While the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the six-year-old Black Lives Matter movement were the direct triggers of nationwide social unrest throughout the past weekend, there are many indirect triggers for the anger and the massive level of participation seen at demonstrations in multiple cities. And veteran activists say it's impossible to separate the pandemic and its impacts, as well as the unpopularity of President Trump, from what we are seeing on city streets.
"People are seething about all kinds of things," says activist and historian Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, speaking to the Washington Post. "There are major turning points and ruptures in history... This is one of these moments, but we’ve not seen how it will fully play out."
The confluence of a pandemic — which has already been seen to be disproportionately impacting the lives of people of color — widespread unemployment, several nationally publicized incidents of racial violence and tension, and a president in the White House who calls for the shooting of looters, has to been as the broader context for the events of the last several days. And the sheer size of protests in Oakland and San Francisco, which came together with very little organizing or advertising, points to how high tensions are running for many who have been isolated at home for the last two months.
President Trump seems characteristically deaf and blind to this broader context, calling on governors in a conference call this morning to "dominate" protesters with military force, and saying that "retribution" was necessary for looters or anyone throwing objects at police. As the New York Times reports, Trump had just gotten off a call with Vladimir Putin, and he told the governors that Minnesota had become "a laughingstock all over the world."
As Kevin Fagan writes today in the Chronicle, earlier uprisings about the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement itself in 2013/14, "came when the nation had an African American president who called for calm and expressed empathy with rage over racial oppression."
"This whole thing was a powder keg waiting to explode," says local activist Cat Brooks, speaking to the Chronicle. "A lot of people doing these protests are stuck in their houses, lost their jobs, don’t know if they will be able to make a living,” Brooks says. “They’re stressed, they got the bullshit $1,200 stimulus check, and they’re angry... Pre-pandemic, it was bad enough. But now that we’re in the pandemic, black people are getting messed up even more — getting infected in bigger numbers than others, having to go to work more than others and get exposed."
Another aspect that local activists like Brooks are noting is that there is a new generation of activists — and, to be clear, opportunist vandals — who were too young to take part in the similarly passionate protests we saw in the Bay Area in 2014 and 2016, or back in 2009 following the death of Oscar Grant.
The looting that we've seen around the Bay Area and around the country can be seen as both a byproduct of a chaotic moment when cops are busy putting out bigger fires, and as an act of defiance by people feeling economically stressed and invisible. And Brooks admits that while some protesters are out there trying to make a political point, "some people are taking advantage of the situation because it seems entertaining and fun."
As CNBC notes, the protests are occurring at a moment of record unemployment — 14.7 percent, higher than at any other point since World War II, and likely to rise to 20 percent. So it's impossible to see some acts of looting as also acts of desperation in moments of opportunity.
President Trump, meanwhile, has yet to formally address the nation about the last five days of growing unrest, and has instead, reportedly, been glued to news coverage and stewing, while putting out occasional tweets that call for aggressive action by law enforcement and the National Guard, and calling the protesters and looters "terrorists." According to the Times, some aides and advisors have been trying to explain to Trump that there is a broad context for the protests, and some have been trying to keep him off Twitter the last several days for fear that he was fueling more rage.
Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois was one of several governors on the Monday call with Trump who pushed back on the president, telling him that his tweets are stoking anger. "We have to call for calm,” Pritzker said, per the Times, adding that "the rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House is making it worse."
Trump, true to form, responded defensively and said, "I don’t like your rhetoric much either."
Another, more qualified and temperamentally suited president, Barack Obama, issued a more inspiring statement on Friday.
"It’s natural to wish for life to ‘just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ — whether it’s while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park."
Obama added, "This shouldn't be 'normal' in 2020 America. It can't be 'normal.' If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better."
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