Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
The Big Story: Protest and Policing in America
Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, joins senior editor Yoni Appelbaum for a live conversation about the choice he says Americans face: racism or anti-racism.
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Against the Insurrection Act
Senator Tom Cotton argued Wednesday in The New York Times that given the rioting and looting in multiple U.S. cities, “it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority.” Some governors have mobilized the National Guard, the Arkansas Republican observed, yet others refuse to or are still overwhelmed. “In these circumstances,” he wrote, “the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military.” The op-ed dovetailed with President Trump’s June 1 statement that if a city or state “refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”Use of the Insurrection Act to quell domestic riots is not unprecedented. For example, it was invoked in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots. Nor is it without appeal to some Americans–and not just authoritarians. Some approve of and trust the military far more than municipal police departments that they find corrupt and abusive. And conceivably the military would quell riots with less loss of life than would cops in some areas, and be more diligent than some police departments in distinguishing lawful protest from rioting.[Adam Serwer: Trump gave police permission to be brutal ]Still, the approach would risk catastrophe. Local leaders and police officers are more accountable to the people than soldiers are, and they know their needs better than Washington politicians do. Where extra help is needed, the National Guard, under the command of governors, is up to stopping riots. Deploying troops against the wishes of state and city leaders would only inflame passions, and could provoke a constitutional crisis.Perhaps that’s why Secretary of Defense Mark Esper opposes the move. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law-enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” he said yesterday in a press conference. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”Those reasons alone are sufficient to reject the approach. Yet another concern should loom even larger: Trump has shown himself unfit to lead the sorts of operations under discussion.From the start, Trump has fanned the flames. Last month, he tweeted: “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But the Fourth Amendment prohibits simply shooting looters unless they pose an imminent threat to a person. In other words, he has already suggested responses that would violate his oath of office.More recently, Trump misused federal troops in Washington, D.C., where they are already deployed under his control. “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” General James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, wrote afterward. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”[Read: James Mattis denounces President Trump, describes him as a threat to the Constitution]Mattis went on to warn that militarizing our response sets up a false conflict between the military and civilians, eroding the moral ground “that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.”That caution would apply under any president. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” Mattis added. “At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.”But the president is a man who once said this about the murder of peaceful protesters:“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square,” he told Playboy magazine in the March 1990 issue, “the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.” Trump continued, “That shows you the power of strength."No president has ever been less morally or temperamentally fit to lead an effort to quell unrest. And the public is primed with rational distrust that will undermine him from the start should he attempt it. Congress should consider repealing the Insurrection Act, lest he invoke the law anyway
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The Incapacity of Hope
Barack Obama may be the greatest presidential orator in modern American history. But his comments yesterday about the killing of George Floyd were awkward and strained. The reason is that Obama told the same story about America that he’s been telling since he entered national politics fifteen years ago. It’s a hopeful story about a country that is more united than divided. And it’s never felt more dissonant than it does now.“As tragic as these past few weeks have been,” Obama suggested in a speech delivered from his home in Washington, “they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened.” He was particularly “hopeful,” he explained, because “so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized.”As he has many times before, Obama saw in current events the seeds of a more decent nation. And yet that faith in America’s moral direction—which was so prevalent among progressives when Obama took office—feels out of step with the embitterment and radicalization that have brought protesters into the streets today.[Read: Why Obama chose to speak now]Look back over Obama’s past statements on race and you notice two core themes. First, America’s is a story of progress. In March 2008, under pressure to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, candidate Obama condemned his former pastor for not recognizing America’s capacity for change. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons,” he declared, “is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made.” In 2015, Obama even found a narrative of hope in Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina—a massacre that proved to many the historical continuity of white terrorism in the South. Roof, Obama told the mourners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “was being used by God.” The almighty had used his atrocity to make “us to see where we’ve been blind…to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred into many of our citizens.”Obama’s use of the words “we” and “our”—an odd choice of pronouns for a black president to employ at a black church when discussing people who don’t grasp the pain caused by the Confederate flag—hints at Obama’s second core theme: That, across racial and ideological lines, Americans are more alike than they are different. No matter what the “spin masters and negative ad peddlers” say, Obama famously declared in his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” He ended his 2008 speech about Jeremiah Wright with the story of an elderly black man in South Carolina who, after meeting a young white Obama organizer named Ashley who had grown up in desperate poverty, explained that he joined the Obama campaign “because of Ashley.”The message was similar: That Americans can see beyond the identities that cynics use to divide them. