning some lessons along the way about the do’s and don’ts of crisis resolution. Unfortunately, the current leadership in Washington seems to be picking far more from the “don’ts” list – taking actions and making statements that ought to be avoided if the goal is to tamp down tensions rather than exacerbate them. The Trump administration and its allies in Congress should dispense with incendiary, panicky rhetoric that suggests the US is in armed conflict with its own people, or that some political faction is the enemy, lest security forces feel encouraged or emboldened to target them as combatants.
Rather than demonise reporters, who have in several instances been attacked and arrested by the police they are helping hold to account, political leaders should underscore that a vigorous press is a pillar of US democracy and stability. While national authorities should support firm and responsible policing where necessary to end the nightly looting that continues in some locations, they should also set an example for local police by apologising for what occurred outside the White House on June 1 and making clear that no security force should ever use these tactics against peaceful protesters.
To be sure, a number of local leaders and some security officials have set the right kind of example. But the benefit of this leadership could be lost if, at the other end of the spectrum, President Trump – perhaps playing to what he thinks will be his political advantage as the 2020 election nears – continues to send a message of anger, intolerance and frustration, and fails to announce any measure to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to at least some of the reforms that are long overdue.