Memorial Day is traditionally the start of summer in the US, a time when Americans look to the long, sunny days ahead and head to parks and beaches. But for George Floyd, the last Monday in May had a very different outcome.
The 46-year-old man took his last breaths as he lay on the side of a curb in Minneapolis. Video footage filmed by a passerby captured the shocking scene of a white police officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as he begged for his life, repeating the words “I can’t breathe” until his body grew lifeless. His alleged crime was to use a counterfeit €20 bill in a grocery store. He paid for it with his life.
Within days, America had plunged into turmoil. Protests, which began in the mid-western city of Minneapolis, soon spread nationwide. By last weekend, thousands of people had taken to the streets. Curfews were imposed on cities from coast to coast. More than 20 states deployed the National Guard to back up police, as mostly peaceful protests slipped into violence. Buildings were attacked and businesses looted.
From New York, to Chicago and Los Angeles, America’s deep wounds of racial and social inequality erupted with a ferocity that few saw coming. In normal times, this would call for a moment of leadership. But the presidency of Donald Trump is anything but normal.
Every US president has their crises. For George W Bush it was 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; Bill Clinton was faced with the Oklahoma bombing during his presidency. The financial crisis of 2009-2010 dominated Barack Obama’s first term.
Trump is now facing the most dramatic scenes of social unrest since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam marches of the 1960s.
While most presidents would seek to unify the nation, Trump turned to the impulse that has been the guiding force of his presidency – division.
After reading prepared remarks sympathising with Floyd, he politicised the crisis, branding the protesters as “radical left, looters and thugs”, and linking this characterisation to his Democratic election rival, Joe Biden.
Casting himself as the “president of law and order”, he presented the scenes unfolding on America’s streets as an us-versus-them narrative, arguing that those protesting were a threat to the American way of life, and that a vote for Biden would be a vote for chaos.
This narrative of the enemy within culminated on Monday night when his administration ordered police to turn on US citizens as they protested peacefully outside the White House.
In extraordinary scenes, Trump and his entourage left the White House compound by foot and marched across Lafayette Square. Minutes earlier, police on horseback had forcibly removed the peaceful protesters, so that Trump could appear before St John’s Episcopal Church.
As he held up a bible and posed for pictures, US citizens came under attack by their own police force nearby. The fictional American carnage that Trump had vowed to end in his inauguration speech was now unfolding around him.
But even as the president bathed in the defiance of the moment, uncertainty began to set in, as church leaders and commentators blasted his photo op outside the church.
As the week went on, dissent grew. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill scurried away when pressed by reporters for their views. Republican senator Lisa Murkowski said she would “struggle” to vote for Trump in November. Defence secretary Mark Esper said he disagreed with Trump’s threat to deploy the US army to states across America. His predecessor, James Mattis, a respected four-star general, excoriated the president.
For every Confederate monument, slave stories and songs exist, telling another version of the past
Trump’s presidency is now facing a reckoning about America’s racial history amid mass protests, five months before a presidential election.
Over the past 3½ years, something of the essence of Trump’s remarkable political success has been lost in the relentless dysfunction and chaos. Lies, attacks on the media, friendly exchanges with Kim Jong-un, the suggestion that ingesting bleach could combat a novel coronavirus, and an endless list of outrageous pronouncements and actions by the businessman-turned-leader of the free world have clouded what is a very simple fact: that much of the success of Donald Trump was based on racism.
Though Trump in 2016 expressed legitimate economic grievances among white working-class Americans about trade policy, much of his success was a reaction to the presidency of Obama, the first African-American president.
Trump’s promulgation of the birther theory that Obama was not born in America, his subsequent introduction of a ban on travel from some Muslim-majority countries and edict that four American congresswomen of colour should “go back” to their countries, have been a constant drumbeat throughout his political career.
The president is not solely to blame. His instinctive ability to play to the lowest common denominator and appeal to people’s worst rather than best instincts is his skill as a politician and communicator.
To really understand the race protests that have erupted in these past weeks, one needs to go back much further. The events of the past few weeks have crystallised something that has been a long time coming, stretching back to the original sin of America.
If we’re going to protest, we have to protest with purpose. We have to come together for real change
Ten hours’ drive south from Washington DC, through the southern states of Virginia, and North and South Carolina, a sign reads: “Welcome to Georgia.” This is the Deep South.
Just over the South Carolina border, lies the city of Augusta. Famous for the golf course on the edge of the town, the city has a grittier edge than the greens and azaleas of Augusta National evoke.
Like many US cities, the downtown area has seen better days. As Georgia’s second biggest city, Augusta experienced the “white flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, which saw many white families fleeing to the suburbs, establishing a geographical racial divide that still exists.
The main thoroughfare has hints of “southern charm”. Faded shop windows and restaurants line the sleepy streets, which have been markedly affected by the recent coronavirus lockdown, though Georgia was one of the first states to reopen under Republican governor Brian Kemp.
But the city also speaks of a commerce in a different time. The Savannah river that meanders along the edge of the town, all the way to the port city of Savannah, was once a bustling trade route. As the old warehouses that still stand along the river banks indicate, its main commodity was cotton.
Following the invention of the cotton gin in Georgia in the late 18th century, cotton production took off in the south. Georgia was soon the nation’s biggest producer, powered by a massive slave population. Plantations developed across the rich, fertile land of Georgia, built on the servitude of African-Americans. For every white-pillared, manicured house that dots the lush southern landscape of Georgia today, there are remnants of a parallel history – the slave blocks in Savannah and Augusta, where slaves are believed to have been bought and sold.
