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Blair Horner: Can The "Street" Change America?

Two weeks ago, George Floyd, an African American man, was asphyxiated when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds.  The police officer has now been charged with murder.  Mr. Floyd’s killing, coming on the heels of the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, ignited protests against racism and police tactics that have broadened to include the nation’s political leadership.

Hundreds of cities and town across the nation, indeed the world, have erupted with overwhelmingly peaceful protests as diverse groups of people take to the streets to lend their voices to calls for change and justice.

Of course, in America, there have been hundreds of years of racism beginning with slavery and resulting in untold thousands of murders, both state-sponsored and individual.  The nation’s long, dishonorable history on race is well documented.  The question now is can the protests force change from the obstinate political status quo?

In that regard, the nation has much to reckon with.  The President of the United States has deliberately fanned the flames of rage, hoping that such chaos will redound to his electoral benefit in the upcoming November election. 

There is evidence that sowing the seeds of division and chaos can help a candidate who the public perceives as the “law and order” candidate.

In the 1960s, peaceful protests that challenged the political order, in particular the most racist and violent public officials in the South, led to a violent overreaction that shocked the nation’s conscience and pushed America to eliminate Jim Crow laws.

But the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and the resulting riots scared many Americans who wished for stability and calm and that reaction helped elect Richard Nixon.  That was fifty years ago.

Half a century later in 2020, the plea for justice and an end to racism is beyond long overdue.  Yet the President orders federal troops to disperse peaceful protestors in Washington DC so he can stroll from the White House for a photo-op; armed-to-the-teeth White counter-protestors are ignored, while peaceful protestors are beaten, tear gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets; journalists reporting on the protests are attacked – all of this exacerbates the public’s fear of chaos.

It is clear what the President’s intent is.  What is not clear is what the nation will do.

Unlike the 1960s, President Trump as the incumbent is too often responsible for causing conflict in the nation.  His indifferent approach to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the catastrophic toll the nation has experienced and his actions to crack down on peaceful protests – even calling for the US military to “dominate” the streets – only makes the situation worse. 

Moreover, the President’s longstanding practice of misleading the nation – including repeating obvious lies – further confuses the public while emboldening the President’s supporters, even when the facts prove him wrong.

In times like these, our elected leaders should seek to defuse the upheavals, not make them worse.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets this past weekend, in big cities and small towns, from coast to coast, marking some of the biggest demonstrations yet in the nationwide protests against systemic racism and the need for justice, sparked by the murders of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Arbery.

Will the “street” win?  We have seen the “street” win in the toppling of dictators, the end of colonialization, and the approval of rights for women and minorities in America.

The stakes are high.  Political desperation will lead to continued tactics to further divide the nation, to make it “us” versus “them,” instead of what is best for the nation and the world.

From that chaos, the President hopes to have excuses to deploy the military and that swing voters will look to him as the candidate to bring order and safety back to America. 

Not only is that divisive tactic dangerous to the nation, it obscures the real issues: We need to end racism, we need to have proper public safety programs, we need to deal with climate change, and we need to generate public revenues from those with the most, not slash services for those most in need.

The President may realize he is on the wrong side of history, but he is not looking beyond November.  The real leaders are in the streets calling for change.

Will the street win?  We should all hope so.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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