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama conjured “the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn’t see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son.” In other words, blacks and whites and liberals and conservatives might disagree about public policies like affirmative action. But deep down, they share the same values.[Read: Obama on race, identity, and the way forward]Donald Trump’s presidency has challenged both of Obama’s favored themes. While Obama described his election as another chapter in America’s story of racial progress, Trump’s election has convinced influential progressives that the Obama era was a second Reconstruction, a brief interlude between eras of white domination. And the fact that white voters favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 21 points has undermined Obama’s assertion that, policy differences notwithstanding, Americans share a broad consensus that racism is wrong.The killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has done additional damage to Obama’s narrative of progress and unity. Along with other recent incidents, it has convinced many progressives that, no matter how many times African Americans and their allies protest, police brutality continues. And, along with the coronavirus pandemic, it has revealed a country profoundly divided among racial and class lines.In his comments on Wednesday, Obama labored to reconcile these bleak developments with his core themes. Echoing his 2015 comments in Charleston, he suggested that the very horrors that others see as evidence of America’s structural racism would spur Americans to counter it. But while COVID-19 and the recent police killings may have politically mobilized some Americans, few of them are as hopeful as Obama. One hundred thousand Americans have died from the pandemic and the unemployment rate may soon hit 20 percent. Sixty-nine percent of Americans, and 85 percent of African Americans, believe the country is on the wrong track. Trump does look politically vulnerable, but there’s little evidence that the young people leading the current protests have much faith that electing Joe Biden—whom they overwhelmingly opposed during the primaries—will bring the fundamental change they desire.Even Biden himself, in his comments on Monday, sounded less optimistic than Obama. He described America as “a nation that’s exhausted” and offered a grimmer historical narrative than the one favored by his former boss. “The American story is a story about action and reaction,” Biden declared. “That’s how history works. We can’t be naïve about it…American history isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.”[Ta-Nehisi Coates: My president was black]In addition to describing the current moment as hopeful, Obama—as is his tendency—used it to depict an America that is more unified than it appears. He suggested that many “folks in law enforcement” are “just as outraged about the tragedies as are many of the protesters,” which is a far cry from Black Lives Matter’s call to “defund the police.” And he argued that, in comparison to the 1960s, the current protests enjoy support from “a far more representative cross section of America.” That’s partly true. Polls show that a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters. But most white Americans retain a favorable impression of Donald Trump. And political scientists suggest that, since Obama’s presidency, racial attitudes have grown more polarized, not less.Although Obama disparaged comparisons to the 1960s, the contrast between his message of unity and hope and the disillusioned, radicalized Millennials and Zoomers who backed Bernie Sanders and have now taken to the streets, evokes the difference between the beginning of that decade and its end. Listening to Obama yesterday was like listening to Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. Despite King’s fundamental critique of American racism, capitalism, and imperialism, he and Kennedy offered far more hopeful and inclusive messages than those of the Students for a Democratic Society, Stokely Carmichael’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers—voices that gained prominence as the decade wore on.On Tuesday, the former president, with his unshakeable faith in America and Americans, sounded like a messenger from a more innocent age. Ironically, Biden—who on Monday evoked “communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time”—better captured this moment’s fury and pain. And yet the basic discrepancy between the reformist, institutionalist perspective that he and Obama share, and the new militancy on America’s streets, will likely create strained and awkward moments for him too, in the months to come.
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The Damage That White Onlookers Inflict
One summer when I was about 7, a white girl almost drowned me.We were splashing around in Lake Winnepocket on a sunny afternoon. The lake was crowded as usual, and Kelly—as I will call her—offered to carry me out to the big rock. The big rock was about 25 feet from the shore, and served as a marker for where the lake bed took a sharp dip and got dangerously deep. Most of the younger kids who swam at Winnepocket knew not to go past that rock, whether they could swim or not. I didn’t know how to swim, but I loved the water. My mom used to have to give me three or four warnings that it was time to go before I would come out, begging for just five more minutes. Kelly was a few years older, and so when she offered to carry me out to the big rock, I felt excited at the chance to see it. I also felt cool because a big kid had taken an interest in me.Kelly held me on her hip and we waded slowly out toward the middle of the lake, past other kids dunking and bobbing and shrieking with delight. And then, when we got to the big rock, she dropped me. I quickly sank, as my toes reached instinctively for a bottom they couldn’t possibly touch. My nose burned as water flooded through to the back of my throat and I gagged, flailing and terrified. I squeezed my eyes shut, lashes and lids saturated and heavy, and pushed my hands against the weight of the water, trying to buoy myself to the surface. [Clint Smith: Becoming a parent in the age of Black Lives Matter]After what felt like forever, an adult