American civil society, undermined deliberately or unwittingly by both parties for short-term political gain or ideological satisfaction, is weaker than at any time since 1860.
The unrest in the US is not going away, and it could potentially become deadlier and more prolonged than previous periods of civil conflict. A pandemic on top of a depression, as well as a telecommunications revolution, has brought the US to its current status - although the reasons for civil conflict are older than the country itself.
It was just over a week ago that George Floyd died, and the country seems profoundly and permanently changed. In fact, that process of change is only just beginning. The old adages no longer apply. How could anybody now “work hard and play by the rules” when there is no work and there are no rules?
New charges announced on Wednesday for the officers who, through action and inaction, killed George Floyd, will not serve as a vaccine against future civil conflict, especially with US President Trump stoking resentments for the next news cycle. The mighty meaning of television ratings, not rights, in Trump’s mind, are the best measure of what is moral. The more ratings the trial gets because of his cameo within it, makes it more exciting and dramatic, not least if it makes the President look clever and strong.
These patterns of pathological behaviour by the president are predictable and they remain a reality. But the collapse of former, pre-Trump certainties, means there are fewer brakes on this period of unrest than there were during the time of the US civil war.
At that time, there was one main issue at stake: whether or not to preserve slavery itself. Truth, justice and equality trying to “win the peace” is an ongoing struggle that the US is far from through. Police reform is one battle that still needs to be fought in 2020.
The military defeat of the pro-slavery alliance of slaveowners in 1865, also called the “Confederacy,” seemed to answer that question but never really did. A country where shareholders still make money from incarcerated labour, is not a country that can claim to have ended slavery.
A country where an unarmed black man, George Floyd, 46, can be torture-murdered by an officer who does not seemingly care whether his actions are being recorded — that is not a country anyone should accept living in.
In this grim context, the pattern that is emerging shows a chain reaction of events that is making its people harder for police to control. The main engine of those events is the continuing scourge of police violence against black people.
“It feels like it’s just been an endless cascade of hashtags of black people dying, and it feels like nothing’s really being done by our political leaders to actually enact real change,” said Christine Ohenzuwa, 19, a peaceful protester in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the Associated Press.
“There’s always going to be a breaking point. I think right now, we’re seeing the breaking point around the country. It’s really painful to see what’s going on, but it’s also really important to understand that it’s connected to a system of racial violence.”
What makes America’s situation so dangerous, is that the system of racial violence is so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. It extends far into the past and is guaranteed to extend far into the future. These are the questions that elected governments are supposed to try to figure out, but congress is not meeting again in person until 30 June. The senate, meanwhile, is sceptical that Americans could use any more emergency money, even as 40 million have suddenly become jobless. As the US becomes ungovernable, the governors have skipped town.
If there is a natural law to humans in large groups, it’s that they react poorly to sharp decreases in their standard of living, especially when they could not anticipate the crisis that brought it on. The French Revolution happened after a famine, and drastically altered the course of human history - although in ways that led to bloodshed for both France and Europe.
A comparable cataclysm could be in store for the United States, although accompanied by 21st century firepower and an infectious, incurable virus that, in effect, drowns people by melting lungs. The prevalence of guns, as many as 400 million, makes it easier for one person to kill more people at once than ever before. There is nothing safe about that.
American civil society, meanwhile, undermined deliberately or unwittingly by both parties for short-term political gain or ideological satisfaction, is weaker than at any time since 1860. Decades of underinvestment in healthcare and education have made Americans sicker and victims of a declining life expectancy. They are more afraid, confused and vulnerable to deranged lies than they ever have been. Paranoid, bigoted cults and narcissitic, opportunistic demagogues, political and commercial, have emerged from the cyberooze of the Internet to evangelise where education has become extinct.
An act of racist mass murder by a lone, death-worshipping reactionary, always seemed to be around the corner even prior to coronavirus, back in last October. Just as climate change is still happening, that threat is still as real as ever in the US.
Wherever you are in the world reading this, that tragic news alert could pop up on your phone at any time, updating yet another death toll with intermittent beeps, with another unfamiliar American town name. It will be a miracle if the US can make it through the year without seeing a recurrence of this nightmare.
The cycle of outrage
While that horror hovers, coronavirus has diminished or destroyed the possibility of distractions such as summer jobs or summer camps that keep the irrational exuberance of youth off the street.
Nevertheless, there will be every reason for people to stay out this summer. Millions of the formerly working poor are now jobless amid the coronavirus pandemic. Camps and summer schools are far more difficult amid social distancing measures, and may be impossible for families to afford. Summer jobs will be far harder to get.
Demonstrating will become a daily habit. Then, if there is a spike in coronavirus cases, state and city governments may decide to reimpose coronavirus lockdown measures, which will perpetuate the immisteration of citizens as deaths begin to increase again. The police will have to enact an indefinite curfew of American cities. If they keep enforcing it as they have been, then the cycle of outrage will become faster and more fraught.
