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US National Guards are seen in front of a shopping mall in Downtown Long Beach, California on June 1, 2020



The situation in the US is „historic and deeply, deeply disturbing“

An interview with US political scientist Brian Klaas about President Donald Trump’s handling of the current situation and the nature of the crisis.

By Joanna Bostock

In towns and cities across the United States, protests and violence have continued night after night in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The police officer who was filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck has been sacked and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Protesters are calling for the other officers involved to also be charged.

The killing of George Floyd has reignited anger about violence and systemic racism towards black people in the US, and added new momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM began in 2013 when a court acquitted George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old African American high school student Trayvon Martin.

Brian Klaas

Brian Klaas

An interview with Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London, and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy”, about President Donald Trump’s handling of the current situation and the nature of the crisis.

FM4: As an American and as a political scientist, what is your personal reaction to this whole situation?

Brian Klaas: It’s been difficult. I’m from Minnesota originally, my family is in Minnesota, so watching this city on fire, watching the riots spread, watching racial injustice with no solution while there is a racist in the White House, is very disturbing. I think the escalation in the last few days has been particularly worrying because there’s no attempt on behalf of the political leadership in DC to deal with the underlying problem of systemic racism in policing. What Trump is signaling is that he’s going to use a heavy hand instead, and that is only going to end with some serious violence, I’m afraid. So, the situation is very serious, it’s getting worse, and I don’t see a way out of it in the current situation that doesn’t involve some sort of bloodshed.

FM4: Mr Trump has said that if a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the lives and property of the residents then, “I will deploy the United States military, and quickly solve the problem for them.” Can he actually do that?

Brian Klaas: Well, we’re entering uncharted territory. There are rules against the use of force by American soldiers against Americans in the United States, but it’s a very murky area because as with so much of the Trump presidency, it’s unprecedented.

The rhetoric really worries me, because you have members of Trump’s own party, the Republican Party, sitting members of Congress, saying things like, “We should hunt down the rioters like we hunt down terrorists in the Middle East”, that was a Tweet by Matt Gates, a big fan of the President who is a congressman from Florida. There was a Tweet from Senator Tom Cotton, another big Trump fan, saying, “We should have no quarter for people who are looting”, a reference to, effectively, killing people.

Also you had overnight the deployment of military helicopters in DC, using tactics that are most common to a battlefield. They flew so low to try to use the wind from the rotors to knock people over, and in fact knocked over a tree and almost killed some people. So, it’s getting very dangerous very quickly, and ultimately the states have control over the National Guard deployments, which is what you see in a lot of states that are imposing curfews and bringing out National Guard as crowd control. But genuine soldiers being deployed is the stuff you see in war zones, it’s not what you’re supposed to see on the streets of the United States, and so I think there will hopefully be some pushback from governors, but it’s a very, very worrying situation.

US President Donald Trump walks back to the White House escorted by the Secret Service after appearing outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.

APA/AFP/Brendan Smialowski

US President Donald Trump walks back to the White House escorted by the Secret Service after appearing outside of St John’s Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.

FM4: You talked about the political leadership, are you saying then that it’s not simply Trump, that there are people around him in his administration who are supporting this behaviour, this stance?

Brian Klaas: Yes, I think the view in the White House seems to be that Trump can recast this as him as the “law-and- order” president, while also capitalizing on racial divisions to consolidate his base which has significant elements of racism embedded in it. So, I think there is a view that there is a strategy around Trump. Now, whether that is successful, or a smart political strategy, is a totally different question, but I do think that there are some in Trump’s circle who believe that this is advantageous for him, particularly if he comes out looking strong. That’s why I say it’s so worrying, this rhetoric, because to appear strong against peaceful protests and some violent protests will require a substantial show of force that will almost certainly end in some deaths.

So, it’s territory that you really don’t want to be in, and what would be very helpful, I think, and this would have happened in any normal administration, Republican or Democrat pre-Trump, is that you would have some sort of convening of political leadership in Washington to not just focus on establishing order, but also focus on this systemic problem of racial injustice in the United States, and the White House has said nothing about this. They have said that the death of George Floyd is a tragedy, but they have treated is as although it is an aberration.