finally pulled me to safety, and I coughed and sputtered and cried. My sister, who in her memory was sitting on the shore, didn’t tell me until we were adults that after Kelly came out of the water, having left me behind, she laughed and called me the N-word.In my memory, my sister was in the water with me, about five feet away from where this was happening. She was not a great swimmer herself and always kept to the shallow part, never venturing much past where the water hit her thighs. My sister and I were close when we were little, but this seemingly small disparity in our recounting of this story is telling.I grew up the only black person in an all-white town, adopted into an otherwise all-white family. Many people at the lake must have seen what happened, but only one stepped up to save my life. In my memory, my sister was one of the onlookers. Had something already been ingrained in my sister’s 11-year-old mind, through school or TV or who knows where, that betrayed her instinct to save me? Did a similar something make her block out that she’d been physically close enough to have the instinct to begin with?I shared this story on a recent episode of my podcast, Come Through. We were talking about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, and why it was important to call Arbery’s death what it was: a lynching—vigilantism when the crime is being black.The spectacle of a black person terrorized by a white person, struggling to breathe and stay alive while other white people look on, is not new; in fact, it’s foundational to America. During slavery, lynchings were used to subjugate the black population and entertain the white population; black people were hanged from trees in front of raucous, smiling white crowds. We know this because many of these events were captured in photos, which were then printed in newspapers.[Adam Serwer: The cruelty is the point]Before the national discourse around Arbery’s death even had a chance to wane, new video footage spread, this time of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, until he died. Floyd told the officer he couldn’t breathe before he breathed his last. And now Minneapolis and other cities have erupted in protests, echoing the summer of 2014, when black activists took to the streets following the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, which also prompted the hashtag and organized collective Black Lives Matter. What’s happening now also echoes so many other protests in the fight against police brutality and violence toward black people over the course of American history.I want white people to stop killing us, but I also want white people to stop watching us get killed—to disarm their emotional paralysis in the face of dehumanization or worse. And that will require something more than tweets and hashtags from well-meaning white people, and more than even traditional activism coupled with appeals for concrete policy change. It will demand intervention. If not a physical intervention, like the adult who pulled me out of the water at Lake Winnepocket, then a moral one.[Read: How well-intentioned white families can perpetuate racism]The other day, a childhood friend of mine who now lives abroad called me out of the blue in tears: “How can this be happening? I’m so sorry about what’s happening in America, but more so what’s happening to black people in America. I don’t know what to do. I just feel miserable and I can’t stop crying.”“Lean into that,” I said. “That’s the appropriate response.” Miserable is exactly how the white people who want to help should be feeling right now, and then they should sit with that misery until something breaks in their brain, the narrative changes in their psyche, and the legacy of emotional paralysis lifts entirely. I don’t mean self-serving sadness or performative tears, but rather a bone-deep sense of agony and grief that forces the humanization of black people. We can’t matter unless we are seen as human beings first.I don’t believe that my sister or neighbors intended to watch me drown that day at the lake. It all happened fast. But the fact that a white girl almost drowned me while other white people looked on proved my humanity only to me.
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Trump Tries to Scare People Far From Any Violence
Like most Americans, I am nowhere near any violence right now. Nevertheless, I am hearing and seeing violence on a series of screens: television screens, smartphone screens, computer screens. Even in a room as quiet as mine—outside the window I can see grass and trees—the cacophony is almost unbearable. It’s as if different choruses are all singing at the same time, and not in harmony.In Salt Lake City, police knocked down an elderly man who was walking with a cane. In New York City, two police SUVs drove into a crowd. In Houston, on the other hand, the police chief told a multiracial crowd, “If you’ve got hate in your heart for people of color, get over it.” In Camden, New Jersey, police officers marched together with protesters. On Sunday, rioters in Washington, D.C., burned shops and lit a fire in the refectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. On Monday, completely peaceful demonstrators in the square were teargassed so President Donald Trump could have himself photographed in front of that same church with a copy of the Bible in hand.[Read: Trump does not speak for these Christians]Many would like to simplify these events—to give them a single, clear interpretation. Some tell a harrowing story about police violence. Some tell a heartwarming story about police and communities pulling together. Some tell an insidious story about black looters. Some tell a murky story about white infiltration of peaceful black protest movements. A few weeks ago, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong described a “patchwork pandemic,” a coronavirus outbreak that is unfolding in different ways in different parts of the country. Now we have patchwork protests, mixed with patchwork riots. In each one of them, the police and the protesters have different motives, create different impacts, affect people in different ways.Nevertheless, the internet is positively thrumming with people who want to fit these disparate stories into a single narrative. Yesterday, I reposted on Twitter a short video clip of what appears to be two white women, both dressed in black outfits with black face masks. Invoking the Black Lives Matter movement, they were spray-painting BLM and other graffiti on the outside wall of a Starbucks in an unidentified city. A black protester shouted at them to stop. “They are going to blame