Police brutality against African Americans is a constant in the United States, so why did a national protest break out in May 2020? And what consequences should we expect?
The now famous video showing how a white police officer from Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a young and unarmed African American, asphyxiating him with his knee on his neck, is horrifying. Nevertheless, it is not an isolated incident: 336 unarmed African Americans were killed by the police between 2013 and 2019.
In particular, the 2014 killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown sparked several riots across the United States. But none of these events triggered the events we see today: a very disruptive and persistent national protest. This is, without a doubt, one of the most significant disruptive wave of protest in the United States since the assassination of Martin Luther King J. in 1968.
But what makes it even more singular is the level of public support for the demonstrations. Despite several violent incidents, the protest has the support of 64 percent of the American public, according to an IPSOS poll. Even more, a survey by firm carried out in conjunction with Reuters showed that 54 percent of US citizens believe that the burning down of a Minneapolis police precinct building was justified.
How did the country that elected Donald Trump become so tolerant of disruption? Two important variables, among many others, are Covid-19 and Donald Trump. The United States has produced one of the worst responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, it is now evident that the virus exposes and maximises inequalities in every country. Despite only amounting to 13 percent of the US population, African Americans comprise 23 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the country.
Furthermore, the economic consequences of the coronavirus have also disproportionately affected African Americans – for example, in April the unemployment rate for white Americans was 14.2 percent compared to 16.7 percent for African Americans. These are expressions of structural racism – what the coronavirus did was amplify these conditions and push African Americans to the limit. The majority seems to understand this: 59 percent of Americans agree that the coronavirus and the economic downturn have hit African American communities harder than white communities, IPSOS found.
Nevertheless, even before Covid-19, Donald Trump’s administration was already there. Trump came to power with a divisive message, and he has maintained it since assuming office as president. Research has found that most Americans believe Trump has empowered white supremacists. Moreover, there is also evidence supporting the association of Trump’s election with a surge in hate crimes.
Trump permanently winks at his allegiance to white supremacists. Many African Americans have felt his discourse and actions to be a threat to their safety. Furthermore, the attempts of Republican Party officials to purge voter lists and slash voting precincts in mostly African-American communities have increased perceptions that his administration is a threat to civil rights. Less than a year ago, 51 percent believed that Trump is a racist – that’s 10 percent more than those who believed the same about segregationist candidate George Wallace back in 1968. A January poll conducted by Ipsos and The Washington Post revealed that eighty percent of African Americans view Trump as racist.
These numbers help to understand the level and extension of the protests, and the support for them. The killing of George Floyd was the trigger that activated growing anger against the disproportionately heavy burden of both the pandemic and Donald Trump’s administration.
It is difficult to calculate the consequences of recent events but there are reasons to believe the wave of protests is not going to help Trump’s re-election in November. Several pieces of research in the field of social sciences have indicated that violent protests tend to push public opinion to the defense of law and order. This, for example, would be one of the reasons why Richard Nixon was elected after the 1968 riots.
However, as recent research suggests, there are some differences this time around. First, since Trump is the incumbent, that makes it harder for him to advocate for the “law and order” he could not deliver. He’s being accused of fuelling the violence – only 33 percent approve of how he has handled the protests. Second, the demonstrations have highlighted the issue of race relations, and that is a subject where public opinion has consistently evaluated Trump’s performance poorly. The more race relations become a hot topic in the elections, the lower his chances of a re-election win should be.
It is important, though, that there are enough non-violent protests to solidify the movement’s legitimacy among more conservative voters. The narrative of the protests is still in dispute, and it will also depend on both progressive civil society organisations and political representatives to shape its legacy.
* Omar Coronel Cuadros is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame. He specialises in comparative politics, with a regional focus in Latin America.