They have not accepted the reality that police violence against minorities, and particularly black people in America is something that is systemic and routine, and until they accept that and come up with a proposal to deal with it, those who are in the streets right now will not be satisfied and that’s why I say the only way we’ll end up with the current approach is with violence.

FM4: So, where are the Democrats in all of this? Joe Biden has made an appearance or two, but their voices don’t seem to be particularly loud.

Brian Klaas: Well, I think one of the things Biden has been doing, to his credit, he went to Wilmington, Delaware, to a church, and held a listening session. He’s been speaking to people, through digital means of course, as well, and he’s planning to hold an address today.

There’s also been some semblance that Barack Obama is coming off the side-lines, he’s been more active in suggesting things via Twitter, it’ll be interesting to see whether he ends up speaking out more directly. There’s also a question about whether there will be anything from people like George W. Bush, because there’s growing pressure from within traditional Conservatism in the United States to have George W. Bush come off the side-lines and speak out against what Trump is doing.

That’s the aspect of this that really is worth remembering this is not a Republican vs Democrat divide in typical US politics, this is something that would never have happened under any other previous Democrat or Republican administration in modern history. The deployment of soldiers against American civilians, most of whom are peacefully protesting with some elements that are being violent, and the rhetoric around it, combined with the extraordinary moment last night where people outside the White House were tear-gassed while peacefully protesting so that Trump could walk to a church and hold up a Bible for cameras, I mean this is historic stuff, and it is historic in a way that is deeply, deeply disturbing.

Protesters look up as a military helicopter flies low pushing a strong vertical down wash of air onto the crowd in Washington on June 1.


Protesters look up as a military helicopter flies low pushing a strong vertical down wash of air onto the crowd in Washington, DC on June 1.

FM4: And, of course, there have also been tear gas and rubber bullet attacks on journalists, also being arrested live on camera ...

Brian Klaas: Yes, the number of journalists that have been targeted by police is also very worrying. You have people who are broadcasting live, very visibly as journalists, holding microphones with camera crews, getting hit with rubber bullets on live TV. This happened to an NSBC affiliate reporter, one journalist in Minneapolis got hit by a rubber bullet in the eye, her eye exploded, and she has permanently lost the sight in her left eye as a result. Very, very bad things are happening, not just for the protesters but for journalists, for innocent civilians who are caught up in all of this, who are worried about their homes or their businesses, and I think the point here is not that the riots or the looting are acceptable, it’s not to say that the protests are unjustified.

The anger is justified, the violence is not justified – but normally you would have leadership that deals with those problems separately, that cracks down on the violent elements, but deals with the legitimate protest not in heavy handed ways, but rather in ways that are productive, with policy change, and that’s what is completely absent in this moment.

Trump is seen through the prism of self-interest, not in terms of uniting the country, not in terms of healing, not in terms of making things better, but in terms of driving up fear, trying to appear strong, and ultimately driving towards re-election in November.

National Guards and armored trucks are patrolling Hollywood boulevard on May 31


National Guards and armored trucks are patrolling Hollywood boulevard on May 31

FM4: Why do you think the police response is so violent, and to what extent is that connected to Trump’s behaviour?

Brian Klaas: Well, I think American policing has had serious issues with systemic abuse and over aggressive tactics well before Trump. I think this is partly due to police culture in the United States and partly due to an increased militarization of police since the Iraq war.

There was a lot of military equipment that was decommissioned and passed on to local police departments that simply don’t have need for such aggressive tactics. But some police departments in small towns in America have military vehicles and are trained in military tactics, so I think it’s that old aphorism that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There is a culture of policing that looks at crowd control as an adversarial mechanism, as a military enforcement mechanism, and not as community policing.

So what I hope would be the positive outgrowth of this movement over the long run is a re-evaluation of what police are supposed to be, and they are NOT supposed to be adversarial with their constituents. They are supposed to protect and serve their constituents – that means being part of the community rather than beating the community or attacking them.

