George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by a policeman on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The police department initially lied and claimed Floyd was resisting arrest; video footage swiftly emerged that falsified this. Protests erupted against police brutality and were soon overtaken by lawless elements who burned property and looted shops. The rioting has since spread to other cities in the United States. Bringing together a powderkeg of issues around legal equality, racial justice, and social order, the fallout from the killing of Floyd and the subsequent disorders show signs of providing opportunities to political extremists and could be an important factor in the American Election in November.
The Initial Event
The video of Floyd’s killing that has spread far and wide on social media shows that, so far from Floyd resisting arrest, Floyd had been subdued at the time he was killed. Policeman Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes—in front of a crowd, many of whom objected vociferously during the event. “You don’t have to sit there with your knee on his neck”, said one onlooker in the video. “You could have put him in the car by now”. This summarized the view of most who viewed the video.
As it transpired, Chauvin had a history of complaints—at least seventeen—against him for improper conduct, nearly one per year during his time in the police force, and in only one case had he been reprimanded. This apparent impunity, and the fact Chauvin was white, has given racialized overtones to the entire episode and the subsequent disorders.
For some, the Floyd case will be redolent of the Ferguson events in 2014, albeit that the narrative the protesters believed was false, or perhaps more exactly the case of Eric Garner around the same time, a black man who died while in a police choke-hold in New York City, like Floyd on video, while saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe”. Floyd’s killing also comes just a few months after the February 23 killing of another black man, Ahmaud Arbery, in Atlanta, this time not by the police. The Arbery killing did have in common with Floyd’s, though, that it was at first claimed that Arbery had been killed during wrongdoing—suspected burglary—but a video showed that he had been gunned down without provocation in the street while jogging.
While these prior incidents have more in common in a political-sociological sense with what has happened in Minneapolis, in a purely mechanistic sense the spread of the violence after a localized incident might be analogized to the rioting in Britain in the summer of 2011, which followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a violent gangster in Tottenham.
Chauvin was dismissed from his job and charged with murder on May 29. Unfortunately, by then events had already gotten out of control. The night of May 28 saw violence so extensive in Minneapolis that the National Guard had to be called out—although they were not able to enter the city immediately for various logistical reasons. A Target store was ransacked and looted. The police station that Chauvin supposedly worked at was overrun and then torched. The scenes on the morning of May 29 were “post-apocalyptic”, and tensions continued to rise after a CNN news crew were arrested.
None of this was helped when President Donald Trump tweeted in the evening of May 29 that “THUGS” were rampaging in Minneapolis, a word some thought was a racial dog-whistle, before adding, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
The day before, Trump had signed an Executive Order that would ostensibly regulate Twitter and other social media platforms so as to ensure political neutrality, the latest flash-point in a long-running politico-legal argument about the status of these platforms. When Twitter subsequently censored the Trump tweet about shooting looters, this only deepened the culture war colouring of events and thus the political polarization, with conservatives believing this was proof the social media giant is biased against them—something independent research suggests is true—while liberals saw it as vindication of their claim that Trump is a racist.
Trump is far from the only political figure to try to capitalize on the situation. Reverend Al Sharpton, an infamous racial provocateur, has journeyed to Minneapolis to take advantage. Some locals have taken the initiative of forming de facto militias to protect property; it is easy to see this providing an opening to white far-Right forces that are already organised into armed formations. The accelerationist coalition, those various fringe elements who believe their project would be furthered by causing a collapse of the U.S. government, have been visible during these events, notably the Leftist extremists like ANTIFA. Even foreign extremists, like former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have joined in trying to inflame the situation.
Effects Going Forward
The outbreak of this mayhem during the coronavirus pandemic is probably not coincidental—it is a release after months of lockdown—but the collapse of the social distancing regulations might yet have knock-on repercussions in the form of a fresh outbreak of the virus. Many more deaths could be indirectly caused by this killing in Minneapolis.
Politically, there are two paths forward. One is that the Democrats are able to construct a narrative where this chaos is the result of Trump’s mismanagement of the country. The other path, which is much more likely based on the academic literature about civil rights protests, is that these events redound to Trump’s benefit as he amplifies a message of law-and-order and portrays Democrats as sympathetic to the hooliganism. Trump has expressed outrage at what happened to Floyd, simultaneous with taking a clear hardline against the violence and looting, a message that has broad resonance in America and is could peel away some Democratic voters in November.