In July, 2017, Donald Trump, newly elected President of the United States, organised a rally of uniformed police officers on Long Island in New York state. His audience were ranged in front of him and a number were seated behind him as he spoke. This was a classical visual format to suggest to television audiences that his uniformed audience were, in effect, supportive of him and his remarks.
Boris Johnson, by the way, unsuccessfully tried a similarly crass visual stunt in the course of the run-up to his 2019 election campaign, addressing police in West Yorkshire – having kept his uniformed trainee police officer audience waiting an hour. It back-fired for Johnson.
But not so for Donald Trump, who grossly abused his office (and the police officers’ offices) at Long Island to speak to his own grassroots in nasty, dog-whistle racist terms.
Referring to gang members and to what he termed “criminal aliens”, Trump told his Long Island police audience: “They’re animals.” He said that he had a simple message for them, “We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you and we will deport you”.
He continued, “And when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon – you just see them thrown in. Rough. I say ‘Please don’t be too nice’.” [Laughter].
“Like when you guys are putting someone in the car, and you’re protecting their heads – you know the way you put the hand… [mimicking a police officer using his hand to protect an arrested person’s head from hitting the door frame of a patrol car]… Like ‘Don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody?’ … [more laughter]…I say, ‘You can take the hand away. OK?” [Laughter, hooting and loud, prolonged applause ].
He told the police present that the “laws are written to protect the criminal” and “not the officers” and that the “laws are stacked against you” and “need to be changed”.
This was nothing less than the US head of state inciting American police officers to routinely abuse brutalise certain classes of arrestees.
In fairness, a small, brave cohort of American police representatives condemned Trump’s outrageous remarks. But the great majority of them did not.
Anyone who has visited America knows that the police there need no presidential encouragement to treat ordinary citizens abruptly, aggressively and often in the manner of a US Marine training sergeant. They even use the mode of address “Sir” in a threatening way. African Americans fear the police, precisely because they are routinely treated, and mal-treated, as suspect and dangerous. They fear being stopped and fined by patrolmen. Their sons and daughters fear any engagement with the police.
A well-educated middle class African American welled up with raw emotion as he told TV viewers of the anxiety he feels when his twenty year old son donned running gear just to exercise in his neighbourhood. His fear that his son might not come back safe was real and tangible.
When we see on video a young black jogger followed and gunned down by two ex-cops on the unfounded suspicion that he might be a burglar or see a black man who simply ran from police being executed - all by people who later claim to act in self-defence – the words of Donald Trump that the law is “stacked against” the police are cynical, blood-chilling and –let’s be frank – evil.
American blacks have had enough of their Jim Crow, lynch-mob status at the very bottom of every heap. Trump’s transparent effort to create a fearful coalition of the wealthy whites and the impoverished whites against the “aliens” who must now be “dominated” in US society by federal forces is both shameless and shameful.
And of his trip to St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington to brandish a Bible, what can one say? To show he was still in charge, he had to walk there. To do that, his secret service used tear gas on utterly peaceful demonstrators outside the White House. He had hardly finished defending the right of citizens to peaceful protest when he deployed violence against them to create space for his cowardly photo-op. The Episcopal bishop of Washington expressed outrage at Trump’s behaviour.
George Floyd was manacled and murdered. The officer who asphyxiated him with his knee knew what he was doing. His two colleagues who put their weight on his chest and stopped his heart beating knew what they were doing. The cowardly fourth officer who menaced the onlookers who might have intervened to stop the killing knew what he was doing. They were complicit in a plan to treat him as their President advised . “Rough”.
If the white supremacists in Charlottesville and white demonstrators toting assault rifles inside the Michigan legislature are all “good” and “reasonable” people, as Trump thinks, and the peaceful White House demonstrators can be gassed off the street to enable him to wave the Bible in public, black Americans have every reason to fear the future. As we all do.
Photo credit: By Fibonacci Blue - https://www.flickr.com/photos/fibonacciblue/49939933488/