Summers are already dangerous due to gun violence, and that gun violence will not stop under these circumstances of extreme stress. There are already around 10,000 gun killings a year in the US each. They will be much more dangerous with the addition of more guns in the hands of police on the streets.
As for the effect of the virus, it’s hard to tell. But the deadliest war in American history, for Americans, was the civil war, when between 600,000 and 1 million died, many of them from diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera and dysentery and infections brought on by bullet wounds.
Americans are not accustomed to seeing each other in masks, just as Americans during the civil war were not accustomed to seeing their neighbours in army outfits. The mask factor may seem insignificant, but it is important in the American cultural context.
Mainly, masks are a bit of a psychological shock in a country known for its habit of smiling. One sociological study suggested that the ‘easy American smile’ is born out of a culture where not everyone speaks the same language. A grin can decrease tensions in a multicultural country.
Those smiles have now gone from behind masks, if they are there at all, and are replaced only with a peering sets of eyes that can advertise anger or fear far easier than kindness or compassion. It is now even easier to dehumanise a stranger if you can’t see the full scope of the pain and terror on their face.
The collective effect of this disorientation for both the police and protestors, a sudden anonymising of an individualistic society, has short-circuited Americans’ brains. The main unconscious reflex Americans have to de-escalate tensions with strangers is now lost to us, whether police or protestor.
It is not clear the exact timeline of events this summer, but it is likely to bring the trial of the police officers who killed George Floyd, 46, in Minneapolis on 25 May. The state attorney general of Minnesota, a former congressman named Keith Ellison, has taken over the case. Ellison was the first Muslim to serve as a US representative.
Ellison could announce charges for the three other officers who stood by as their partner, Officer Derek Chauvin, squeezed the life out of Floyd on the pavement. But that prosecution will not be enough to quell protests, and if the verdict is not-guilty, then tensions could erupt again.
Ellison’s prosecution will become a-partisan affair, because US President Donald Trump will want it to be, along with the usual rotation of conservative commentators trying to plug their thoughts into Trump’s brain. Trump is likely to start to comment on the trial, accuse the media of lying about his accomplishments, and suggest who he thinks is really innocent or guilty.
But the case does not stop with Floyd. Police will likely kill or injure more people both at protests and also outside of them, and Trump will try to referee more of them from his perch in the White House in front of Fox News. He will do this because it amuses him. He is, by vocation, a boxing match promoter and reality show drama creator. Now, he does similar things by simply invoking the Insurrection Act and ordering the military into cities.
Trump is a champion of “inat,” the Turkish and Balkan term that roughly translates to “spite”. It has a deeper meaning when it comes to civil conflict: taking joy in the suffering of an enemy.
“Inat means ‘This is going to hurt me but it’s going to hurt you more, and I am going to enjoy that you suffer.’ All humans have that capacity, but they have a snappy word for it,” Dundee, Scotland-based political analyst and professor Kurt Bassuener, who specializes on democratization in the Balkans, told TRT World . “Inat is what got Trump elected.”
The cycle of inat that got Trump into the White House, is moving faster and faster with each new video of police abuse. Basseuner fears that this explosion of inat politics could make COVID-19 deadlier and the economic depression even deeper.
“Trump’s base is far from the scene of this,” Bassuener said, speaking of rural, white Trump voters, his most loyal base. “They may have not had massive COVID as it was in urban areas. But I guarantee you when it comes for the second wave, and there needs to be economic help for devastated urban areas, they’re going to say no.”
Is there a way out of this cycle of faceless inat provoked by the president and militarised police? What’s happening in the US feels a bit outside of anyone’s control, since each human involved can instantly broadcast their abuse by the police all around the world. Even though there is plenty of dread and uncertainty, there is a sense that if change does not happen now, then when?
“There’s a difference here relative to past protests and civil disturbances, which I've heard from other Chicagoans might have been an effect of a difference in police tactics. To say we're heading towards revolution is premature I think, but who knows,” Seth, 28, a Chicago-area worker at a senior centre, told TRT World.
“As a working class person in a biracial marriage I welcome any movement towards equity and in spite of the damage I think that is the thrust of these demonstrations and I welcome it,” he said. “As long as demonstrations continue on as broad a scale as this it's a statement that people are refusing to go along and get along with the status quo of disproportionate violence from law enforcement. It's a refusal to forget as easily as we have in the past.”
Breaking the cycle of inat does not demand forgetting old injustices, but choosing ways of how to stop them in the future. Americans are still a long way from figuring out how to do that, as another summer fighting season looms. That fighting season’s rubber bullet blindings will be far harder for the blinded to forgive.