United States in flames at racist killling

Protesters confront the secret service on Pennsylvania Avenue (image: Geoff Livingston (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Don Flynn reports on the police violence and the uprisings of the people

Once again American cities are in flames. It is the predictable outcome of gross inequality and generation-spanning racism. The antifa radical left are spearheading much of the protest. Trump wants them banned.

“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” James Baldwin asked this question in a text that many are reaching for at this time to identify the reasons behind uprisings convulsing scores of US cities.

George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop who, according to news reports, had 18 separate complaints stacked against him for the callous way he went about his job, looks like another day in the life of racist America. This is a country in which people in the wealthy suburbs look down with fear and loathing on the populations crowded into its dysfunctional and increasingly crumbling cityscapes. 

The hardships and poverty which under-the-heel Americans have to endure is seen as an affront to the vision the affluent middle class have of themselves. “If I made it by my own effort, why can’t they?” they ask. The narcissism that is entrenched in the national story of liberty and opportunity allows only a limited range of answers, mostly of the sort that these people are just not like us. Given every chance of making a better life they only waste it and produce a squalor which they blame others for.

The racial dimension to this predicament is laid bare in the evidence which sets out a vicious cycle of wealth inequality. The middle class route out of poverty is vastly more restricted for black households, who have far less access to tax-advantaged forms of savings due in part to a long history of employment discrimination and other discriminatory practices. 

According to the Center for American Progress, mortgage market discrimination means that blacks are significantly less likely to be homeowners than whites, triggering a cascade of disadvantage arising from less access to the savings and other tax benefits that come with owning a home. 

As the cities seethe with racialised awareness of injustice, the white suburbs see the inevitable discontent as the raging of an underclass which wants things it has not earned or deserved. Policing has got a much weaker connection to a genuine justice system which might have attempted to alleviate disadvantage. It has much more to do with the simple task of putting physical muscle on the streets to keep supposedly dangerous people in line.

The tolerance on the part of conservative America for police violence against black citizens was demonstrated most blatantly with the case of the Los Angeles resident construction worker Rodney King back in 1991 after his severe beating by a group of LAPD officers. Despite evidence from a video of the assault which left King with a broken right leg, a badly cut and swollen face, bruises to his body and a burn area to his chest caused by a 50,000 volt stun gun, the four officers leading the attack were acquitted of police brutality because of the failure of the jury to reach a majority on the charges.

The demonstrators who have shown up in large numbers across the country to ‘take a knee’ to memorialise Floyd’s killing have already pointed to the leniency which the system shows to violent cops, pointing out that there were three other officers involved in the restraint which led to his death. Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arrrandondo seems to have attempted to deflect the anger felt on the streets by acknowledging the complicity of all four officers. Only after eight days of protest have the other three cops been charged and the primary culprit had a 3rd degree murder charge changed to 2nd degree. In anticipation of again being cheated of a successful prosecution, the protesters have once again rallied to the slogan, “No justice, no peace…”. 

Police violence in the US has a systematic character which derives from its central role as the protector of property in a country that has become so grossly unequal. American police forces killed three people per day in 2019, with a total of nearly 1,100 killings – a figure that exceeds any other developed country by a huge margin. But that should not be taken as the only measure of the violence of the American state. The prison system is also notoriously hard on black and Hispanic men convicted in the court. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2017, blacks represented 12% of the US adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population, while Hispanics comprise 16% of the adult population but make up 23% of prisoners.

Grossly unequal in terms of wealth, cruelly divided on racial lines, the US holds a mirror up to the world of what happens when the drive for private wealth accumulation is allowed to triumph over any conception of the public good. If the events of the past week have shown us plenty of images of burning buildings, they serve best to remind us of Baldwin’s epithet, which cast the whole nation and its history of violence of the propertied classes against the poor as nothing other than a “burning house”.

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