Trump's portrait of America is a monument to its racist past

Trump's portrait of America is a monument to its racist past
Comment: America must choose whether to accept or resist Trump's vision that casts protesters, not violent police, as the country's evil undoing, writes Khaled Beydoun.
5 min read
31 Aug, 2020
Richmond's Confederate leader Robert E. Lee statue has been the site of many protests [Getty]
America today finds itself at a crossroads. 

In Virginia, on Richmond's Monument Avenue - a beautiful street in the heart of the former capital of the Confederacy - stands a string of monuments that testify to this definitive intersection of the American experiment. 

On the morning after the Republican National Convention (RNC) I strolled down Monument Avenue - a living and lurid memorial to figures who championed racial segregation, fought to prolong slavery, and shed blood for the belief that dividing the union was a better road than emancipating Black people.

I started at the head of that collection, and the head of the Confederacy, with a statue of Robert E. Lee. The Black Lives Matter movement that erupted again after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has repurposed the statue into a colorful shrine, bearing the names of those unarmed Black men and women slain by police. Lee is still there, atop his horse, but since the protesters made their mark, it has no longer served as his memorial. 

I walked north, past longstanding churches and smaller monuments, finally stopping at the plinth where Stonewall Jackson once stood. Another Confederate general and another statue, though his has been toppled, leaving only his title, and the words "Jacob Blake" spray-painted in bigger, black letters below it on the monument's foundation. 

Kenosha, Wisconsin is more than 800 miles away from Richmond, but its footprint was heavy in the Capitol of Virginia on that day. The city in Wisconsin emerged as the newest site of police violence, when Jacob Blake, a 29-year old African American man was arrested while trying to break up a fight.

followed Blake as he walked to his car, and after unsuccessfully tasering him, shot him seven times in the back.

A new name - Jacob Blake - joined the roster of hashtags that symbolise police violence, and fuel more protests

The incident was captured on video, and in line with the prevailing culture of publicly calling out police violence, was disseminated widely online. Unsurprisingly, the video went viral in minutes, and a new name - Jacob Blake - joined the roster of hashtags that symbolise police violence, and fuel more protests that, just months after the massive wave of action inspired by the murders of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, only need the slightest spark.

The timing of these protests converged with the Republican Party's greatest stage. The RNC convened in Washington on Monday, 24 August, rolling out a schedule of speakers and events for the week that saw a new wave of protests in the name of Jacob Blake.

These protests were staged in Kenosha, where Blake was paralyzed from the waist down for life, cities across the country, and at the centre of it all, where Trump would hold court on Thursday and demonise these same protesters, marching blocks away from the White House.

Barricades surrounded the White House, constructed after the protests that erupted in May and June. Photos and names of slain Black men and women adorn the walls of those barricades that separate the "People's House" from the demands of the people on its margins.

Read more: For Ahmaud Arbery's killers, his Blackness was transgression enough

The RNC's message coming from behind those barricades had an entirely different sound. There is a wide divide, a lucid and lurid disagreement, with regard to what America looks like now, and more importantly, the direction in which it should move forward.

The blame, for those who stood on stage at the RNC, falls on the people, the protesters themselves - not law enforcement, or the government structures that abetted their violence, or the vestiges of American apartheid that created the racial inequities that persist today. These inequities sow the seeds of disproportionate Black vulnerability to unhinged police brutality in Minneapolis, Louisville, Kenosha, and virtually every American city beyond and in between.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City celebrated by the Right for "cleaning up the city," blamed the protests for inciting violence. Other speakers turned their ire on BLM specifically, calling them "thugs" and "rioters," using racial dog whistles to buttress the racist currents that underpinned the RNC, and more broadly, the first four years of the Trump administration. 

These opening speeches set the stage for Trump, the demagogue demanding "four more years" of a violently divisive presidency. But they also set the stage for another white man, rather, a teenager, to add fire to an already combustible situation in Kenosha.

Things fall apart, even democracies

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from nearby Illinois, drove up to Kenosha on Tuesday fully armed and intent on leaving his own mark. On the second day of the RNC in Washington, Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters, and left another seriously injured.

Voices on the Right have lauded him as a
warrior defending the community - the same defense his lawyer has mounted over the murder charges he faces, with longtime conservative pundit Ann Coulter praising Rittenhouse as "my president".

In a fiery address on Thursday's RNC headliner in Washington, Trump shot blame at the protesters and their violent handlers, blaming the "socialist agenda" that "controlled the Democratic Party" for the violence ravaging American towns and cities.

He painted a picture of America's ills - not ruptured systems that enabled police violence, the continual killing of unarmed Black people, or the vigilante violence that descended upon protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.

No, the problem, according to Trump, is those very people being assailed, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the victims left paralyzed, like Jacob Blake; and the people, of all backgrounds, who came together and marched because their nation is falling apart at the seams.

Things fall apart, even democracies. Particularly those democracies presided over by leadership that lords over an exhausted people demanding dignity through means enabled by the Constitution; and then dehumanises them as unruly thugs when they do so.

Some monuments of American apartheid stand defiantly, as living beings, far from Richmond's Monument Row and the former seat of the Confederacy. And in Washington, they inhabit a White House that hopes to win another four years, as the nation below falls apart. 

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. He sits on the United States Commission for Civil Rights, and is based out of Detroit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.