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America’s inequalities burst into the open

The chain of violent events being acted out in US cities is depressingly familiar

The worst civil uprisings in the US in more than half a century are forcing Americans to confront deep-rooted problems of racial inequality and police brutality — all while reeling from a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 of their fellow citizens and shattered the economy.

Protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police began peacefully but disintegrated into violence and looting in dozens of cities.

“Last night . . . was an ugly night all across the nation,” said Andrew Cuomo, New York governor, adding that “the real issue is the continuing racism in this country. And it is chronic and it is endemic and it is institutional.”

In New York City, where police cars were overturned, and banks and other businesses were attacked, some argued that it was the first time since the administration of Mayor David Dinkins in 1991 that police appeared to have lost control of the situation.

“We haven’t seen this New York in a long time,” said Mitchell Moss, an urban studies professor at New York University.

The turmoil also spread to smaller cities not typically regarded as backdrops of racial strife, such as Salt Lake City, Utah, where the mayor imposed a curfew until Monday morning to try to quell the violence.

In Rochester, a city of 200,000 in upstate New York, mayor Lovely Warren requested an additional 200 state police troops after dozens of businesses were attacked on Saturday night, with cars set ablaze and police struggling to cope.

“We are not going to tolerate this unrest in our city,” said Ms Warren, who is black. She blamed “outsiders” for hijacking what had been a peaceful protest.

Christopher Hayes, a professor of urban history at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, said the upheaval was the worst since the civil rights era.

“In terms of the widespread nature of this, you would have to go back to 1968, when Dr [Martin Luther] King was assassinated,” he said. “What that shows us is this Minneapolis situation is an American story.”

Floyd’s death — and its aftermath — bore a depressing similarity to other cases of police violence against African-Americans, including Rodney King in Los Angeles, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner in New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to name a few.

It came as many were still digesting the horror of a video showing Ahmaud Arbery being shot to death in February by a Georgia man and his father, a retired law enforcement official. They had attempted to detain Arbery as he jogged through their neighbourhood in daylight.

You can watch the slow motion destruction of this guy’s life. It has the all the trappings of an old time lynching
Prof Christopher Hayes, Rutgers University

What may distinguish the reaction to Floyd’s case is the quality of the video that captured his death. It shows police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds — even after he pleaded for breath.

The footage is so disturbing that even conservative commentators who typically rush to defend the police have largely stood down. Some police officers have even publicly condemned their Minneapolis brethren.

“You can watch the slow motion destruction of this guy’s life,” said Prof Hayes, author of a forthcoming book, We Are Home, about the killing of a black man that set off riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1964. “It has the all the trappings of an old time lynching.”

To many observers, the Floyd protests and the coronavirus pandemic are entwined as examples of America’s seemingly intractable inequality.

Statistics show that black and Hispanic communities have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. As Mr Cuomo noted last week, the infection rate in parts of Brooklyn and Queens exceeds 40 per cent — or more than double that of the city at large. That discrepancy has been attributed to poverty.

Floyd’s death may have also tapped into despair caused by the pandemic, which has resulted in millions losing their jobs. As Mr Moss said: “There’s a lot of anger and economic pain, and it’s all coming out.”

For minority communities, that devastation is compounded by a sense that a president who defended white nationalists carrying torches at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, cares little about their plight.

“We are at a pivotal point in our society where an optimistic outcome would be one where we bend towards justice — or we may bend towards something not akin to justice, like fascism,” said Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

Given the extent and nature of the protests, authorities struggled for solutions. An aggressive police response could restore order, or backfire by prompting more anger.

“This is a moment in America that can’t just lead to a momentary outrage,” Senator Cory Booker told CNN on Sunday, adding that he was preparing legislation to create a national registry of police misconduct.

Many, including Prof Hayes, argued that authorities should, at a minimum, move swiftly to arrest the three officers accompanying Mr Chauvin, who was charged with third-degree murder on Friday — four days after Floyd’s death. That, he argued, would at least signal to the public that some measure of justice was forthcoming.

“Stopping the police from executing people in the streets is an incredibly low bar,” he said.

Other ideas have been discussed in the past but would be more contentious, such as limiting the power of police unions that make it exceedingly difficult to dismiss officers for all but the most egregious conduct.

It took nearly five years, for example, for the New York City Police Department to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014 after applying an aggressive chokehold that caused an asthma attack. Garner, a father of six, had been accused of the minor crime of selling loose cigarettes.

His death incited a wave of protests and led Mayor Bill de Blasio to introduce reforms, including extra police training, instituting a civilian review board and requiring officers to wear body cameras.

Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist and author of book The End of Policing, said those measures had failed, in part due to the growing political and financial clout of police departments.

“They have thrown up roadblock after roadblock through collective bargaining at the ballot box, through all kinds of rhetorical interventions. The only way to oppose this is to use the budget process to take their toys away,” Professor Vitale said.

Danielle Purifoy, an organiser with Durham Beyond Policing Coalition, a grassroots group in North Carolina, argued that American policing was beyond reform because its origins were inherently racist.

“The dominant narrative around policing is that it’s broken,” said Ms Purifoy. “The reality is that it’s actually working exactly the way that it was intended to work.”

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