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Thoughts On The Riots

By Marvin Zonis

Sigmund Freud used the concept of overdetermination to mean that a single emotion or event could be caused by more than one factor. Certainly, overdetermination applies to the shocking and appalling events of the last few days in the United States.

At least five “causes” have combined to produce these days of rage.

The press has focused on the proximate cause – the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The constant TV broadcasts of the Minneapolis police officer crushing Floyd’s neck has made his death all the more painful.

But many other recent assaults and accusations against African Americans have been causes of the rage. The jogger killed in Atlanta – Ahmaud Arberry – and the death at the hands of Louisville police of the emergency room technician – Breonna Taylor – have each energized protest. So has the humiliation of the Central Park birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, by a white woman who called the New York police claiming that an African-American was “threatening her life.” That the CNN correspondent arrested by Minneapolis police was African American/Hispanic has added to the mix.

A third cause is certainly the acts of commission and omission of Donald J. Trump.

He was one of the most ardent proponents of the “birther movement,” claiming that Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya or had renounced his U.S. citizenship to become a citizen of Indonesia and was, thereby, ineligible to be President.

Back in 1989, Trump took out full page ads in New York City’s four main newspaper arguing for a return of the death penalty after African Americans were accused – falsely it turned out – of beating and raping a white jogger in Central Park. His ad stated,

"Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer ... Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. ... How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!"

Back then, Trump came to be widely seen as a racist. Nothing he has done since then has changed his reputation. (Remember his suggestion that "you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides" after the 2017 Charlottesville marches?)

On May 29, he tweeted that when the “looting begins, the shooting begins.” On May 30, he tweeted, “Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence [of the White House]. If they had, they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”

This tweet was especially incendiary because of the centuries long practice of slave owners using bloodhounds to terrorize their slaves and because in the Jim Crow era, southerners used dogs to prevent Black sharecroppers from escaping their plantations. Still fresh in memory are the images of civil rights marchers in the 1960s being subdued by dogs.

Acts of omission can also be chronicled. On May 30, the President condemned the riots and vowed to stop “mob violence” while calling the death of George Floyd’s death a ”tragedy.” He also said he spoke with  Floyd’s family. But as of yet, he has failed to address the nation in any attempt to bring about healing or national unity or to express any sort of empathy with African-Americans.

Yet a fourth cause of the horrific riots can be attributed to the differential experience of Whites and Blacks to the Covid-19 virus. The statistics from Illinois make the problem blindingly clear. African-Americans make up some 30 percent of the population of the state. But they make up some 60 percent of all Coviod-19 deaths.

A fifth cause can be found in the economic consequences of the Covid-19 virus. As of this writing, more than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs through the severe economic contraction. The national unemployment rate has soared to 14.7 percent from 4.4 percent in March, with the Black unemployment rate far higher than of Whites. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said that 40 percent of households making under $40,000 per year had lost their jobs in March alone. The job losses were differentially distributed among Blacks and Hispanics.

So the police killing of George Floyd was the most immediate cause of the appalling riots. But for any amelioration of the dilemmas of this country a far wider focus is necessary. It is not at all clear that the focus will become anywhere wide enough.

P.S. As I was writing this note on May 31, I received the following email from a very long-time friend who lives and works in Geneva Switzerland :
“My disappointment with the US since about 2000 is such that I am in danger of becoming anti-American. There are so many problems in the country and so much worship of money (in the financial sector and Silicon Valley) and all the selfishness that goes with that.
“I despair. So many things are needed to be corrected: a new president, a new senate, a new supreme court, a new model, a new culture, a new and different sense of nationalism, an end to the gun culture and the incarceration culture, much better education etc., etc., not to mention decent health care for all. Political cronyism is rampant and lobbying needs regulation.
The trouble is that the more US history I read, the more I see most of these factors have been prevalent throughout…NOT a recent decline or change.
“I dislike going to the US. I wonder what happened to the wonderful country of my 12 years spent there -- 1962-74? Maybe I just missed all of these issues.”