After Minneapolis police killed a black citizen named George Floyd on May 25, protests spread quickly to nearly 150 cities and college towns from coast to coast. In New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and scores of other cities, police were out in force with clubs, tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and pepper spray as the acrid stench of riot gas mixed with the smell of smoke from a thousand fires in this nation’s cities under siege.
Right here in Athens, police and National Guard troops used tear gas to drive protesters away from the famous University Of Georgia Arch in downtown Athens after a peaceful march and rally on Sunday, May 31 had packed the College Square area with a large, spirited and multiracial crowd. In a state already on edge after the killing of a black man named Ahmaud Arbery by two white men in southeast Georgia in February, the raging conflicts as May turned into June just added to the fear and uncertainty spawned by the coronavirus pandemic.
The horrific video of the Minneapolis cop with his knee to the neck of the dying Floyd went viral and quickly sparked comparisons with photos of the black NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who famously “took a knee” during pre-game performances of the national anthem to kneel in protest of police brutality against African American citizens. President Trump in 2017 called Kaepernick and other players who joined his protest “sons of bitches” and said that they should be hauled off the field and fired. It is not surprising that Trump and his henchmen seem more offended by a football star with his knee on the ground in peaceful protest than they are by a citizen’s video of a policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man who died pleading for mercy and calling for his mother.
For some cops, black lives don’t matter. The policeman who killed Floyd on camera is now in jail facing murder charges, but the hallways of history are littered with the corpses of black men and women who have died at the hands of police. Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Janet Wilson, are only a few names on the macabre roster of black civilians killed by police in America in recent years. Right here in Athens in 1995, protesters black and white hit the streets of this city after police shot and killed a nude, unarmed African-American man named Edward Wright.
Other police officers did show respect and restraint during protests across America this month. In New York, the police chief himself “took a knee” and clasped hands with citizens on the streets of that city. Similar scenes took place in cities large and small, as a few cops and police officials walked and talked with their fellow Americans. Yes, there was no “social distancing” during those encounters, but there was some needed social awareness by the police and protesters who participated. Sadly, such encounters were rare and President Trump only fanned the flames of divisiveness and discord when he threatened to use the U.S. military against protesters and castigated governors for what he called weak responses to the unrest sweeping this nation. The same “Trumpublican” politicians and citizens who claim to decry “big government overreach” seem to have no problem with Donald J. Trump’s big government, Big Brother desires to turn America’s military against Americans while usurping the powers of state and local political leaders. Such an authoritarian scenario is fascism, American style, and the unrest in this nation today is Trump’s own “Reichstag fire” that he hopes to use to secure his reelection in November.
On June 1, the treachery of Trump was clear for all to see in Washington D.C. when mounted police and tear gas were used to rout peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park near the White House, so that the president could have a quick “photo op” at the historic St. John’s “church of the presidents” in the park. Brandishing a Bible in a cynical and nearly blasphemous ploy to curry even more favor from the religious rightwingers in his political base just after he had called himself “your president of law and order and an ally of peaceful protesters,” Trump only defiled a house of worship by using it as a stage set for his reelection campaign. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees St. John’s Church, was outraged at the president’s performance. “He used our church as a backdrop and the Bible as a prop,” she fumed. “We follow someone who lived a life of sacrificial love. The soul of our nation is at stake.”
The soul of our nation is indeed at stake when an unhinged, uncaring and unqualified president pushes an authoritarian agenda under the guise of “making America great again.” Donald Trump, his political party of plutocracy masquerading as populism, and his supporters would do well to consider the poem, “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935 by African-American poet Langston Hughes: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart./ I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars./ I am the red man, driven from the land./ I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek,/ And finding only the same old stupid plan/ Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
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