Trump, racism and America's original sin

Trump, racism and America's original sin
Comment: By conflating Black Lives Matter protesters with looters, and nonviolent assembly with domestic terrorism, President Trump has criminalised a peaceful movement, writes Khaled Beydoun.
6 min read
03 Jun, 2020
Trump visits St John's Church after the area was forcefully cleared of peaceful protesters [Getty]
Blocks from the White House, protesters encircled and sat atop the Thomas Circle Monument - a shrine to a Civil War general battling Confederate soldiers on horseback. 

The offshoot protest was the eye of the popular storm that has descended on the streets of Washington, DC in the last week. It was early Monday morning, and I walked past a motley mass of protesters and onlookers, mobilised by the violent murders of George FloydBreonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a seemingly endless list of Black men and women at the hands of police. 

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic continues, particularly in metropolitan Washington where the virus has hit the area's African American community the hardest. Yet, those who filled the streets threw caution to the wind, and marched atop Civil War monuments, elaborate government buildings, and the residence of one Donald Trump to protest America's original sin and most ominous plague - racism - and its deadly effect on Black lives.

Hours later, with protests still in full swing, Trump emerged from the shadows for a photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church. In order to make room for the president and his opportunistic appeal to voters, armoured police used tear gas to "clear the area of peaceful protesters, and later, expelled a priest and a seminarian from the area." In line with the dystopian cloud that hovered over the nation and its capital, Trump had forcibly removed clergy from within, and protesters from outside, all in the name of a charade for the cameras.

In front of a boarded-up church, Trump held up a Bible with his right hand and waved to cameras with his left. His ungodly appropriation of Christianity, in the midst of the greatest wave of protests since the 1960s, was a pointedly racial and racist intervention: appeal to his doggedly bigoted evangelical base, and cast those taking to the streets as "thugs," "looters," and ultimately, sacrilegious actors bent on destroying property and the country.

On that very Monday, a week after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Trump also threatened war on protesters marching in his name.
Trump effectively promised to use American might to violently repress anybody and everybody marching on the streets
With demonstrations swelling in more than 30 cities across the country, Trump announced, "I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property."

In Orwellian doublespeak, Trump also stated that he was an "ally of peaceful protesters" while dubbing those marching in Washington, DC, and American cities beyond, as "domestic terror[ists]" - a label that justifies deploying the might of the military on Americans, particularly its Black and Brown citizens and residents.

Minutes later, Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone tweeted, "the president just declared war on Americans." While this observation may normally read as hyperbole, the explicit words of the president - and his track record of mobilising words into menacing action against racial and religious minorities since he won the presidency in 2016 - affirmed that these are anything but normal times.

"Trump is putting more fuel on the fire with every word that he says," shared Gwen Leachman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law and an expert on social protests, who continued, "That Black Lives Matter's consistent message focuses on systematic racism, but Trump (and the media) have fixated on the looters."

Making that conflation was precisely Trump's aim on Monday. Shrouding it with Christianity on one hand, and wielding the might of America's military with the other, the president dismissed the grievances of the protesters and branded the wave of protest movements across the country as a monolithic band of criminals, looters, and terrorists.

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

And in so doing, Trump effectively promised to use American might to violently repress anybody and everybody marching on the streets.

Apart from threatening actual violence, particularly on grieving Black people, Trump also waged war on the First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and exercise free speech.

By conflating protesters with looters, and nonviolent assembly with domestic terrorism, the president effectively criminalised the peaceful demonstrations against police violence and anti-Black racism. He quashed their First Amendment rights during a critical moment, when those rights, and the movements they enabled across the country, sought to restore a semblance of dignity to Black lives - suffocated to death in Minneapolis, and gunned down in Louisville.

State repression of protests condemning police violence against Black lives is not without precedent. Justin Hansford, a law professor at the Howard School of Law who participated in the protests in Ferguson following the murder of Mike Brown in 2014, observed how "The First Amendment freedom of assembly has historically been denied to Blacks, both in a de facto and de jure manner," as manifested by the quasi-military crackdown of protesters in Ferguson, Baltimore, and the last decade's wave of Black Lives Matter protests.

But Trump's measure was far more draconian. And, issued by a man sitting atop the highest perch of the federal government, fueled by a compulsion to satiate the racists and evangelicals, the white supremacists and disaffected that comprise his base, and build his pathway to a second term.
Trump is the enemy of the millions of American people calling and marching for justice, and the gatekeeper of a status quo that mercilessly defends white supremacy at all costs
Beyond his doublespeak, Trump's actions make it clear where he stands. He is the enemy of the millions of American people calling and marching for justice, and the gatekeeper of a status quo that mercilessly defends white supremacy at all costs - including anti-Black murder.

In his essay, 'Politics and the English language', the 1984 author George Orwell wrote, "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."

Trump, who built a White House upon seductive lies and bogus photo-ops, in a nation standing precariously on the original sin of white supremacy, casually dismissed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the growing list of slain Black men and women.

With this new declaration of war, he has callously opened the door to the imminent murder of names we are yet to learn, people who will soon be reduced to online hashtags and faces on signs held high in America's embattled streets.

As protests continue, Trump's war on Americans courageously rising up for Black lives is only just beginning. 

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State University School of Law, and Co-Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Social Justice in Detroit.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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.