I think most police in the US are drawn to policing for those reasons, but there is this systemic culture within police forces that allows violence to be normalized. And I think we’re seeing visibly how much that has been directed towards minority communities, particularly black communities, in a way that has been routine for decades but is now becoming much more visible because of social media and body cameras.

FM4: If Trump were to change his stance, and change his tune, and suddenly try to calm the situation, would he have the moral authority? Would people take him at face value?

Brian Klaas: No. This is one of the big problems. One of the reasons why the frustration is boiling over so much, and frankly, I find it understandable, is that if you’re in a community where the police have been systematically abusing you, and you look to the White House for leadership, and in the White House is someone who has made a career out of racism, and who became a prominent figure in the Republican Party by mainstreaming “birtherism” – the racist lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, it becomes much harder to believe that the system is something that is going to reform.

I think this is why the peaceful protests have some violent elements, because there is a debate happening in the black community over whether it is possible to actually have racial justice when a racist is the president. And I think we must not mince words. We have decades of empirical evidence that Trump is a racist, and I think it’s difficult to say this in objective terms in the media because you don’t want to take sides, but the empirical evidence is very, very clear, that he has made racist statement, after racist statement, after racist statement. And, of course, his first appearance in the New York Times in the 1970s was because he was accused of not allowing black people to rent his apartments. So, this is not something new, it’s not something that has changed in recent months for political opportunism, it’s just who he is, and I think when you look at the prospects for reform, you cannot separate the prospects for reform from the reality that between 40 and 45 percent of Americans still support someone who has behaved like a racist demagogue for the last three years.

Ariel view of protestors gathered near the makeshift memorial in honour of George Floyd marking one week anniversary of his death, on June 1, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota


Ariel view of protestors gathered near the makeshift memorial in honour of George Floyd marking one week anniversary of his death, on June 1 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

FM4: Is there any evidence that right-wing extremists are involved in this looting and provoking of violence?

Brian Klaas: This is the big question right now, and I think nobody has an answer to it. My suspicion, and it is a suspicion, is that the overwhelming majority of people in the protests are peaceful. There are some leftist extremists, and there are some right-wing extremists that are hijacking the chaos for their own agendas. I think one of the things that has been very frustrating for people in the peaceful wing of the protests and the groups like Black Lives Matter, is that they are getting affiliated with elements that are not sharing their agenda.

So the irony is that you have videos, for example, of either white supremacists or white leftist extremists smashing windows and looting, and you have videos of black people shouting at them to stop, because they don’t want to be blamed for those elements of violence and property damage. It’s very difficult to know where the line ends and begins, and it’s very difficult to know what proportion of people are white supremacists, what proportion are from the extreme left, and what proportion of people are peaceful, but I think it’s quite clear that there are groups that are going to take advantage of the chaos and the violence for their own ends, and those ends will not be shared by the peaceful protesters who are working towards racial justice.

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Rassismus tötet. Was macht Antirassismus?

„I can’t breathe“, sagte George Floyd elf Mal, bevor er – von Polizisten zu Boden gedrückt - am 25. Mai in Minnesota an den Folgen der rassistischer Polizeigewalt stirbt. „I can’t breathe!“ ist der Tenor der empörten Proteste in den USA und weltweit. Fünf Jahre nach der breiten Mobilisierung gegen rassistische Polizeigewalt unter dem Hashtag #blacklivesmatter treten die aktuellen Proteste in einer Zeit von Massenarbeitslosigkeit und großer Unsicherheit auf. Welches Emanzipationspotenzial haben die antirassistischen Proteste? Wohin bewegt sich die amerikanische Gesellschaft? Und was bedeuten die Ereignisse für politischen Antirassismus hierzulande?

FM4 Auf Laut am 2. Juni 2020, von 21 bis 22 Uhr auf Radio FM4 und für 7 Tage im FM4 Player

Im FM4 Studio bei Lukas Tagwerker sind Mugtaba Hamoudah, Organisator der BlackLivesMatter-Kundgebung in Wien am Donnerstag, Adia Trischler und Larry Marshall (Minneapolis).

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