“The crisis came to a climax in the early 21st century,” wrote Michael Lind in 1995, in a fanciful note near the end of his provocative book The Next American Nation, “when the Senate – by then controlled by a tiny minority of white voters and wealthy national and foreign donors – thwarted the latest of a series of reform packages passed by a House of Representatives responsive to the emerging transracial majority living in the coastal states.” He continued: “When the military refused to fire on rioters during the riots that followed, the conservative-dominated government was thrown into turmoil. The Fourth American Revolution had begun.”
I thought of those lines when I heard that police and the national guard had forcibly dispersed a crowd peacefully protesting the murder of George Floyd. The protestors were near St John’s Episcopal Church in the nation’s capital, and the President wanted a photo-op there.
Outrage at Mr Floyd’s murder quickly spread from Minneapolis to cities large and small across the nation, and protestors took to the streets demanding redress of grievance rooted 400 years in the past and still very much a part of black citizens’ daily routines, who live in constant fear for their lives, liberty, and property.
Whether a measure of calm will have returned to the streets of America’s cities by the time you read this, and how it will have been restored if so, remain to be seen. What is certain is that the causes underlying the groundswell of legitimate discontent will not have received remedy. For that, the concerted efforts of the whole people are required.
Who will bring the good will and the efforts of the people into concert? It is highly unlikely to be the man currently occupying the highest office in the land. Nevertheless, the grotesque buffoonery of the Trump presidency is but a symptom of what ails the nation.
Martin Luther King described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” It was a “promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.”
“America,” he said in 1963, “has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.”
America has made great strides in dismantling old systems of injustice. The cultural commitment to racial equality has grown and worked many marvels. America is a very different place than it was in 1963, but the work is not done.
Civil asset forfeiture – the lucrative practice of seizing assets police say they believe are connected to a crime, often without ever criminally charging the person from whom the asset is seized – is disproportionately practiced in poor minority communities.
Other rent-seeking behaviours target poorer black neighbourhoods, as well. The US Department of Justice issued a report on the mostly black neighbourhoods of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015: “many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighbourhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue” – through fines and fees.
Criminal statutes and sentencing standards have the effect – if not the intent – of making life more difficult for black citizens in both measurable and unmeasurable ways: breaking up families and taking breadwinners away; traumatising children and young people; rendering youthful offenders hardened and often unemployable; and, contributing greatly to general wariness of official justice.
Black lives matter: whatever one thinks of the movement that militates under that banner, the naked fact of the controversy the assertion stirs is proof there is herculean work to do in America. If it were not, then consider that George Floyd is dead because policemen in Minneapolis suspected him of passing a counterfeit $20 note.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.