Murder & multiculturalism

At one level, the protests that have erupted in the US over the murder on May 25 of George Floyd, an African-American, by the police in Minneapolis underlines the well-known racial fault lines in the world’s most powerful democracy. The incident, filmed in graphic detail by street cameras and personal mobile phones, captured the institutionalised prejudices against minorities in the US. Viewed on a wider canvas, the manner in which the world’s most powerful person responded to this crisis and the public riposte to it have exposed the limits of imposing narrow majoritarian agendas on multicultural nations. President Donald Trump’s knee-jerk response to the protests was straight out of his white supremacist playbook. Ordering peaceful protesters outside the White House be violently dispersed with teargas and pepper balls, even as he bizarrely brandished a Bible in front of church, points to an obtuse understanding of the tragedy in Minneapolis.


Instead of lowering the political temperature, the president chose to magnify the law and order problem caused by stray miscreants (who, contrary to reporting, were from both races), berating state governors as “weak” and advising them to call out the National Guard to crack down on peaceful protests — a move that backfired in Minneapolis. Mr Trump’s response, which includes spreading falsehoods on Twitter, has failed to the extent that protests spread to North America, Europe, West Asia, and the Asia-Pacific, and several African nations have issued a sharp rebuke to the President. “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Floyd and, six years ago, of Eric Garner in New York, have become the new global slogan against minority oppression.


Mr Trump appears to be out of step with the American people — taking refuge in the White House bunker must surely mark the first time a modern US president has hidden from his own citizens — because the nature of responses around the US points to a narrowing constituency for racism. Although protesters were mainly African-American, white Americans and Hispanics formed noticeably sizeable proportions of the crowds everywhere. In the deep red state of Texas, the police chief of Houston, who is not African-American, was bold enough to tell the president to “keep your mouth shut” on national television and spoke of the need to win hearts and minds. In Kansas City, the police chief and mayor and several colleagues (none of them African-American) took off their riot helmets and knelt with the crowd in a moment of silence.


On Wednesday, Mr Trump’s former defence secretary James Mattis reflected the opinion of an increasingly restive military, within which he remains highly respected, when he excoriated the president: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.” Ironically, it is local administrations that are responding constructively. Police chiefs are reviewing the practice of chokeholds, and the officer responsible for Floyd’s death has been charged with second degree murder by the state. Mr Trump evidently drew no lessons from sectarian riots taking place just kilometres from a stately reception hosted for him in New Delhi in February. If protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens raise their heads again, it is important, however, that India’s leadership learns from Minneapolis.


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