black people for this,” she said, “and black people didn’t do it.” The clip was less than two minutes long. I wrote one sentence on top: “This is an unbelievably complicated story.”Many respondents did not agree. What was I talking about? This was not a complicated story! Because, obviously, the women were far-left “antifa” members seeking anarchy. Or because, obviously, the women were far-right white supremacists seeking a race war. Or because, obviously, the women were part of a larger plot to discredit the black protesters. One person wrote that “every single thing that has happened has been planned by Trump’s people to get Covid and unemployment and masks off the front pages.” Another person told me that antifa had been preparing this chaos for a long time. A third tweeted another video clip, this one—apparently—of a white store owner in South Carolina being beaten up by black rioters. I think it was meant to be a kind of counterargument: Here’s what black people are really like. [Read: Don’t fall for the ‘chaos’ theory of the protests]The point, for many, is to find justifications for what they already believe and reinforcement of the identity that they already have. From this vantage point, the unrest is the fault of black people (or white people), police (or protesters), the right (or the left). Emotions are so high that the ongoing effort to manipulate images coming out of the protests is already an industry in and of itself, involving uncounted fake accounts, bots, and provocateurs. #DCblackout, a wildly popular hashtag started by a new Twitter account with only three followers, falsely claimed that D.C. police had imposed a communications blackout. Thousands of people believed it. A white-nationalist group called Identity Evropa turned out to be the true owner of an influential viral account called @ANTIFA_US. On Twitter and in private message groups it called for violence—and thousands of people believed that too.The proliferation of false stories and fake narratives doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist, or that Americans will never find out what really happened. But it does mean that the full story has to be told in quite a complicated way, from different angles, by many people. That requires time and patience, as well as the sort of journalism that millions of Americans no longer trust. If nothing else, the dozens of physical attacks by police on journalists in recent days offer final proof that the president’s constant verbal attacks on journalists have been absorbed and believed by many, including a number of officers. False stories can be promulgated more easily when the people trying to tell true stories have been discredited—or when they are battered by rubber bullets.In any case, quite a lot of people will not want to hear the truth. Quite a lot of people will want, instead, for everyone to shut up. They will want force, violence, whatever it takes to make the cacophony stop. The behavioral scientist Karen Stenner has written very eloquently about people who have what she calls an authoritarian predisposition, a personality type that is bothered by complexity and is especially enraged by disagreement. Trump has made himself into the spokesperson for precisely these American authoritarians. They were the audience for his decision to use tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square. It’s for them that he uses the language of “domination,” for them that he calls for the army, for helicopters, for the cities to be treated as a “battle space,” in the astonishing words of America’s secretary of defense.[Anne Applebaum: History will judge the complicit]The church and the Bible were part of the message too. Trump did not even pretend that he was going to St. John’s to pray. He did not ask permission of the church or the diocese or even pay lip service to God; on the contrary, Episcopal clergy were cleared out of the area by the same tear gas that dispersed the protesters. Instead, he held up a Bible for the cameras, not as a religious gesture, but as a signal. Trump was sending a message to his Americans with an authoritarian predisposition: I share your identity. I am part of your tribe.But force is not the only possible response to cacophony. Instead of imposing silence, you can produce harmony. You can create a different narrative—a larger narrative that pulls people together. You can seek consensus, you can appeal to something that everyone can agree on. You can invoke patriotism, America, the founding documents, or just the belief that things can change for the better.Historically, this is the tactic that America’s greatest and most beloved leaders have always used. Abraham Lincoln appealed to the “better angels” of our nature. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “all God’s children” and their right to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. The mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, tried a similar kind of appeal on Sunday. She appealed to the history of Atlanta, and to King’s legacy of nonviolence. “A protest has purpose,” she said, but violence has no purpose. “When you burn down this city,” Bottoms declared, “you’re burning down our community.” In this time-honored way, she encouraged Atlantans to make use of democratic institutions in order to make society better: “If you want change in America, go and register to vote! Show up at the polls on June 9! Do it in November!”The question now is whether the old American mantras, the appeals to traditions of democracy and the rule of law, still work—or whether they have now become just another competing narrative in the information war. Certainly the president is assuming the latter. All of the calls for community, dialogue, good-faith discussions—these are just another set of arguments that he has to defeat. If Trump is to win in November, he has to undermine not just the press, and not just public trust, but faith in democracy itself.He has to convince Americans that nothing will function, that all of the institutions have failed, that only violence remains. He has to convince all of the people who are sitting at home as I am, surrounded by trees and grass, that they are in such grave danger from the noise on their screens that they need brute force to shut it off. He has five months left to make that argument.* Photo collage images courtesy of Yuki Iwamura / John Minchillo / Matt Rourke / Alex Brandon / Evan Vucci / John Locher / Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP; Agustin Paullier / Anadolu Agency / Roberto Schmidt / Elijah Nouvelage / Getty
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