On 1 June 2020, Donald Trump declared civil war on America.
The killing of George Floyd was the president’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment. He was floundering, utterly incapable of exercising any constructive leadership both with regard to Covid-19 and, more immediately, in the wake of Floyd’s arrest. Floyd was murdered casually, indifferently, callously by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and three accomplices for all the world to see. Chauvin may as well have been filing his nails while asphyxiating Floyd with his knee to the neck.
The day after Floyd’s public execution, cities in the US exploded into mass protests against police violence targeting black people. These protests, at once spontaneous and led by established struggle and civil rights organisations such as Black Lives Matter, were almost immediately upended by violent arson, property damage and looting.
It turns out that these flares of destruction were largely initiated by the sort of militiamen, now camouflaged in everyday ware, who had shown up to protest against the pandemic lockdowns at the Michigan state capitol. White alt-right and anarchistic forces descended on protesting cities armed with sledgehammers, spray-paint cans and lighters to destroy police cars and businesses, torch buildings and police precincts, and generally escalate violence in the name of sowing chaos.
Three years ago in France, the nationalist movement Génération Identitaire explicitly declared war on both generational political adversaries at home and declared outsiders. The Boogaloo movement in the US, by contrast, is a loose-knit network of militia taking the state and police as enemies. “Boogaloo” and its alt-right varieties of use, like “Big Luau”, are slang for a war to protect absolutised liberty from state and police delimitation, the Big Dance with bazookas.
Early Boogaloo groups flourished first on the online forum 4chan.org and recently gravitated to the more open but equally accepting platform of Facebook. The groups range from hardcore neo-Nazi accelerationists like the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) to the more “race neutral” libertarian Boogaloo Bois (slang for “boys”). They are identifiable not just in their open inclination to use firearms, but by their protest event uniform of Hawaiian pattern shirts and steel cap Doc Martens.
Boogaloos showed up to support the Michigan Liberty Militia when they marched on the capitol protesting against lockdowns as “state tyranny”. But the Boogaloo Bois also travelled to Minneapolis to participate in the protests against Floyd’s murder by the police. There they are reported to have led the burning of a police precinct and other buildings as well as incitement of the disaffected of all races and opportunists to loot local businesses. The Boogaloos bear the torch of an alt-right remake of America through armed insurrection, egged on with a nudge and wink by self-serving politicians. Boogaloo is code for a race-driven civil war.
Taking to the streets to protest against racial injustice in a time of pandemic uncertainty reveals the depth of anguish and anxiety about the world, inhabited by a sense of stolen tomorrows. Lives facing worklessness, unliveable environments, suffocating piles of personal and social debt, viral threats and intrusive tracking of all aspects of life are suggestive of futureless futures.
The protests have been met with escalating heavy-handedness by law enforcement: armed vehicles on the streets, evidencing the militarisation and weaponisation of policing, thickening tear gas mixing with fire plumes polluting the clearing pandemic skies, rubber bullets not so indiscriminately piercing skin. Intended to re-establish order, to resettle in a state of rampant uncertainty, the official responses have tended to escalate anxiety-infusing uncertainty rather than diffuse it.
Trump’s characteristic declaration of war on 1 June was the performance of control for someone who had seen the last thread of it torn from his grasp. He called in the military to “put down” the people he is supposed to govern. Rank-and-file police officers seem to be outrunning their chiefs. A police truck was photographed in Boston being filled with bricks to be placed in protesting parts of town. The aim would be to encourage brick throwing by protestors so that the police have every excuse to open fire.
The day Trump played commander-in-chief, military police were ordered to the White House gates to clear a path among the protestors in Lafayette Park across the street, something that local urban police officers had been unable to do. The president needed to flaunt his authority by walking a block from his residency, past the park and the Hay-Adams hotel, to the historical St John’s Episcopal Church at which presidents occasionally pray. The basement of the church had been burnt the previous evening in an arson fire. The protestors, peaceful throughout the day, were scattered by tear gas and rubber bullets aimed directly at them and journalists covering the events.
Walking almost nowhere else but on the golf links, Trump strode across the street flanked by his daughter Ivanka, closest aides and military police. He did not enter the church to pay respects or pray. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, waved a Bible passed to him from Ivanka’s $1 500 (about R17 000) handbag and pouted for the flashing cameras. Mr Mis-Deeds comes to Washington DC. Mission accomplished, photo opportunity executed with military precision. A man, visionless, with no understanding and less empathy, was taking charge of a situation he has been keen to create.
Deep inequities exposed
Trump inherited three decades of structural conditions that have brought the country to its current state of unsettlement. But he has done everything, even in doing nothing, to exacerbate the conditions, to bring us to this explosive moment. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed in all its nakedness the deep inequities cleaving American society. African Americans and Latinos had far larger infection and mortality rates than their demographic representation in the country. Blacks have died at more than double their representation in the population, and in some larger cities by as much as three times more. They are disproportionately on the front lines of essential workers, whether in ambulances, hospital emergency rooms or supermarkets.
