He Should Have Seen It Coming — Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.
There, yet again, were the flames. Before the furious conflagrations erupted in Minneapolis, the final weeks of May had already seemed like the answer to a grim math problem: What is the product of a crisis multiplied by a crisis? The official mortality count of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States swept toward a hundred thousand, while the economic toll had left forty million people out of work. It was difficult to countenance how so much misery could come about so quickly. But on Memorial Day we became video witnesses to the horrific death of George Floyd, at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. By Friday, the looted shops, the charred buildings and cars, the smoldering Third Precinct—these were evidence of what the world looks like when a crisis is cubed.
These seemingly disparate American trials are not unrelated; they’re bound by their predictability and by the ways in which the Trump Administration has exacerbated them since they began. In March, the President claimed that “nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” and he has echoed that sentiment throughout the course of the emergency. But virtually everyone paying attention to public health saw something like the novel coronavirus coming. In less than two decades, we have seen epidemics of the SARS, MERS, Ebola, and H1N1 viruses. The Obama Administration created a National Security Council Directorate to mitigate the impact of such events; the Trump Administration largely disbanded it.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that the protesters in Minneapolis were “thugs”—a term with deep-rooted racist connotations—and later noted that the military was present in the city. “When the looting starts,” he warned, “the shooting starts.” This situation, too, is part of a long-building problem whose warning signs have gone unheeded by the current Administration. Progressives have widely criticized the 1994 Crime Bill, which was spearheaded by Joe Biden, but an element of that legislation has been underappreciated. The 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out after the acquittal of four police officers who had violently assaulted Rodney King (an incident that was also captured on video). As has often been the case with riots, the chaotic fury in Los Angeles was not simply a response to one incident but an accretion of anger at innumerable issues with a police department which had gone unaddressed for years. The Crime Bill authorized the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice to intervene in the instance of chronically troubled departments, by negotiating consent decrees that laid out specific reforms to be followed, and provided for monitors to oversee their implementation. Like the precursors to the coronavirus, Los Angeles—and later Ferguson and Baltimore—was an indicator of how such problems could play out without intervention. But, in this area as well, the Trump Administration has functioned like a building contractor who can’t recognize a load-bearing wall.
In July, 2017, in an address to law-enforcement officers in Suffolk County, New York, Trump told them to use more force when taking suspects into custody. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting the head,” he said. “You can take the hand away, O.K.?” The following May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a speech to the National Association of Police Organizations, said that the Justice Department “will not malign entire police departments. We will not try to micromanage their daily work.” That November, as one of his last acts on the job, Sessions issued a memorandum that severely curtailed the civil-rights division’s ability to pursue decrees with police departments. This meant that, in communities plagued with bad policing, resentments could accrue unchecked by any higher authority until they reached their detonation points. Those detonations tend to resemble the streets of Minneapolis this week.
On Thursday, in a press conference that was short on developments or new information, Erica MacDonald, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said, “To be clear, President Trump as well as Attorney General William Barr are directly and actively monitoring the investigation in this case.” But what, precisely, does that mean? Barr presides over a civil-rights division that has been stripped of its chief mechanism for creating compliance among police officers. In the past five years, the Twin Cities area has seen three other controversial police shootings: of Jamar Clark, in 2015; of Philando Castile, in 2016; and of Justine Damond, in 2017. Each of these fatal incidents featured a victim of a different racial background from the officers involved, and each was highlighted as an example of police misconduct. Like the COVID cases that emerged in Seattle at the beginning of the year, Minneapolis is a study in the importance of foresight and planning, and an example of what happens when neither of those things occurs.
The President posted his “the shooting starts” tweet early on Friday morning, just hours before Officer Derek Chauvin, who had knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, was taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Twitter, in an unprecedented move, labelled Trump’s tweet a violation of company policy against “glorifying violence.” A Presidential threat to have the United States military shoot civilians is the opposite of leadership, the antithesis of wisdom—a comment as ill-advised and as detrimental to the public well-being as recommending injecting disinfectant or self-prescribing hydroxychloroquine.
Our problems generally do not stem from treacherous unknowns; they’re the result of a failure to make good use of what is known already. In July, 1967, after a brutal police raid at an after-hours bar in Detroit, that city exploded in retaliatory violence. A month later, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech to the American Psychological Association, in which he described riots as “durable social phenomena” that arise in conjunction with discernible conditions—acts of lawlessness that mirror the excesses of those charged with upholding the law. Leaders cannot predict the future, but they can be cognizant of the immediate past, and the possible dangers it suggests. They cannot be clairvoyant. They need only be intelligent.
Doonesbury — Instant Karma