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Riots Are the American Way
Those who rebuke violent responses to injustice should ask themselves: How should the oppressed respond to their oppressors? (Morgan Smith)Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. When our founding fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call. Phrases such as “Live free or die” and “Give me liberty or give me death” echoed throughout the nation, and continue today. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend liberty, because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their Negroes.”Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy. Today, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike have erupted across the country in response to police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet the language used to refer to protesters has ranged from “looters” to “thugs” and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.Think back to March 5, 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent, became the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks was one of a handful of protestors killed by British forces during the Boston Massacre. The lawyer tasked with defending the British soldiers in their American criminal trial was none other than Adams. When presenting his case, Adams described the men those soldiers killed as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” He built his defense of the British soldiers on the charge that Attucks struck the first blow and led the “dreadful carnage.” Adams concluded the “mad behavior” of Attucks provoked the soldiers’ response, claiming that Attucks’s group was “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person.” Some 250 years later, Adams’s words still underline a central truth in American disobedience: Freedom through violence is a privilege only possessed by whites. Seminal moments in U.S. history which historians have defined as patriotic were also moments that denied patriotism to black people.[Read: When police view citizens as enemies ]If violence is a political language, white Americans are native speakers. But black people are also fluent in the act of resistance. Attucks stood up to British tyranny. The numerous slave rebellions lead by Gabriel Prosser, Charles Deslondes, and Nat Turner were all attempts to gain freedom with force. Throughout the 20th century, black Americans armed themselves in the face of white mobs and organized protection for their freedom marches. Accordingly, when George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others were unarmed and unjustly killed by police, black people and their allies chose to rise up.Protests at Philadelphia City Hall on May 30, 2020 (Morgan Smith)Americans like to harken back to the civil-rights era as a moment of nonviolence and civil disobedience. But that movement was an orchestrated response to violence. Violence at the voting booth. Violence at the lunch counter. Violence that bombed a church with four little black girls. Violence that left a bloated black boy in an open casket. Violence that left a black husband and father murdered in his driveway. The movement ended with the violent death of Martin Luther King Jr. And his death ignited riots in more than 100 cities.[Read: The American nightmare]It is easy to dismiss the rock thrower; Attucks himself was accused of throwing sticks. But those who rebuke violent responses to injustice should ask themselves: How should the oppressed respond to their oppressors? How should the nation respond to political dissent? How do the oppressed procure power? Throughout history, Black people have employed violence, nonviolence, marches, and boycotts. Only one thing is clear—there is no form of black protest that white supremacy will sanction. Still, black people understand the utility of riotous rebellion: Violence compels a response. Violence disrupts the status quo and the possibility of returning to business as usual. So often the watershed moments of historical record are stamped by violence—it is the engine that propels society along from funerals to fury and from moments to movements.In December of 1866, the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote an essay for The Atlantic in which he reflected on the benefits of rebellion: “There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one.” He then concluded, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Many people are asking if violence is a valid means of producing social change. The hard and historical answer is yes. Riots have a way of magnifying not merely the flaws in the system, but also the strength of those in power. The American Revolution was won with violence. The French Revolution was won with violence. The Haitian Revolution was won with violence. The Civil War was won with violence. A revolution in today’s terms would mean that these nationwide rebellions lead to black people being able to access and exercise the fullness of their freedom and humanity.The other night I was watching the copious news coverage of the protests. I wanted to be out there. I felt helpless. But I just had a baby and had no business being out in the streets. I called my mother for encouragement. She said, “I was in college during all of the ’68 riots. Just keep on living, there’ll be another chance.” History has taught me she is likely right. A riot may be temporary violence, quick and dirty, but it could become a revolution. And though slow and long-lasting, when it is fully matured, a revolution is irrefutable change.