For every Confederate monument – there are more than 170 across the state – slave stories and songs exist, telling another version of the past. The white-washed version of plantation life glorified in Gone With the Wind, a film set in Georgia, is no more than an epic romance built on Hollywood dreams.
Here in Augusta, the protests that have rocked America have made their way to the dusty streets. “I’m happy to say that we’ve had four protests, and they’ve all been peaceful,” says Augusta’s African-American mayor Hardie Davis jnr as he reflects on the demonstrations that have rocked the state capital, Atlanta, 200km away.
With the death of George Floyd, however, “we have reached a tipping point in America,” he says.
Like many African-American leaders, he worries about what comes next. “If we’re going to protest, we have to protest with purpose . . . we have to come together for real change,” he says. “Part of what is being lost in this conversation as people protest across the country is the challenge of what is the end result, what is the end goal?”
Whether the current racial and social turmoil will become the defining moment of this campaign remains to be seen
He says that while race relations have improved in Augusta – the city has a 58 per cent African-American population – cases such as George Floyd’s reveal the deeper biases that still exist.
“Many people perceive progress in terms of race as simply electing more black people,” he says.
“The election of Barack Obama – not once but twice – in my mind allowed us to take a step forward, in making it known that African-Americans are capable of holding the highest offices in this land, can lead a nation, not just cities and states. But many people then thought, ‘well we’ve solved the race issue in this country’. And that’s just not true. These things can’t be once-offs. There has to be structural change.”
More than 50 years after the death of Georgia native Martin Luther King, it is clear that America is far from the land of racial equality he envisioned. Just a few hours south of Augusta, a 26-year-old unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead on a Sunday afternoon in February. Three white men have been charged, and their trial began this week.
Data shows that race is still the biggest indicator of social and economic health in the US.
Though the gap has narrowed in recent years, black people are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed – a discrepancy accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the black community, who tend to have less secure jobs and poor health coverage.
Racial inequality is also endemic in the criminal justice system. From the racial profiling that was exposed so graphically by Floyd’s death, to the disproportionately high number of African-American men in prison, institutionalised racism exists at every stage in the criminal justice system.
According to writer and academic Michelle Alexander, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than white men in some states. Many blame the 1994 crime Bill introduced during the Clinton administration, which cracked down on crime and ultimately led to a period of mass incarceration in America.
But despite the bleak picture on race relations, there are also signs of change.
Georgia is at the centre of a vibrant movement to increase minority voter participation in elections, an issue that could have a profound impact on November’s presidential election.
Gerrymandering along racial lines is alive and well in the US. Many egregious examples have reached the supreme court. In 2016, federal judges ruled that North Carolina lawmakers had racially gerrymandered districts when they redrew a congressional map in 2011. Similar cases have emerged in Texas, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
The political ramifications are crucial – because most African-Americans vote Democrat the racial politics of voting rights can have a bearing on elections.
Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race to Kemp in 2018, has spearheaded a campaign to improve voting access in the state. She argues that the Republican leadership in the state has suppressed the votes of hundreds of thousands of people by making it more difficult to vote – either by purging names from the electoral register, making people queue for more than four hours, or introducing overly onerous voting ID requirements.
Back in Washington, states such as Georgia are being watched closely as election day approaches.
Recent polls suggest that Trump may face the fight of his life on November 3rd. A Monmouth University poll this week showed Biden ahead by 11 points nationally – a lead that has been steadily increasing in recent months. While both election campaigns are focusing on swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania that traditionally make or break elections, Democrats are quietly hopeful that other states may be in reach. One of those is Georgia.
Some believe the electorally-important red state – reliably Republican for decades – could turn blue in November’s election.
Polling shows that many moderate Republicans – particularly women – are increasingly uncomfortable with the party under Donald Trump
The outcome is not just dependent on a higher turnout by minorities. Republican strategists are now deeply worried about the suburbs of Atlanta. The upmarket neighbourhood of Buckhead, Atlanta, with its Jimmy Choo stores and SUVs, was traditionally solid Republican territory. But it, along with the neighbouring Cobb County and Gwinnett County, voted Democrat in the 2018 mid-term election.
Polling shows that many moderate Republicans – particularly women – are increasingly uncomfortable with the party under Donald Trump. Many believe that the 2020 election could be won or lost in suburbs such as these – from Atlanta, to Phoenix, to Dallas.
An increasingly worried Trump campaign is ramping up its focus on these new swing states. Vice-president Mike Pence visited Georgia twice in recent weeks. As well as its 16 electoral college voters, two senate seats currently held by Republicans are on the ballot and could be in doubt.
With the election still five months away, a lot can change, and Trump has a formidable war chest and social media campaign strategy.
Nonetheless, Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour – from his poor handling of the pandemic, to his wild allegations that a prominent TV host was involved in a murder, to this week’s militarisation of America’s streets – is alienating many except his core base.
Biden may not be the perfect candidate – his recent “You ain’t black” comment to a high-profile radio presenter illustrates his challenges in appealing to young black voters for example – but the current crisis plays to his strengths such as his natural empathy and decency in the eyes of many people.
With most Americans outside Trump’s core base exhausted by 3½ years of his presidency, many will vote Democrat, whoever the candidate. The desire for someone who can steady the ship may be enough to get people to the polls.
Whether the current racial and social turmoil will become the defining moment of this campaign remains to be seen. Better-than-expected job figures on Friday may boost Trump’s standing. But there was a sharp contrast this week between the responses of Trump and Biden, who delivered a gracious speech in Philadelphia City Hall this week calling for leadership and unity.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was at some level a reaction to the election of the first African-American president, but the pendulum always swings back. This week’s events could well mark the moment Trump lost the 2020 election.