A Shameful Brand of Democracy: Race and Crowd Control in the Trump Era
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The Cold War was a decades-long struggle between the East and West over ideological primacy, cultural superiority, and, of course, the moral upper-hand. This ideological battle combined frigidly cold diplomatic relations with blazing-hot flash points, and this all coincided with the Civil Rights Movement at home. The pursuit, exercise, and enjoyment of equality is still part of a protracted, long-delayed, and perpetually violent affair in the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, the horrific treatment of African Americans by Southern cops made headlines across the world, and the Soviets latched on to these racial issues for propaganda purposes. It is hard to lecture nations on human rights violations and freedoms, when these issues were receiving inches of newspaper columns and flashing across newsreels across the glove. The powerful visual to the left is one Soviet attempt at exposing American hypocrisy. Viktor Koretsky's 1963 poster decried "A Shameful Brand of American Democracy" and was published by the propaganda organ Izogiz. A forlorned-looking Lady Liberty features a group of policeman assaulting a black American male.
Almost sixty years later, the relationship between American police officers and African Americans is still tense and a politically-fraught subject, particularly when used as part of a culture-wars attack in a presidential election cycle with little understanding of the deep-seated pain.
On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered while he was detained by the Minneapolis police. Four police officers were involved in the incident, and three of them knelt on and suffocated Mr. Floyd for nearly 9 minutes while he cried out for his breath, life, and finally for his mother. [To update this blog post, those officers have now been arrested and charged. Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and the remaining officers involved, Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao have been charged with aiding and abetting. The trial for these four officers will take place next spring at the earliest.)
The death of George Floyd is one of a litany of excessive uses of force that have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement began as a social media response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who in part used controversial stand your ground laws as his defense for shooting Trayvon Martin. In 2014, after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, both of which involved law enforcement, the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated and expanded its activism. The sign carried by a protester lists some of the names of black Americans who have died in questionable circumstances between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement gained further public traction when prominent athletes like 49ers player Colin Kaepernick protested the National Anthem. This resulted in a backlash against his corporate sponsor Nike and spurred movements and trends to counter Black Lives Matter by claiming support for "all lives" or by acknowledging the threats and danger experienced by law enforcement officers (Back the Blue or Thin Blue Line). Police and judicial reforms are hot-button issues this election cycle with a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls during the primary facing tough questions over their own records as prosecutors or attorneys general. President Trump continues to use racial issues to stir up his base at rallies and from his Twitter account.
Trump is no stranger to racial issues. In 1989, he notoriously placed newspaper advertisements in New York papers calling for the restoration of the death penalty in New York. These ads were linked to the now-determined wrongful conviction of five men of color in the gang-rape of a woman in Central Park. The New York businessman and reality-television star reignited his stymied political career in part based on being mocked to his face at the White House Correspondents' Dinner about the birtherism conspiracy that sought to discredit the legitimacy of President Barack Obama. This time it helped fuel him straight to the front of the pack of Republicans who ran in 2016, and ultimately resonated deeply with his base of supporters who elected him to the highest office in the land.
I have titled this post a shameful brand of democracy not simply because of the issues of racism that pervade our society, but also because of a recent photo op that President Trump took not far from the White House. The week after the death of George Floyd protests spread across United States with many cities experiencing violent and destructive clashes between protesters, racists, and law enforcement. Washington D.C. experienced growing protests and the Trump administration responded by strengthening and expanding the fortifications and enclosures around the White House. On the evening of May 29th, protesters broke through barriers near the East Wing forcing Trump and his family to take refuge in the bunker under the White House. On social media, news of Trump hiding resulted in the circulation of taunts which grew exponentially by the end of the month.
On June 1st, however, the Trump administration took recourse against the protesters and tried to shake the quaking image of the president through a show of strength. The preceding evening the parish house of the historic St. John's Episcopal Church received some damage by trespassers. In an attempt to play to his base, which includes substantial support from evangelical Christians and "law and order" groups, the President used the historic church for a photo op. This in itself would not be unusual nor necessarily problematic, but the events that transpired between the White House and the church are shameful in historic proportions. In order to reach the church across from the White House, the President's close advisers, which unusually includes his daughter and son-in-law along with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, devised a plan to cross Lafayette Square, which was full of protesters.
