If We Could See Ourselves from the Outside

Before I became a law professor, I was a foreign correspondent. The dangerous precipice we are on in the United States feels jarringly familiar, but I have only had the experience of reporting on such events when they take place “over there.” I wondered how the situation here would look from the outside.

Recent critiques of the traditional Western foreign reporting genre have used fictional quotes and characters to generate news or opinion pieces with a semi-satirical feel. These critiques are valuable, but my goal here was different.

One of the striking things to me about living in America, and becoming American (I immigrated here a decade ago), is the assumed inevitability of an enduring democracy. By writing a news report that is factually accurate, but that draws on terms and tropes more familiar to us from the reporting we read about other places, could I dislodge that assumption of inevitability and, perhaps, allow us to start seeing this moment more clearly? 

Trump, Facing Re-Election Challenge, Masses Troops Against Protesters

WASHINGTON D.C. – In advance of a pre-sunset curfew imposed across the U.S. capital on Monday, National Guard troops brandished shields as police sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters who had gathered in a park by a historic church to demonstrate in support of a nationwide civil rights campaign, #BlackLivesMatter. The security forces appear to have been deployed in the service of a state propaganda effort. As protesters fled, U.S. President Donald Trump walked through the now-cleared park to pose for a photo in front of the church, holding up a Bible, awkwardly, in his right hand. The Trump-aligned television channel Fox News described the incident in glowing terms.

The protest was one of hundreds that have taken place in major cities across the U.S. over the past week, catalyzed by a video from the city of Minneapolis, in the country’s Midwest, which went viral on social media last week. The video showed a white police officer pinning an unarmed black man, George Floyd, to the ground. The police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even in the face of witnesses and after the man pleaded repeatedly with the officer, saying, “I can’t breathe.” The police officer was charged initially with third-degree murder, but as protests grew in subsequent days, the local prosecutor elevated the charge to second-degree murder and also charged three officers who were standing by and failed to stop their colleague’s assault.

Monday’s attack on protesters in Washington D.C., occurred as the increasingly autocratic U.S. president, popular with white supremacist groups, faces re-election in a November vote that observers fear may be neither free nor fair. Since taking office, Trump has worked steadily to consolidate power, filling the judicial system with his supporters and systematically removing government officials in watchdog positions. He has launched unprecedented attacks on journalists, publicly referring to the press as “truly the enemy of the people.” A recent report on democracy in the U.S. by the research institute, Freedom House cites the “pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption.”

Trump, a former reality TV show host, had survived an impeachment earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives and a quick trial in the U.S. Senate, where the majority is controlled by his Republican Party ally Mitch McConnell from the conservative southern state of Kentucky and acquitted the president of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But Trump’s hold on power once again became tenuous with his chaotic and ineffectual response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, shuttered schools, and generated the largest unemployment rates since the Great Depression.

And now, Trump’s rhetoric is taking on a militarized tone, raising fears of a slide toward dictatorship in a country that has long held itself out to the world as a beacon of democracy.

Soon after the president’s propaganda photo shoot in front of the church, Army General Mark Milley, the head of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, a body of senior military officials who advise the president, was filmed wearing battle fatigues, patrolling the area. Later on Monday evening, a military helicopter hovered low over protesters in a commercial-residential district as a “perceived show of force and intimidation.” And Trump warned that if local officials did not act to control protests in dozens of cities around the country, he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

His remarks came after local media reported on vandalism and looting near protest sites across the country, though the vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful. Competing narratives blame the unlawful activity on either white supremacists seeking to discredit the protesters, or Antifa, a radical left-wing group that Trump has called to be designated as a terrorist organization, although government intelligence reporting has found no evidence of their involvement.

Black Americans, many of whose ancestors were abducted from their homelands and forced into slavery in the course of the country’s founding and development, have faced generations of institutionalized racism and state-enabled violence, including mass incarceration. They have been systemically denied full rights to education, health, employment, and voting. The killing of members of the black community by police forces in the United States has a long history, but the advent of cellphone videos has enabled human rights groups to document these extrajudicial killings.

Human rights groups inside the country have documented one killing after another, including some that sparked smaller protests or rioting in the past, but have had little success in securing accountability. A local media outlet estimates that 1,262 black Americans have been killed by the police in the past five years. In a number of the cases, the victims were engaged in everyday activities, such as playing in the parkbabysitting relatives, or even sleeping in their beds, when they were killed.

For much of the country though, daily life has continued in seemingly normal fashion, with many in the white population oblivious or apathetic in response to the ongoing violence against their fellow citizens. In what may be a tipping point, though, the widespread attention generated by the recent protests has led experts to draw comparisons to the country’s historic civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

On Tuesday, military officials began to distance themselves from Trump’s bellicose stance. In a letter to U.S. troops, General Milley emphasized the importance of constitutional protections and added a handwritten note by his signature: “We all committed our lives to the ideal that is America. We will stay true to that oath, and the American people.” He was followed the same day by one of his predecessors, retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, and then on Wednesday by former U.S. Marine General and then Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose legendary toughness gave him the moniker “Mad Dog Mattis” and who issued a rare public statement highly critical of the president.

For Trump to unilaterally deploy the U.S. military to states would be an extraordinary step. Under the country’s federal system, much governance power is devolved to state officials. Outside of exceptional circumstances, state governors need to request the deployment of troops to their states.

Due to a quirk of founding-era rules that have never been updated, Washington D.C., with double the population of Iceland, is not a state but rather a district that does not have a governor nor voting representation in Congress. This means the U.S. President can deploy military forces to the capital without permission from local officials. On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper vacillated on whether active-duty troops would remain on standby in the Washington region or be sent back to their home bases.

#BlackLivesMatter protests have captured worldwide attention, with people as far afield as New Zealand taking to the streets in solidarity with the protesters. The prime minister of neighboring Canada, Justin Trudeau, commented, “Many Canadians of diverse backgrounds are watching … the news out of the United States with shock and with horror.”

Outside of the region, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemned the killing of Floyd, and urged U.S. authorities to “intensify their efforts to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin.” And the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, said the actions of U.S. security forces likely constitute violations of international law, and called for the formation of independent commissions of inquiry to “assess and investigate fully the use of force by police.”

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The article above is an effort to imagine how we might see ourselves from the outside. If the picture painted here is not what we want as a country, then this is the moment for local and state officials to decry, unequivocally, any move toward the federal militarization of the response to protests in their jurisdiction. It is the moment for leaders in the military to insist, as they began to on Tuesday, that the oath they took to uphold the Constitution is an obligation they continue to take with the utmost seriousness. It is the moment to remind ourselves, repeatedly, of the constant labor required to sustain a democracy. 

And it is of course long past time to double down on the hard and ongoing work toward racial justice and equity that is needed to bridge the gaping void between the ideals we espouse and the reality of American life in 2020. 

IMAGE: Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators shooting tear gas next to St. John’s Episcopal Church outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd. President Trump visited the church while demonstrators where protesting. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana / AFP) (Photo by JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Rebecca Hamilton

Assistant Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law, Author of "Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide" Follow her on Twitter (@bechamilton).