The Queen of Soul sang it clearly. The “Respect” Aretha Franklin was craving — yes, demanding — in that classic is still in short supply for black Americans. More protesters have been arrested than police officers involved in the death of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died after now-former officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three fellow officers stood by or assisted.
Would there have been protests across the country and the world if Chauvin and his fellow officers had been charged immediately? There is no way to know for sure. But it is clear that the anguished reaction has been about much more than the death of one man, and has been generations in the making.
In 1967, Aretha’s anthem blared from radios and record players, the soundtrack for African Americans frustrated with the disconnect between the lofty words of equality in the country’s founding documents and the reality. Sound familiar? If history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. And as citizens fill the streets, demanding justice in the face of police brutality, not enough has changed.
This is a time for moral and political leadership. Instead, America’s leaders have selective amnesia about history — our country’s and their own.
Donald Trump, who barely mentions the violence that killed George Floyd, berated governors as “weak” and urged them to “dominate” protesters, the majority of whom have been angry and peaceful, and yes, you can be both. As he conflates those marchers with disrupters who have tried to hijack the message and the cameras, Trump’s advice was to send those arrested to jail for a long time, minimizing that due process part, which is what police who play judge, jury and executioner have done to get us where we are.
When he had police, troops and Secret Service clear peaceful D.C. protests with smoke and flash bangs in order to march to a church for a photo-op this week, Trump reveled in the military might, complete with hovering helicopter, he has always wanted.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden, who has apologized for a comment he characterized as “cavalier” that seemed to take black voters for granted, met with black community leaders in a Wilmington, Delaware, church on Monday to listen to advice and criticism, and to pray. Biden’s Tuesday speech in Philadelphia endorsed policies on issues from police reform to economic inequities. “We’re a nation enraged,” he said. “But we cannot let our rage consume us.”
Trump’s halfhearted respect for peaceful demonstrations against police brutality pale when juxtaposed with his past exhortations urging law enforcement to not be “too nice” when arresting suspects. The bunker-bound warrior who avoided Vietnam, whose combat experience is limited to a stint in a military academy, gets positively giddy at the prospect of turning locked-and-loaded troops out to confront the people who pay his salary and expect him, and the police, to protect and serve.
Trump indulged in his own 1967 throwback, tweeting, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” coined by bigoted Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, a warning to black youths he felt were taking advantage of civil rights. “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality” was another Headley gem.
To make sure Americans got the message, Trump called on the ghost of notorious Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor to threaten protesters who got too close to the White House with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.”
When Trump tweets “LAW AND ORDER,” he is replaying Richard Nixon’s 1968 win, talking tough while hoping to activate terrified white voters looking for a strongman and willing to overlook his distracted response to a coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval.
Vice President Mike Pence is Trump-lite, praising peaceful protest now, but conveniently forgetting his trip on the taxpayer’s dime to an NFL game, only to make a show of leaving when players knelt to call attention to police brutality. He called former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt for willfully violating a federal court order, a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” Of course, President “law and order” pardoned the lawless law enforcer.
On his way out, Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, gutted the consent decrees that the Obama administration had negotiated, steps that had begun to rein in police department abuses. Perhaps the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others could have been prevented if the current administration had not been so eager to toss out plans for police accountability along with team Obama’s pandemic responses. Minneapolis police union head Lt. Bob Kroll, who continues to stoke outrage — fighting the firing of the four officers who interacted with Floyd — noticed. He appeared with Trump and praised him at a rally for letting “cops do their job.”
Current Attorney General William Barr picked up where Sessions left off, when he warned in a speech to police and prosecutors last year that Americans must start showing “the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” and if they don’t, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
No two-way street
It’s as though the entire administration is channeling the words of U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who in 1857 in the notorious Dred Scott case wrote that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Respect? How can ordinary African Americans expect any from many leaders when they observed how Republicans treated the first African American president?
Trump, incensed that he will never be as popular as President Barack Obama, at home or abroad, questioned Obama’s citizenship, accused him of committing nonexistent crimes and broke tradition by not welcoming the former president and first lady into the White House for a formal unveiling of their portraits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who servilely serves a president who rage-tweets day and night, said Obama, who criticized the administration’s response to a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and brown citizens, “should have kept his mouth shut.” McConnell didn’t end his insult with “boy.” He didn’t have to.
Congress is considering a variety of measures, from legislation to nonbinding resolutions, to respond to Floyd’s killing and the broader issue of police reform, including the “Eric Garner Excessive Use of Force Prevention Act of 2019,” introduced by New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, which would outlaw “the application of any pressure to the throat or windpipe which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” It has 24 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
That 1967 summer of “Retha, Rap and Revolt,” was followed by a Nixon triumph in 1968, after a Democratic convention and assassinations roiled the nation. Back then, challenger Nixon could play the part of statesman, while promising calm, something that is definitely not in incumbent Trump’s bag of tricks.
But Trump has something Nixon did not, at least not when he brazenly ripped apart the Constitution during Watergate — his own “silent majority” of compliant Republican lawmakers who will never desert him. Most scurried away when asked to comment on the president’s endorsement of U.S. military might against citizens.
There is hope that Americans demanding justice and that elusive “respect” would at this moment be heard. But fear is a powerful motivator, something a feral politician like Trump, backed into a corner, instinctively senses.
He knows from experience that racism has always been one of America’s Greatest Hits.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.