America In Flames

By Andrej Mrevlje |

While working on the longer piece, I, as many of you, I presume, got caught up watching the cruel murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests and riots that have been happening across the United States. As I write this, I can hear shouting and screaming coming from the White House. Helicopters are hovering over the city, and a curfew has been announced for 7.p.m., an hour before sunset. Somebody must be afraid of the darkness.

This last week has featured police cars driving into crowds of protestors, police officers sweeping an empty residential street, and shooting rubber bullets at a woman who simply wanted to know what was going on and naively opened the door to her house. The scenes evoked Tiananmen in 1989 on the night before the massacre. Police cars have been burning; rioters have been throwing stones and bottles of urine at the cops. An older man with a stick couldn’t walk fast enough was brutally shoved to the ground by policemen. Another police officer saw the scene and helped the older man to his feet. Other younger and beaten-up protesters did not get up at all. There was a man on a horse, galloping among the crowds. Another protester was dressed up as Batman, walking through the dense fog of tear gas. A policeman passing young girls pepper-sprayed them for having done nothing, just like one swat away mosquitos. Masked people smashed the windows of shops and banks with hammers, sticks, and kicking. Cars, police precincts, and banks were set on fire. There was looting, and tear gas bombs thrown into the crowds, as protestors caught them and kicked them back towards the police.

By Saturday night, 30 American cities were burning and rioting. Crowds began surrounding the White House, and the President tweeted out, threatening that he would send the most vicious dogs on the protestors if they dared cross the security line.

At least 75 cities have seen protests in recent days, and mayors in more than two dozen cities have imposed curfews. This is the first time that so many local administrations had simultaneously issued such orders in the face of civic unrest since 1968 when, after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the National Guard was posted in Atlanta and Minneapolis, and California moved troops into Los Angeles.

Is this all happening because George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis on Monday after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer? Yes and no. Bystanders shot a video of Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Mr. Floyd was heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” As Chauvin pressed his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd, he looked into the cameras of the bystanders who were screaming at him, begging him to let the man on the ground go, to let him breathe. The policeman did not budge, the expression on his face challenging the bystanders. He seemed to be convinced that he was doing something completely natural and that he would not have to deal with any consequences of his actions. As the current president of the U.S. once said in a public speech: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters!”

The next day, the protests began. A video of the killing from a different angle showed that there were four policemen in total who were pinning down Mr. Floyd, but Chauvin was the one who knelt on his neck and continued to do so even after he was unconscious. Floyd died in the ambulance, the official medical record states, but his body was limp and without vital signs when Chauvin finally released him from the weight of his leg so that paramedics could put him on a stretcher. One day later, Chauvin was arrested for third-degree murder and manslaughter. All four policemen involved in the arrest and murder were fired from the police force. But the rage from people across America was only getting started. As I write this, I am not sure what the end of the day will bring as this country, now in flames, seems to be without leadership. The President is locked in the White House, surrounded by thousands of angry protesters and defended by a double ring of security forces, including Secret Service snipers on the roof. Donald Trump, the president, is silent. What he can do is tweet like somebody watching a sports game on TV:

“Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”

As we all know, Mr.Floyd was not the first black man to be brutally murdered by the police force. The police and other Americans have been exploiting, mistreating, torturing, and killing black people in this country for centuries. And this country somehow still calls itself the cradle of democracy. When I first moved to the United States, I experienced the rudeness of police firsthand. I am white. And while I was never beaten by the police, I have been humiliated, insulted, and yelled at by New York City cops. In my early experiences with the American police force, I learned that officers refused to give anyone a piece of advice, an explanation that would help a newcomer in their city. During my first couple of years in New York, I missed the Italian and Slovenian cops. Even Chinese cops were more humane than the American ones. In the United States, if a policeman approaches you, you know you are in trouble because they never come to help you but instead to punish you for some reason. After my first experiences with the police, I realized that in the land of democracy, you must shut up if a policeman approaches you. You must show nothing but obedience, even when they mistreat you. It was then that I began to observe more closely what they were doing to minorities. For me, Mr. Floyd’s murder was reminiscent of Eric Garner’s killing by the police in July 2014. It was a collective murder, planned and rehearsed in police training, as I learned later on. You can read about it in my description of the murder by asphyxiation:

Last year, on July 17, 43-year-old Eric Garner was standing in front of a supermarket in Staten Island and selling loose cigarettes. Authorities, including the police, knew about his apparently illegal commerce. They also knew that he was jobless and that he had six children. They could have just warned Garner and told him to move on. Instead, the police decided to arrest him. Mr. Garner was not happy with it. He screamed at the police to stop persecuting him, asking them to leave him alone and let him earn some money. To the police, he was resisting arrest, so they called a backup and used physical force to get him on the ground while one of the officers applied a chokehold. Video footage clearly shows police tactics. A friendly policeman engages him in a conversation while a couple of them attack the much taller Garner from behind. You can hear Garner screaming “I can’t breath” before he dies on the ground, pressed down by four policemen.

In this tragedy, the diabetic father of six got killed because he was trying to survive with a little trade, which, as with the elderly man I encountered, could be socially useful. The murder also suggests that American – or at least New York – police no longer operate under their slogan, “Protect and Serve.”

Mr. Garner’s horrific murder made a profound impression on me. I, too, became afraid of the ruthless police force. I became very careful about avoiding them. Whenever I notice a young black man surrounded by four or five policemen, I stop to figure out the situation. One day, on the same block where I live, I stopped to listen to a young black man who was agitated as he spoke to the police. The circle was getting closer, so I cut in and asked the squad leader, who I knew by face if everything was okay. “It is none of your business,” the cop leaning against his car told me. “It kind of is, call me a concerned citizen since I live down the street,” I answered. “I know you do,” the policeman responded. The circle then somehow moved towards me, an Asian cop that I had never seen before came aggressively towards me, ordering me to pull my right hand out of my jean pocket. I did without a problem. Then I verbally engaged the policeman, who was getting more and more riled up, but being recognized by one of the policemen, I felt safe enough. Shortly after, another police car arrived, and a black policeman stepped out, got into the circle and pulled the young man to the side, telling him to go. It took me some minutes to walk away safely from the situation because the Asian cop was getting pissed with me. Was he angry because he lost his prey?

In America, it is very hard for me to decide whether I should be more afraid of the police or a potential robber, criminal or bad intentioned person I might come across. In my case, I can say that during my last ten years of living in the U.S., I have become more troubled by the police than by any other person on the street. And I am a white male with a clean criminal record!

So what happens to minorities? I have tried my best to understand how black people feel. Ta-Nehisi Coates was a revelation for me. He writes with the simplicity, and he answered many of my questions, opening up a road for further reading. I also learned a lot by driving Uber, encountering many black people who live in segregated areas of the south-east of the American capital. I kind of sensed that sooner or later, this country would go up in flames. The social inequality in the U.S. has reached its peak. And because the country is without real leadership, the chaos is increasing.

As you can conclude from my initial description of the scenes on the streets, the American nation is once again searching for its identity. George Floyd’s killing was a horrific murder based on racism, but the protest has even deeper and freshly grown social roots. Luckily, it is not only black people who are reacting. The coalition of protesters has grown larger. It is built by mostly young people who are afraid for their futures. With the Coronavirus pandemic, the massive social-economic inequality has transformed America into a black hole. More than 40 million people have lost their jobs in the last three months, the younger generation sees no future, and they feel insecure with the mad man in the White House. The latest figures show that in the richest country in the world the unemployment rate has jumped to almost 25%. The protesters are very much aware that their society is not designed for the public, but a plot of corporate oligarchy. The outbreak of the pandemic has shed light on what is broken in America: dysfunctional and obsolete infrastructure, the nonexistence of a healthcare system, the deepened erosion of social bonds, increased military expansion, and extreme racial segregation.

All of this is what is burning the streets of America today. It is happening in a confusing form and could move in any direction. At the center of this chaos are endangered young generations, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. It is almost beautiful to watch the people on the streets, risking their livelihoods and ignoring the pandemic. Other crowds mostly come by at night. The interpretations of who the vandals are that are hiding behind the majority, burning, and looting, breaking everything in front of them, are misleading and manipulative. Are they the white supremacists or radical leftist groups? It is hard to know because the situation differs from city to city. But the majority of people on the street are from a generation who is fed up with violence, polarization, and racism. Many of them live in conditions that do not allow them to enjoy the privilege of social distancing. With their outbreak, they are showing their anger and despair on the streets of America.

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