Fifty percent of Americans have $400 (about R6 800) or less in savings and are unable to get through a week without working. Here, too, black and Latino Americans are disproportionately represented. The jolting halt to the economy left the most vulnerable without work. Forty million people, almost a quarter of the workforce, lost their jobs within a month. They have nothing but each other to fall back on.
This came atop lifelong inadequate medical care and cheap fast food as a result of living in neighbourhoods that are effectively food deserts, with difficult access to shop for high-nutrition food. Too often, environments of despair have taken their toll on collective health. Everyday racism adds immeasurably to lives of stress. This has resulted in elevated rates of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. The common denominator in Covid-19 death rates, it turns out, has been hypertension. Racism is a killer in more ways than one.
The lockdown didn’t help. Blacks and Latinos were overwhelmingly contained within small living environments, sometimes with multiple generations living together in challenging conditions in terms of health and economic and psychological wellbeing. But inner-city neighbourhoods tend to be sites of environmental challenge too. Lacking green space, they can be hotter by more than 10 degrees Celsius than better-off areas in the city, with much poorer infrastructure. This adds to the health challenges and, by extension, to the stress and distress.
A perfect storm
So when Floyd was asphyxiated, it represented the coming together of four interactive pandemics: health, economic, climatic and racial. Racism is the cement that has underpinned American political life from its foundational moment. Tocqueville had already warned about this 200 years ago. As postraciality took hold of the discursive imagination bit by bit from the 1980s onwards, and was quickly declared triumphant with Barack Obama’s election in 2012, the declaration was less of victory than of fabrication.
Postraciality, it turns out, is less the overcoming of racism than its next coming, its latest mode of articulation. Dashed aspiration chafes harder at the disappointed. The culture wars of the 1980s, transformed through the multicultural contestations of the 1990s and noughts, serves as the backdrop – the prehistory – of our current civil warring moment. We have been tearing ourselves apart bit by enlarged bit for decades. It took a bombastic, race-baiting realtor and reality television self-promoter using the platform of the presidency for nothing but self-advancement at everyone’s collective expense to bring us to the brink of implosion.
The killing of Floyd, coming as it did atop a drip-drip litany of recent deaths and indignities involving the police in one way or another – sleeping Breonna Taylor, jogging Ahmaud Arbery, bird-watching Christian Cooper – was the killing of every black person. The vivid and utter inexplicability of his death blew the lid on reason. It made bald the constitutive condition of American racism, the deadly indignity faced by black people in the US as a matter of their everyday lived condition, and the insistent self-entitlement of whites.
A two-month Covid-19 lockdown in the face of spiralling death came atop the existential peril of the climate crisis (the east coast had a snow blizzard in late May). It was accompanied by an economic free fall in which the super-rich just got richer and everyone else went into deeper debt. A third of Amazon’s workforce earns so little that the workers have to be subsidised by federal food stamps. Amazon paid no federal taxes in 2018, and Jeff Bezos’s wealth spiralled with online shopping as a result of the virus.
Enough is enough
America’s youth had had enough. Floyd’s death was the symbol of everything wrong in America. His murder signalled short-changed life in the country, our shortness of breath, our collective self-asphyxiation. America’s youth were facing up to the futureless future we are leaving them, and they were done with it.
On 1 June, Trump declared war on America. Civil war here is a battle over contesting conceptions of how to live, of ways of being in the world. Trump and his supporters represent the abiding selfishness, self-mindedness and self-advancement, no matter the cost to and at the cost of anyone else, that has marked the logic of American life increasingly since the 1980s. But it also represents more than that racially.
Until the 1960s, America saw itself overwhelmingly as a society completely for and dominated by whites, the caretaking functions of its state apparatus meant exclusively for them. As the country, like other states throughout the Global North, became increasingly heterogeneous, demographically and culturally, the attack on the welfare and caretaking conditions grew louder, more vehement, and less and less welcoming and hospitable. The dictatorship of whiteness and its violent defenders have been placed in the courtroom of history.
The youth in America’s streets and their supporters today are refusing that maniacal vision of premature racial death. The crowds taking to the streets are diverse, mixed and interactive. They are acting on a vision of facing a different possible future, a world in which racisms are refused, exorbitant wealth and inequality curtailed, education and healthcare made universally available, violence contested, the climate crisis and its racial implications reversed.
They are asking each of us, as antiracist activists in St Louis after Michael Brown’s police killing in Ferguson in 2014 asked the privileged attendees of the Saturday night symphony concert: “Whose side are you on? Whose side are you on?”A half decade on, perhaps the update question is: “What world do you want? What world do you want?”
It behooves each of us, all of us, to have a better answer than we did then.