Experts say a constructive leadership is sometimes the better response to growing unrest than a heavy-handed approach, which might only increase anger.
Many things have gone wrong in the US since the day of its founding, but the mass slaughter of Native Americans and slavery are one of its most glaring sins.
The stark social and income inequality have been troubling symptoms of racism and the long term systemic discrimination, which have historically morphed into countrywide protests. This time, the revolt was triggered by the killing of black native, George Floyd, once again exposing the faultlines of America and challenging the political psychology of the global superpower.
In the wake of the deadly pandemic, the police brutalities led to protesters venting anger on the streets of major American cities, including Los Angeles and New York City.
“In major cities in the United States, for example in Chicago, African-Americans are less than a third of the population, but accounted for 70 percent of the deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Vamik Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia and a well-known expert on political psychology.
Volkan thinks that there is a psychological connection between the pandemic and the protests that condemn the killing of Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis.
Compared to any other minority, the pandemic’s deadly impact is more visible on the country’s most vulnerable minority, the African-Americans. This factor fuelled the demonstrations, making them spread to other cities like a wildfire, according to the professor.
During his long academic career, Volkan has worked on several troubled spots from Palestine to the Baltics. But he has also witnessed widespread racism in the US, especially when he spent time as the medical director of the University of Virginia Hospital in the late 1970s.
There is also an interesting fact about the personal circumstances of Floyd, tying his violent killing with the pandemic.
Feelings about old and perpetual racism
After five years working as a restaurant security guard in Minneapolis, Floyd had lost his job due to Minnesota’s stay-at-home order during the deadly pandemic. Both Floyd and his killer, the former police officer Derek Michael Chauvin, worked in the same nightclub at the same time in the past.
During his arrest, Floyd was accused of paying a counterfeit 20 dollar-bill for a pack of cigarettes. It’s still not clear whether the accusation was true. But it could be worth asking whether an employed Floyd would have met the same fate that the unemployed version did on the evening of 25 May.
But no matter what Floyd’s personal circumstances were, it seems that the Black pandemic deaths and the images of the Black man’s suffocation under the knee of a white officer, have combined enough to trigger the countrywide protests against the US police state and its associated brutality.
“Feelings about old and continuing racism, previous losses have been stimulated [by the Covid-19 deaths]. Then, everyone saw on the media, again and again, a white policeman murdering a black American,” Volkan told TRT World.
In addition to that, “There was no emphatic statement about this event from the White House,” Volkan observed.
Volkan, an expert on political psychology, thinks about mainly two leadership styles — one is a constructive leadership like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who acted like a healer of wounds during serious political crisis, and another is a destructive leadership like Hitler in Germany, who deepened social divisions for his personal glory.
“The George Floyd's murder was followed by protests in many cities in the United States. Still there was no emphatic, calming voice from the American leadership,” Volkan says.
“The personality organization of a political leader at such times plays a most significant role. Watching the news since Donald Trump has become the president illustrates that he is not capable of having genuine empathy for victims after a tragic event,” Volkan observes.
During the crisis, Trump has offered a tough response and blind Law & Order measures to the annoyed protesters. It has hugely increased their anger.
He called them a bunch of “lowlifes and losers”, which may have been interpreted by some members of the African-American community, as a reference to the poor conditions in which so many live, as well as the high unemployment in the Black community.
“During such times, when he speaks, he becomes preoccupied with his own ‘greatness’,” the Turkish-American psychiatrist said.
In the past, Trump has called himself a “stable genius” and “so good looking and smart”, qualifying himself to have a “great and unmatched wisdom”. He also promised to Make America Great Again during his presidential election campaign, making some think that he wants to make the US white again.
Divider in Chief
Some former and current American officials also criticise Trump for his controversial stances.
"Let me just say this to the President of the United States on the behalf of the police chiefs in this country: Please, if you don't have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut, because you're putting men and women in their early twenties at risk," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said during an interview with CNN.
Jim Mattis, a former member of Trump's cabinet as the Pentagon chief and a well-decorated war general, also strongly criticised the president for his bold words and actions.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort,” Mattis wrote in a letter which he sent to various media organisations.
Some Americans still think that a tough response is necessary to prevent lawlessness and political chaos.
“Peaceful protests were accompanied by arson and looting. I have no way to study possible organized political factors for this development,” Volkan viewed, referring to unknown elements behind violence and looting.
Some have blamed the violent protests on Antifa, an armed leftist group defending militancy, while others point out that some white supremacists purposely infiltrated demonstrations to make them look bad and violent.
Volkan also thinks there is another relationship between the protests and the pandemic, as demonstrators have seen an opportunity to liberate themselves from the government-imposed lockdowns.
“We can also imagine that thousands of people, may be unconsciously, wanted to deny the impact of COVID-19 and physical distancing,” Volkan said.
But beyond all, to him, the divisions between American society have appeared on clear lines.
“As the elections near the severe societal division in the country will become more visible. Of course, we do not yet know the future of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the professor concluded.