At 6:00 pm, a combination of law enforcement and military personnel began maneuvering toward the crowd of protesters under the watch of Attorney General William Barr. Twenty minutes later the Trump administration claims this force gave the first of three orders to disperse and then around 6:30 pm members of the force using riot shields meet and clear protesters and clergy from the grounds of St. John Episcopal Church. Chaos ensued in the minutes that follow as pepper balls, gas, and rubber bullets are propelled into the crowd of protesters, activists, and clergy. The crowd disperses along side streets while the President gives a speech in the Rose Garden that proclaims him to be "an ally of all peaceful protesters." Finally, at 7:00 pm the President followed by White House officials and his security detail walked from the White House through Lafayette Square to the church where he was photographed initially holding a Bible incorrectly. After the roughly five-minute-long photo op, the President and his team returned to the White House. That evening taller barriers are erected around Lafayette Square to keep protesters further away from the executive mansion. The dispersal was filmed and experienced by multiple news crews, including one pair of Australian journalists who were attacked by batons, shields, and rubber bullets.
While we do not presently know the full details of who planned the photo op or even who was involved in the dispersal since multiple law enforcement groups, including the National Guard, were in the area, we can identify those who participated in this political charade. We clearly see President Donald J. Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, General Mark Milley the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisors Robert O'Brien and his counterpart Keith Kellogg, Chief of Staff MArk MEadows and his deputies Dan Scavino and Tony Ornato, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, presidential advisors and counselors Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump Kushner, Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller, Derek S. Lyons, and Nick Luna, and parts of the communications team including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah.
The scene in front of the White House on June 1st was deeply reminiscent in style and effect to the expulsion of the Bonus Army during the Hoover Administration. Herbert Hoover had the great misfortune of being in office during the initial period of the Great Depression. Like many Americans, the Bonus Army that assembled in homeless camps in Washington D.C. were unemployed and destitute. Unlike earlier veterans, those who served in the Spanish American War and the First World War did not receive bonuses and the previous Coolidge administration was not fond of so-called "paid patriotism." The Hoover administration worked with Congress to provide service certificates, a special type of bond, but the Great Depression made cash an absolute necessity. Thousands of former soldiers and their families assembled in Washington throughout the first half of 1932 in order to pressure Congress to grant them some form of immediate economic relief, and matters came to a head that summer when the House passed economic relief but the Senate defeated the bill by a 62-18 margin.
By July 28th, tensions were at an all-time high and Hoover ordered the removal of the Bonus Army and the destruction of their camp near the Capitol. This was accomplished by a combination of troops, cavalry, and a handful of tanks led by such key figures as then General Douglas MacArthur, Major George S. Patton, and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower (two of whom are in uniform at the right). Two veterans were killed in the attack and more than fifty were injured including a pregnant woman. The use of enlisted soldiers against former soldiers is cited as one of a number of reasons that Hoover lost the 1932 election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The crushing of the Bonus Army did not, however, seem to have much of an impact on MacArthur, Patton, or Eisenhower, who later became President of the United States.
I have tried to keep this blog relatively apolitical. If one believes that history starts now and that we should preserve the past, then it is natural to comment on current events and to try and place them in some historical context if at all possible. The tragic deaths of Floyd and so many others as well as assaults against peaceful protesters for propaganda purposes unfortunately brings to life the moral failures that Koretsky captured in his poster for Izogiz decades earlier. Furthermore, such an action is the same type of political stunt and human rights violations that we as Americans often decried against the Soviets. Although the removal of the Bonus Army is distinctly different from the Trump administration's crowd dispersal, questions over whether or not our armed forces were used against civilian protesters merit further attention. As seen in the case of Hoover, Trump would not be the first president to do so. In the coming months we will see if the ill-advised participation of General Milley has any different outcome than that MacArthur, Patton, or Eisenhower received. Shameful moments indeed.
History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.
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