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Two public health crises have collided in the protests over George Floyd’s death
The protests over George Floyd’s death represent the collision of two public health crises steeped in structural racism: coronavirus and police violence. | Stephen Ferry/VIEWpress via Getty Images America’s institutional racism explains both Covid-19’s toll and police violence. The protests against police brutality over the weekend are not only a story about state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. They are also a health care story that reveals the nation’s structural racism, in two important ways. First, police violence is a public health risk. In almost any way you measure it, the US criminal justice system is prejudiced against black Americans, and black people are much more likely to be subjected to state violence in the US compared to white Americans. Researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis tried to quantify the risk to black lives from law enforcement in a recent study. Their findings were stunning: Black men, by far the most at-risk group, face 1 in 1,000 odds of being killed by the police over the course of their lives. This chart succinctly summarizes the researchers’ findings of the risk across different races and genders: PNAS Racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system manifests in every step from arrest to trial to conviction and incarceration. Radley Balko covered the relevant research in a column for the Washington Post. Sadly, none of it will come as much of a surprise: Black people are more likely to be stopped by police, they are less likely to get a fair trial, and their sentences are longer than those of white people convicted of the same crimes. And those systemic injustices have their own health consequences, beyond the most extreme form of a law enforcement officer taking the life of a citizen. A pair of Harvard professors ran through some of them in this piece published in The Conversation: “Suicide is the leading cause of mortality in U.S. jails, accounting for 34 percent of all deaths. Again, the vast majority of these individuals have not been convicted of any crime. Suicide rates among incarcerated individuals are three to four times higher than the general public.” “The food — which tends to be high-calorie and high-fat — often has poor nutritional value. This, combined with restrictions on physical movement and the stress of incarceration and overcrowding, can have adverse effects on both mental and physical health.” “Incarceration also puts individuals at risk for physical and sexual assault.” “An estimated 2.7 million U.S. children have an incarcerated parent. Having a parent incarcerated is considered to be an ‘adverse childhood experience.’ This is linked to multiple negative health outcomes throughout life, including poor mental health, substance abuse, disease, disability and even early death.” “A recent survey of 8,300 correctional officers found that 10 percent have seriously considered or attempted suicide. That’s three times the rate of the general population. Correctional workers also experience higher levels of hypertension from elevated stress levels and higher levels of obesity than the national average.” These disparities, the result of the structural racism that puts black people disproportionately at risk of police violence and incarceration, is what people have come out to protest. And they are doing so in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic that has also taken a disproportionate toll on black Americans. Black people are more likely to work in jobs considered “essential,” exposing them more to the virus. America’s failure to build an equitable health system means its black residents have high rates of preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19. They also live in places more exposed to air pollution and have less reliable access to clean water. America’s structural racism infects every part of the lives of its marginalized citizens. And those disparities have manifested in the coronavirus pandemic, as this data from New York City, the outbreak’s American epicenter, demonstrates: NYC Health And after three months of unprecedented nationwide lockdowns, the sight of thousands of people gathered close together to march in the streets has been a little surreal. It has also raised fears that these protests could become superspreading events that only exacerbate the disparities described above. It’s too soon to say what exactly the effect, if any, will be. But Roni Caryn Rabin covered some of the reasons for concern in the New York Times: Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian who studies pandemics, likened the protest crowds to the bond parades held in American cities like Philadelphia and Detroit in the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which were often followed by spikes in influenza cases. “Yes, the protests are outside, but they are all really close to each other, and in those cases, being outside doesn’t protect you nearly as much,” Dr. Markel said. “Public gatherings are public gatherings — it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting or cheering. That’s one reason we’re not having large baseball games and may not have college football this fall.” Though many protesters were wearing masks, others were not. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease, is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets spread when people talk, cough or sneeze; screaming and shouting slogans during a protest can accelerate the spread, Dr. Markel said. With that in mind, and no sign of the protests ending anytime soon, I would urge anybody considering joining the protests to read this piece from Vox’s Eliza Barclay. She covers some of the precautions people can take to protest more safely. Be safe, everyone, and be good to each other. This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inboxalong with more health care stats and news. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
'Most of you are weak': Trump rails at the nation's governors, urges crackdown on violence
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The ironic invisibility of the loudest man in America
