The George Floyd tragedy is a turning point for America
Protests may already be changing attitudes towards racism in the US and around the world
Over the past week, the US has been rocked by a wave of protests unlike any since the late 1960s. Outraged by the videotaped killing of an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, by police officers in Minneapolis, huge sections of society are loudly demanding an end to endemic police brutality, particularly against young black men.
While there is ample cause for concern with such volatility, some underappreciated aspects of this unrest suggest it could prove a dramatic and positive turning point.
First is the intense international engagement with these developments. A huge amount of global attention has focused on the protests, such that George Floyd is improbably now a name known around the world. The protests outside the US have echoed and amplified these concerns.
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In some cases, parallels have been drawn to endemic abuses against other minority groups such as the Australian aboriginals. But in many cases, the international protests have been straightforwardly about injustice in the US. That not only indicates the persistence of international solidarity in an era supposedly defined by self-serving parochialism, it is also a massive testament to the ongoing power of American culture.
It is hard to imagine unrest motivated entirely by domestic social concerns in any other country provoking a large wave of sympathetic street protests around the world. Only American culture has the global reach to inspire that.
That is a good thing because, despite all the flaws of the US – particularly in recent years – American ideals can and should play a major role in promoting international respect for equality, justice and rule of law. That same worldwide attention in turn can and should help Americans try to live up to their own supposed principles.
Cold War competition with the Soviet Union was a significant factor in driving the US to dismantle the architecture of racial segregation in the 1960s. It is entirely positive for both Americans and their international friends that US culture continues to have the unique gravitational pull that the recent protests have demonstrated.
It is hard to imagine unrest motivated entirely by domestic social concerns in any other country provoking a large wave of sympathetic street protests around the world. Only American culture has the global reach to inspire that
Second, the protests have illustrated and accelerated exceedingly important and long-overdue cultural and attitudinal changes in the US. Polling data reveals an enormous shift among white Americans regarding the prevalence of racism.
Until recently, most white Americans demonstrably did not believe that racial discrimination continues to be a huge problem in general, even regarding policing.
However, new polls show that now large majorities of white Americans finally do recognise that racism and discrimination are "a big problem" in US society and that police are more likely to treat African-Americans “unfairly".
That is a dramatic, even revolutionary, transformation in attitudes. Majorities of white Americans are therefore telling pollsters that the anger of demonstrators is “fully justified", and huge majorities see it as "somewhat justified".
And, of course, the crowds of protesters are hardly all, or in many cases even mostly, African-American. US citizens of all descriptions, particularly among the young, have taken to the streets.
There they face serious dangers, particularly from the police themselves. In some noteworthy cases, police officials have shown themselves to be, as everyone would hope, respectful and responsible civic leaders. And in most cases, police have behaved professionally.
However, 2020 could mark a turning point in the administration, and eventually the culture of US policing, because too much of the police reaction has confirmed the essential accusations of the demonstrators: that indiscriminate, and even casual, police violence is all-too common.
The ubiquity of smartphone videos may be forcing the end of an era in police brutality and impunity.
During recent protests, numerous instances of police behaving in a brutal and even criminal manner towards peaceful protesters have been documented on cell phones. As with the Floyd killing, these videos have often made what would have traditionally happened – police uniting in a dishonest whitewash of brutality within their ranks – virtually impossible.
There is still a huge divide on normative expectations between most Americans and many police officers, as demonstrated by a shocking incident in Buffalo, New York where a large group of police were videoed shoving an elderly protester to the ground and leaving him lying there unaided, unconscious and bleeding. When two officers were suspended without pay for this outrage, 57 of their supportive colleagues resigned from that emergency response unit in protest, apparently seeing nothing wrong with such conduct.
But, given the increased public sensitivity and opposition to police abuses based on accumulating video evidence, the policing of the police seems likely to change in much of the country. The militarisation of police is likely to be significantly curbed and new levels of accountability enforced.
Police will have to start policing themselves or others will do it for them. This wave of unrest demonstrates an overwhelming public demand for it, especially in cities.
Finally, the political impact seems largely positive.
One of the most shocking cases of abuse was an attack on peaceful protesters gathered at Lafayette Park outside the White House. They were suddenly charged by police wielding tear gas and batons to make way for President Donald Trump.
Angered by reports he had been cowering in a White House bunker, Mr Trump sought to project strength by being photographed standing outside a historic church grimacing and holding a Bible upside down. The senior military leaders who accompanied him were improperly politicised for Mr Trump’s re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, heavily armed but distinctly unmilitary-looking personnel with no identifying insignia or other markings are proliferating in Washington, raising the spectre of an American version of Iran’s Basij or Russia’s “little green men” – mysterious, unaccountable and possibly quasi-official paramilitary forces.
These abuses prompted an unprecedented wave of impassioned criticism, including from his former defence secretary James Mattis, and Republican defections are gaining momentum.
Mr Trump has never looked weaker. Although the election is in November, polls show him losing to Joe Biden by double digits.
The principled demand for justice by countless ordinary citizens may prove a historic turning point. US society and its international role both require urgent repair. It would be sublimely fitting if the solution begins with the American people themselves.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: June 7, 2020 05:35 PM