George Floyd's death at the hands of police sparked a wave of protests against racism and police brutality worldwide. Professor of International Relations and American Politics Bart Kerremans examines the context in which those demonstrations sprang up.
In February, a black jogger in the southern state of Georgia was chased and shot dead by a white ex-cop and his son. They thought they recognised him as the man they saw ‘running away' from previous burglaries in the neighborhood and decided to take matters into their own hands. The shooters went free until a fairly graphic video of the incident surfaced. At the end of May, a woman in New York City's Central Park called the police because ‘her life was being threatened by an African American man’, although he simply asked her to keep her dog on a leash. The man filmed the incident and shared it on social media.
For African-Americans the dominant impression is that despite the dramatic incidents, little about the situation has changed.
The death of George Floyd lit the fuse that exploded into a storm of protests against racism and police violence. ‘For African-Americans and some of the white population, the dominant impression is that despite the dramatic incidents and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, little about the situation has changed. That engenders bad blood,’ says Professor Kerremans. ‘A second element is the visibility of this specific case. Very few incidents have been filmed so explicitly.’
Such was the case with the death of Eric Garner in 2014. There, too, video showed a clear case of disproportionate police brutality. Eric Garner’s case involved selling illegal cigarettes, and George Floyd’s a transaction with counterfeit money. ‘Both situations quite visibly reveal an extreme mismatch between the problem and dealing with that problem. That leads in the first instance to anger among those who live in fear of a similar outcome should they or a loved one come into contact with the police. And they’re powerless in such a situation.’
Disproportionate police brutality leads in the first instance to anger among those who live in fear of a similar outcome should they or a loved one come into contact with the police.
Simultaneously, the corona crisis is laying bare the social inequities in health care, as the virus is hitting black Americans harder than other populations. ‘Also, if we’re talking about the resultant economic crisis, we’re expecting an increase in unemployment, especially among lower income groups that have high African-American and Hispanic representation. Minority groups are therefore in the weakest position in many ways, but whether the corona pandemic has actually played a role in the intensity of the protests can’t yet be confirmed.’
Trump’s response to violent protests also adds fuel to the fire. He’s doing that partly to cover up his detrimental role in the corona crisis, according to Professor Kerremans. ‘Even in Republican ranks, brows were furrowed over his approach to tackling the crisis. By turning to polarisation after the protests erupted, Trump is hoping to divert attention from that approach.’
Trump is very much inspired by Richard Nixon and the whole idea that the silent majority wants law and order when there is chaos
With a tweet – censored by Twitter – in which he intoned 'when the looting starts, the shooting starts' and threatened to use the army against demonstrators, Trump pushed the 'law and order' strategy to the fore. ‘He is very much inspired by Richard Nixon and the whole idea that the silent majority wants law and order when there is chaos and is looking for a figure who can offer solace. It’s too early to see that in the polls, but the question is whether those who want order will now start to realise that what he really wants is disorder.’
What has emerged in several polls is the effect of the corona crisis. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but also in Ohio and even Florida, Texas and Arizona, polls are heading in the same direction: Trump is in hot water electorally. ‘That claim that injecting disinfectant can offer a solution to corona has, among other things, worsened his situation in the Electoral College,’ said Professor Kerremans.
There’s a sort of electoral panic with Trump’s attitude.
However no predictions can be made about the presidential election in early November on the basis of the polls today. ‘It’s still too early, but from this perspective it’s pretty clear there’s a sort of electoral panic with Trump’s attitude. That, combined with his ‘shoot from the hip' personality, is leading to such a harsh response to the protests.
That incitement of division allows Trump to score points with his enthusiastic supporters. But that, according to Professor Kerremans, is not enough to win the elections. ‘It remains to be seen how independent, working-class female voters will react. That’s the group with the largest segment of voters who voted for Obama in 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016. Although men are generally more capricious in their voting behavior, these female voters are the most likely to return to the Democratic camp.’
Police brutality under attack
In response to the demonstrations, former President Obama has called for reform of police policy. The death of George Floyd and the violent police response to the protests has stirred up debate around the growing militarisation of American police force. ‘You can even see it in their equipment. As if the civilians they serve are their enemies and they have to be ready to face a deadly attack from those enemies.’
Under Obama, many consent agreements have been concluded with local police forces, which include, for example, recommendations on training police officers. ‘The partial data available on this show that shooting incidents involving the police have decreased. Nevertheless, Trump has invested much less in cooperation with police forces; this comes from a view that disproportionate police brutality is the result of a few bad apples.’
On the other hand, police officers are afraid of being attacked by civilians. ‘There are a lot of weapons in circulation in the U.S. In 17% of shooting incidents with the police, the person shot turns out to be unarmed. And while that is dramatic, at the same time in 83% of cases there are indeed weapons involved.’ The potential for violence in American society is therefore much higher than in ours.
‘I was once stopped by the Pennsylvania police myself. A white officer approached my passenger side car and was clearly afraid of what he would find in the car. As a result, I was also on edge, thinking “If I make a wrong move, it could end badly here.’ And I'm a white man, so imagine what that means for a black American. You immediately have a situation that generates much more fear back and forth.’
Police brutality against African-Americans and Hispanics is much more common in America than among whites. For example, unarmed blacks are more often shot by the police. That percentage is also much higher for Hispanics. ‘These figures indicate that, in a police confrontation, minorities have more reason to fear an adverse outcome,’ says Professor Kerremans.
Police forces are not eager to release figures on shooting incidents, but available research shows that white police officers do not use significantly more violence against blacks than their African-American, Asian-American or Latino colleagues. According to Professor Kerremans, this exposes a problem that goes deeper than a simplistic 'white against black' story, ‘Being black by definition leads to “being suspicious” or inherently a threat. According to current research, that degree of racial stereotyping probably exists equally in black and white officers, but the final result remains the same: in a police confrontation, a black American has a much greater chance of a tragic outcome.’
Everyone has the right to vote?
According to Professor Kerremans , inequality also seeps into issues over the right to vote. Republicans have been taking measures in that area that fall especially hard on minority groups. ‘Look, for example, at what happened in Florida. A referendum there shows that 65% of the population believes that a voting ban for former prisoners should be abolished.’ This ban mainly affects minorities who, in terms of their share of the population, make up a large part of the population of former prisoners. ‘The Republican majority in Florida then brought out a whole bag of tricks to prevent former prisoners from voting, despite that clear result.’ Republicans know exactly why they would do that, as more than 80% of African-Americans and about 65% of Hispanics vote Democratic.
Both parties see each other as enemies and not as movements that have a different opinion on how society should be organised.
From a democratic perspective, this approach is very problematic. ‘Such a strategy manifestly does injustice to minorities’ right to vote, and the effect of this is, at a minimum, racial.’ According to Professor Kerremans, the battle for votes is heightened by increasing partisan polarisation. ‘Both parties see each other as enemies and not as movements that have a different opinion on how society should be organised. And in such a scenario, everything is permitted. That hostility has been building up for a while now and has certainly not diminished under Trump, a figure who consciously seeks out polarisation.’