Law enforcement officers from the Calvert County, Maryland, Sheriff’s Office stand outside the White House on May 31. | Alex Brandon/AP Some conservatives want Trump to speak on the protests. They should be careful what they wish for. The United States has for days been engulfed in protests and violence, in large cities and even small towns across the country, following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In response, the president of the United States tweeted. He tweeted a legally questionable declaration that he’d designate antifa a terrorist organization, tweeted about his polling, tweeted simply “FAKE NEWS” and “LAW AND ORDER,” and tweeted the summation of an episode of Fox & Friends. He tweeted about the media and the “vicious dogs” of the Secret Service, and he tweeted advice at state governors and city mayors. He also shared a QAnon conspiracy theorist’s tweet, but later deleted it. After speaking about Floyd’s killing following a NASA launch on Saturday, Trump spent the rest of the weekend at the White House, speaking to the nation only on a platform he’d threatened to shut down just days earlier and largely in the manner of a person observing his own presidency from afar. People on both sides of the aisle noticed Trump’s absence from the national stage, including many on the right who consider themselves among his biggest allies. They haven’t specified an exact course of action but want Trump to take a far more prominent role in calming tensions. But Trump’s press secretary told reporters on Monday, “A national Oval Office address is not going to stop Antifa.” And while some outlets report that the president is interested in doing a “listening tour” with law enforcement and pastors and community leaders, there are no firm plans. Back in 2016, during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump decried violence aimed at police officers and then said, “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.” Four years later, Trump sits in the midst of a crisis of law and a breakdown of order as a result. And it turns out, he alone can’t fix it. “We are led by a buffoon who does nothing but sit on his backside and tweet” Conservative writer Rod Dreher at the American Conservative wrote this past weekend that Trump and the “political class” were completely inept at handling the compounding crises of unrest and a pandemic, saying Trump is “as useless in this crisis as teats on a boar”: The fact is, we have a massive national crisis underway, a crisis on top of two other crises — pandemic and economic collapse — and we are led by a buffoon who does nothing but sit on his backside and tweet. It’s infuriating! The pro-Trump meme creator Carpe Donktum — who attended the White House’s summit on social media last July — tweeted that he would also like to see Trump speak publicly, to “ease public concern and plot a course to peace.” While I subscribe to the theory that you should never interrupt an opponent while they are making a mistake, and this CERTAINLY is a mistake...I too would like to know #WheresTrump There is no better time than now to ease public concern and plot a course to peace.— Carpe Donktum (@CarpeDonktum) June 1, 2020 Other right-leaning observers online have agreed. Caleb Hull, a conservative videographer who works with political campaigns and influencers, said on Twitter that Trump should spend less time tweeting and more time taking “decisive action.” It would be great if the President of the United States would stop rage tweeting in all caps and actually take decisive action as a leader instead of going MIA as our nation melts down. I've heard nothing but disappointment from @realDonaldTrump's biggest supporters.— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) June 1, 2020 And Ann Coulter, once one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders before breaking with him over his perceived softness on immigration, tweeted that he was likely spending his time delving deeper into conspiracy theories about an MSNBC host. To anyone worried that Trump is AWOL as America implodes, rest assured: I'm told he's tracking down some very promising Joe Scarborough leads.— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) June 1, 2020 This was not the moment Trump was made for But in his piece, Dreher made the point that perhaps many of us are thinking: Does anyone really want Donald Trump — the real person, not the idea of Donald Trump often constructed in the imaginations of the media always ready for him to “pivot” — to opine on current events? And you know, we should probably count our blessings. If he went on TV to address the nation, Trump would probably make things worse. There he sits in the White House, impotent, an angry old man who doesn’t know what to do, and who, being utterly despised by half the country — but not feared! — cannot possibly gain control of the situation. When I emailed Dreher and asked what he wanted Trump to do, he said that while he wanted Trump to “issue clear, unambiguous statements that civil disorder will not be tolerated” and do everything in his power to show that he is taking the moment seriously, “Trump being Trump, it’s hard to know what he could possibly do that wouldn’t make things worse.” MORE: Trump tells governors: "You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again," per audio obtained by @CBSNews— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) June 1, 2020 As my colleague Ezra Klein noted over the weekend, “When we elected Donald Trump, we elected a political arsonist.” The point of Trump, the purpose of Trump, was never to ease tensions or unite a nation (one that, arguably, has always been divided, particularly over matters of race). More often, he has held up a mirror to national divisions while using them for his own political purposes. Donald Trump is a blunt instrument aimed like a cudgel at institutions — political and cultural, domestic and foreign — that some of his voters believed ignored millions of Americans at best and hurt them at worst. Trump was made to threaten social media platforms that boosted his candidacy with regulations and potential closure. He was made to scream at cable news networks during a time of relative peace. He was not made to bring a nation reeling from death and disease back from the brink. In response to a request for comment from the New York Times about what he planned to do to address the nation over the weekend, Trump said, “I’m going to win the election easily. The economy is going to start to get good and then great, better than ever before.” Trump wasn’t elected for this moment of crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that he has no idea how to respond to it. As Dreher told me, “Some critics have said all along that Trump only wanted to be president so he could make sure all eyes were on him constantly. Now that has been proven true.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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