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Opinion: America is a tinderbox

The last 2 1/2 months in America have felt like the opening montage in a dystopian film about a nation come undone. First the pandemic hit and hospitals in New York City were overwhelmed. The national economy froze and unemployment soared. Nationwide, at least 100,000 people died of a disease almost no one had heard of last year.

Then, this week, a Minneapolis police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of a black man named George Floyd. As the life went out of him, Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, whose 2014 death at the hands of New York policemen helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Minneapolis protesters poured into the streets, where they met a far harsher police response than anything faced by the country’s gun-toting anti-lockdown activists. On Wednesday night, peaceful demonstrations turned into riots, and on Thursday Minnesota’s governor called in the National Guard.

The authorities were forced to act: All four of the policemen involved were fired, police chiefs across the country condemned them, and William Barr’s Justice Department promised a federal investigation that would be a “top priority. Even Donald Trump, who has encouraged police brutality in the past, described what happened to Floyd as a “very, very bad thing.”

But on Thursday night, after a county prosecutor said his office was still determining if the four policemen had committed a crime, the uprising in Minneapolis was reignited, and furious people burned a police precinct. (One of the officers was arrested and charged with third-degree murder Friday.) On Twitter, an addled Trump threatened military violence against those he called “THUGS,” writing, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

So many things make America combustible right now: mass unemployment, a pandemic that’s laid bare murderous health and economic inequalities, teenagers with little to do, police violence, right-wingers itching for a second civil war and a president eager to pour gasoline on every fire.

Already the Minneapolis protests have spread to other cities.

These demonstrations were sparked by specific instances of police violence, but they also take place in a context of widespread health and economic devastation that’s been disproportionately borne by people of color, especially those who are poor.

That frustration is likely to build, because the economic ruin from the pandemic is just beginning. In some states, moratoriums on evictions have ended or will soon. The expanded unemployment benefits passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act run out at the end of July..

But if America feels like a tinderbox at the moment, it’s not just because of pressure coming from the dispossessed. On Wednesday, journalists Robert Evans and Jason Wilson published a fascinating and disturbing look at the “boogaloo” movement — “an extremely online update of the militia movement” — on the investigative website Bellingcat. “The ‘boogaloo Bois’ expect, even hope, that the warmer weather will bring armed confrontations with law enforcement and will build momentum towards a new civil war in the United States,” Evans and Wilson write.

Most American presidents would seek de-escalation. This is one reason civil unrest, for all the damage it can cause to communities where it breaks out, has often led to reform. Change has come, said Thompson, when activists have “created a situation where the people in power actually had to act in order to bring back some meaningful public peace.”

“We now have a leadership that’s been crystal clear that it’s perfectly OK if we descend into utter civil war,” Thompson said.

No one knows how dark things could get, only that, in the Trump era, scenes that seem nightmarish one day come to look almost normal the next.

Writes for The New York Times.