As our American society attempts to deal with the second of our two overwhelming crises, every citizen is experiencing nervousness, fear, uncertainty, and – not to make too fine a point of it – a certain level of surprise. How did we get to this point in our lives as American citizens?
All the papers and other media are full of columns, articles, scientific studies (and quasi- or non-scientific studies), and everyone has an opinion. The disorder has come from the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, last Monday, and the circumstances of his death have opened again the vast gulf we Americans have among ourselves as we try to deal with racism in our society. Mr. Floyd’s death – now identified as “homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain … and impeded his ability to breathe” – has unleashed an outpouring of reaction, with protests taking place in, at last count, some 140 cities across the United States.
As reported in NPR, Former President Barack Obama said the protests in cities across the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis under a police officer’s knee “represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States.”
And he wrote in a post that the “the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence” at many demonstrations are “putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause.” He described seeing an interview, where he heard “an elderly black woman being interviewed in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”
The Democrat, who often admonishes people to vote, said that “we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it.”
But he also pointed out that the officials “who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system” work at the state and local levels. Mayors and county executives, Obama wrote, appoint police chiefs and negotiate with police unions, while district attorneys and state’s attorneys “decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct.”
All are elected positions, Obama said, which usually suffer from “pitifully low” voter turnout, “especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.”
For New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a curfew that would be in effect from 11 pm to 5 am, accompanied by an increased police presence on New York’s streets.
In a statement, the governor and the mayor described the curfew as being a necessary step to prevent looting and violent confrontations, and Mr. de Blasio commented, “The demonstrations we’ve seen have been generally peaceful,” said in a statement. “We can’t let violence undermine the message of this moment. It is too important and the message must be heard.”
The point was made via a quick tour of Fifth Avenue this afternoon. Called away from home for an important errand (despite the current stay-at-home rule for one more week), we could see the evidence of preparations for a sixth night of protests. Apparently word is out (at least among community leaders and the businesses in the Fifth Avenue area) that the city has to be ready, and Fifth Avenue merchants (and I presume other merchants throughout the city – and all across America, for that matter) have prepared themselves.
Many of the protests – particularly in other places on the first few nights but even in New York over the last three nights – have been accompanied by rioting and looting and, in some cases, deaths and serious injury. Where we live, just a couple of short blocks East of Fifth Avenue, we’re hearing sirens and helicopters and with each noisy affront, we can’t help but wonder what’s happening and where. As for those Fifth Avenue merchants, not all of them got there in time, as seen in the tourist shop pictured to the left, on Fifth Avenue somewhere around 45th Street. The banner supporting the Fire Department of New York and the New York Police Department hangs high but the window was smashed. Surely the perpetrators in this case weren’t seeking souvenirs. Their actions allow those who turn a blind eye to the core issues of racism – against which these protests began – to smugly ignore those issues.
What comes next?