“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” -Martin Luther King
The United States has erupted into crisis — more than a dozen cities smolder from the aftermath of riots sparked by the killing of George Floyd, merely the latest in a long string of police killings of unarmed black men. Amidst civil unrest not seen on this scale since the 60’s and as a pandemic rages that has killed over 100,000 US citizens, protests rage in over 28 cities and the U.S government is responding with a tactic from a very old playbook.
De-legitimizing the protesters.
African-Americans have watched countless members of their community killed as police officers or would-be vigilantes walked away with impunity for centuries. For hundreds of years they have been promised that this would change — it has not. And now this long simmering crisis of injustice has erupted once again into civil uprising. Sizable protests have manifested in at least 29 American cities as multitudes take to the streets.
In the theater of the street protest, how a movement is perceived is critical to its success. The people clamor for freedom, or against unjust rule and the State survives by painting them as agitators, thugs, or treasonous foreign agents. The tactic is as old as tyranny, and has been used the world over.
For a State to crush civil unrest, protesters must be discredited, they must be painted as “foreign agents”, “paid provocateurs”, “thugs” and “outsiders”.
It is a real-time information war with grave and immediate consequences.
It is also a strategy that has been employed recently with great success by authoritarian regimes such as Iran, China, Venezuela and Lebanon.
The US has adopted this tactic in trying to desperately shift attention away from a crisis sparked by an administration that has spent nearly 4 years exploiting political polarization, racism and division for political capital.
Contrary to absurd claims in a press conference given by the US Attorney General, these protests are not being driven by “anarchist left extremist groups,” a phrase which hearkens back to the cold-war and the “Great Red Scare”. A claim for which, incidentally, he offers not the scantest of evidence to support.
Make no mistake, this is an attempt to turn public opinion against protests sparked by systemic and grave injustice, protests that have spread throughout huge swaths of the country and that have done so organically.
The administration is using the same tactics Beijing uses to de-legitimize protesters in Hong Kong when they call them “cockroaches” or “CIA agents”, that Ortega has used in Nicaragua to kill hundreds of students in the streets that he labeled “agents of foreign powers”, or that Maduro has used to violently crush protesters he has labeled as “Escualidos” or “fascist”.
I have seen this tactic play out in every protest I have ever covered or written about in half-a-dozen countries. And now, I see this dishonest strategy being employed in the country of my birth.
Trump has brought the tactics of authoritarianism to the United States, and it is playing out in real-time before our eyes.
It would seem that civil unrest abroad, often encouraged by an administration that criticizes human rights violations in countries such as China and Venezuela, is held by this administration to a different standard than civil unrest at home, which must be discredited and attacked, along with any media that doesn’t tow the official State propaganda line.
The president has called journalists “the enemy of the people” so many times since the inauguration that the phrase has become a dull refrain. And now journalists are being attacked and arrested by State Forces that report to a commander in chief who has repeatedly called for violence against his critics.
The administration is incapable of acknowledging that it was their own ineptitude that brought us here. The powder-keg waiting to be lit wasn’t created by Trump, it goes back far beyond his administration, but he has exacerbated the conditions which sparked the explosion.
Trump cannot be blamed for the injustices against the black community that led to national riots in 1964, to the L.A riots under the Bush administration that were inspired by Rodney King, or the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police while Obama occupied the White House.
The problem of police violence against blacks is a systemic problem in U.S society with a history as old as the nation itself. However, what Trump has done is exploit these differences to obtain power from the moment he announced his campaign.
From anti-immigrant screeds calling Mexicans “rapists and thieves”, to providing platform to white supremacists and Qanon conspiracy theorists, to waging an all-out PR war on anyone who dared to call him out for his lies, he has divided us.
He has pit us against each other to hide his own failings and excite the imaginations of his more rabid followers. He regularly denies reality instead of reacting to it, such as his botched response to global Coronavirus pandemic.
The injustice and merciless march of the justice system over black communities may not have been created Trump, but the fruits of his division, his absurd lies about the origins of the protests and the general mismanagement of the George Flynn case provided the catalyst for a movement that resonated nation-wide. The powder keg exploded.
The protests will eventually pass, and it is unclear if they will achieve their objectives. But a seed planted through an unjust action has become, through a conflux of events, pressure and mismanagement, a national crisis.
The multitudes are clamoring at the White House gates, and they are not communist, paid thugs as the President claims as he hides behind the walls.
They are people. They are human beings with real grievance against an unjust system and the idealistic premise of American values collapsing around them.
I wish those in the streets excercising a global and proud tradition of civil unrest safety and success.
If the administration continues down this path towards authoritarianism, they are going to need it.