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Last year, the entire Western establishment stood in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. These protestors were by no means non-violent. Reuters, in an article critical of a repressive police response, noted the new offensive techniques of Chinese activists: “Protesters have also stepped up their actions, hurling petrol bombs, vandalizing mainland Chinese banks and businesses believed to be pro-Beijing, throwing bricks at police stations and battling officers in the streets, in some cases with metal bars.”
Trump recently commented that he would punish Chinese officials that were “smothering—absolutely smothering—Hong Kong’s freedom.” During the height of the Hong Kong protests, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the “continued use of violence” against “democratic activists.” Senator Tom Cotton, who published a recent controversial piece on the George Floyd protests, titled “Send in the Troops,” also rebuked a Chinese government “poised for a violent crack-down on civilian protesters.”
Those in the streets were labelled as “violent mobs” by Chinese officials, as media outlets focused their reporting on acts of ‘incivility’. Suspicion was laid on the protesters as being supported by outside agitators, namely, the “meddling” of Washington and other governments. Authorities are now pushing legislation to punish a minority of “troublemakers” that they claim threaten China’s national security.
There is very little to distinguish from these official descriptions between the young people that, for months, flooded Hong Kong’s streets and those that now fill the cities of America day after day. A lot has been said, however, to detract from the American project. Attacks are leveled against violence, the involvement of white people, of outside collaborators and of domestic terrorists—In short, we are hearing familiar rhetoric from very recent Chinese history.
There are some myths that can be quickly dispelled. Governor Tim Waltz of Minnesota put forward a popular misconception on the protests' makeup, stating, “I think our best estimate of what we heard are about 20 percent are Minnesotans, and 80 percent are outside.” A study of police arrest records in Minneapolis show 86 percent of people arrested reside in the state. Of the five that were from elsewhere in America, the majority live in surrounding states. The Mayor of the Minnesota capital similarly declared that “every single person” arrested in his city was from out of state. He was later forced to admit, only after an investigation, that he had learned “more than half are from Minnesota” (a modest way of putting the true count).
Otherwise, a narrative, most forcefully pushed by Trump and his Attorney General, is that members of the white far-left, particularly Antifa, have been inflaming these protests. There is nothing inherently wrong with this segment of the “far-left.” Activists using antifascist tactics have helped expose many far-right, white supremacists that have posed an active danger to their communities. Much to the credit of “Antifa,” as the leader of the second Unite the Right rally told the New York Times, “fear and an ‘atmosphere of intimidation’ were the primary reasons for the sparse turnout.”
Otherwise, the participation of “Antifa” in protest epicenters simply doesn’t match the data. As Michael German, a former FBI agent, told the Associated Press, "It's an old tactic for law enforcement policing protests to suggest that the problems are being caused by outside agitators. It opens up the opportunity for greater police violence in response." The real looters, as sociologists who have studied the phenomenon of protest and looting agree, are mainly poor locals.
For some Americans, especially for those that believe in their government's exceptionalism, I am sure it is more comfortable to trust that there has been an overreaction to the killing of George Floyd. Yet, there is hardly a rebellion of this size in history that has not been precipitated by widespread hardship.
The truth is, if we are discussing motivations, that these protesters represent the majority of American citizens that have had effectively no say on policy matters, to cite a landmark 2014 study. They are a population of outsiders in their own democracy. So in the past few decades, they have taken the backseat to two elite parties that have pushed the tax rates on the country's richest below the tax rates on the poorest and middle class.
I remember when in 2017, a UN special rapporteur was sent to America to observe the “third world conditions” that 5.3 million Americans were living in. Corporate friendly budgets, he concluded, have forced the removal of financial, environmental, health and safety regulations “mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor.” This is a looting, only it has the stamp of the legislature. This, I think, is what resonates with people across the world.
Some understanding of class tensions is essential to see the reality behind those so upset and disillusioned, so prone to what some might call radical action. These are the children, many unwittingly, of the Seattle protests of 1999 against globalization. They are born from the protests against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that killed hundreds of thousands and brought further instability to the Middle East. They are Occupy Wall Street, angered by banks and corporations whose profiteering wreaked havoc on American life but who still walked away with billions in bailouts—no-strings attached.
Finally, they are a generation whose representatives, since the first days of the spread of COVID-19, have encouraged the economy’s reopening. The country has now seen the death toll of 9/11 replay 37 times, each time more crushing and inevitable. These losses have disproportionately affected the poorest, whose work is difficult to do from home and who, like 40% of the population, do not even have $400 saved up for these times of emergency. They are the underclass that serves the economy, but not the other way around.
African Americans are affected the worst by these class divisions. Since 2001, one in every three black boys are expected to serve prison terms, disenfranchising a significant portion of the urban poor. The patchworking of poverty through policing has been widely condemned by African Americans. As far as their public opinions are concerned, only 43 percent of black people have a favorable view of police. Six percent believe police treat black people as fairly as whites. These opinions have been substantiated by broader studies of racial biases in American policing.
The setting of armed citizens on a disinherited population, who choose the profession by self-election, who are a heavily militarized force commonly touched by a warrior mentality, by the cowboy attitude popular in America, could not be more apparent as a danger. This danger stared viewers in the eyes for the nine minutes that the country watched George Floyd beg for his life. It has also been displayed on the streets over the past two weeks.
For those that are prone to assume the absolute righteousness of police action the 192 reports of journalists being attacked by police should, at least, appear disturbing, if not telling. In a situation corroborated by several members of the press, clearly demarcated journalists in Minneapolis had concussion grenades launched at them, to be further maced and then beaten with batons. “I have never been shot at by police – even when covering protests overseas and [in] war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq,” one journalist later remarked.
This is the American society that has given birth to the disorder of the past two weeks. The unrest is not limited to its express demands for the slashing of police funding. It is a wider rebellion against the corruption of political and social institutions, and of the failure of electoral methods for the amelioration of American life. There has been a robbery of any input from the average person both practical, and literal, as to the direction of their nation and communities.
Violent tactics like looting and rioting are not out of the question. The looting of a Target is, after all, what had the country tuning into and imitating Minneapolis in those opening days. Yes, some businesses will lose money (or, more accurately, their wealthy insurers). Yet, it is a mystery to me how a country so rich cannot afford a population that periodically engages in violent means of protests that might unearth the muted voice of its people.
I have difficulty imagining looting and rioting as anything but protests against a force internal to a city. There is no other motivation for doing violence to one’s own community, if there are not antagonizing forces in it. The basic problem then is democratic, of people being unable to rule their lives on even a local scale. Problems of democracy cannot easily, by their nature, be solved democratically. Instead, times come, as they have in Hong Kong, when the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
This is a high price for liberty, but it is less than the cost of repression.