Even before George Floyd’s death on May 25, the U.S. was already reeling under many internal crises. Nearly 100,000 people had died from the COVID-19 pandemic and more than a million had been infected. About 40 million people lost their jobs as the country was in the grip of the deepest economic crisis since Second World War. Several States saw protests by mostly right-wing groups against the ‘stay at home’ orders issued by Governors to tackle the pandemic. When the country was struggling to cope with the economic and healthcare crises, President Donald Trump’s strategy was to deflect the criticism from his administration, and attack China. It may have worked with his support base, but certainly not with all Americans, many of them were struggling to find work amid mounting economic miseries. Then came the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, under the knee of of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the Memorial Day.
The death of Floyd served as a trigger for mass protests as the video showing him being pinned to the ground by the knee of the police officer for minutes went viral. Floyd can be heard saying, ‘I can’t breathe’, but Derek Michael Chauvin, the Minneapolis Police Department officer, won’t take his knee off Floyd’s neck. Later, at a local hospital, Floyd was pronounced dead on arrival. Thousands hit the street, first in Minneapolis, which had seen several incidents of attacks on unarmed blacks in recent years. The protesters fought with police, burned down vehicles and police precincts and turned the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s largest city, into a battleground. Any leader, with a realistic sense of what his country was going through, should immediately have called for calm and issued reassurances that justice would prevail. Racial tensions were especially high in the U.S. It was just two months ago, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was shot down while jogging in Georgia. A white father and son were arrested this month in connection with the murder, after protests and a social media storm. Floyd’s death was sure to light the fuse.
But Mr. Trump did exactly opposite. Instead of calling for calm, he called the protesters “thugs”. He threatened to “shoot” the looters — there were instances of shooting later. He attacked the “radical left” Democrats and liberal Governors and Mayors for the revolt, boasted of the “unlimited power of our military” and even suggested his supporters to counter-mobilise. In effect, he inflamed the wounded passions of the protesters, and the unrest spread across America’s big cities, from Los Angeles to new York and Atlanta. In Washington DC, Secret Service agents had to keep hundreds of protesters away from the White House. Authorities have now deployed the National Guard in some cities and night curfews have been declared in many places. According to an Associated Press tally, at least 1,400 people have been arrested so far since the unrest began, including journalists.
Playing with fire
Behind the facade of its capitalist development and prosperity, the U.S. is a country with several complex fault-lines. It’s a country that had to fight a civil war to end slavery. It’s a country where lynching blacks was a public spectacle until early last century. It’s a country where the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation existed (in some states) until 1960s. It’s a country where blacks were denied of their voting rights, mostly in southern states, until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. It’s a country where police violence is still disproportionally targeted against the Black minority and where police officers often get away with their acts against the blacks. When these racial fault-lines are juxtaposed with the suffering from the spreading pandemic and growing joblessness, it’s America’s tinderbox moment. And Mr. Trump is playing with fire.
The fundamental problem is that Mr. Trump is more of a disrupter than a leader. His style might be useful during an election campaign targeted at the political establishment, not when he’s in power and the country is going through serious crises. The first real test Mr. Trump faced was the coronavirus pandemic. And he failed in it miserably. And now, he’s watching American cities burn. He might bring order using force, like police states usually do in times of social unrest. But it can’t heal the festering wounds that were cut open. For that, America first first needs a leader, not a rabble-rousing disrupter, and then a plan.