Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
I doubt a ConservativeHome column has ever featured lyrics by Tupac. In fact, it is a bet I’d be willing to make.
But so much of ‘Changes’ by Tupac speaks truth to the tragic scenes being played out across the United States since the death of George Floyd, placed in handcuffs and slowly deprived of oxygen with a knee to neck when the only crime he had committed was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And, inescapably, because he was black. “I can’t breathe”, he could be heard saying. The knee remained. A man died. And so, to Tupac.
“I got love for my brother but we can never go nowhere
Unless we share with each other
We gotta start makin’ changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.”
America has a long and troubled past when it comes to race – a journey that has been uncomfortable to acknowledge on numerous occasions throughout history. So much has changed in the country since ‘Changes’ was released in 1998, and yet evidently so much has remained the same. The very existence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the presence of protesters taking to the streets in frustration, anger, and fear proves that the journey is far from complete.
We should aspire to live in a world in which no one citizen in any one country feels the need to protest in defence of their right to live in peace and prosperity, because it goes without saying. My life matters. So does yours. The colour of your skin should not be a qualifying factor.
In that respect, the spread of protests in the name of George Floyd around the world proves that conversations about race and inequality are incomplete elsewhere. This is by no means a uniquely American problem.
Activists and protesters have gathered in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. Social media has been overtaken with messages in support of the black community. Instagram has had a day starved of influencers, athletes, and sourdough bread, and replaced by black screens in support of #BlackoutTuesday. An examination must begin at home before we are to cast assertion over what is happening in the United States. We are far from perfect, and it is our responsibility as individuals to create a society in which we are blind to differences in race, choosing to create families and communities built on the cornerstones of tolerance and understanding.
You don’t have to be American to care about this and you don’t have to be black to take a stand. Just like you don’t need to be Jewish to care about anti-Semitism or Muslim to be disturbed by Islamophobia. If those criteria are holding you back, then are you not part of the problem by choosing to accept an unjust status quo instead of pushing for progressive change?
American cities have become war zones
Photos of police armed for an urban riot separating protesters have become mixed with video footage of looting in cities across America; pockets of the country look more like a war zone than the America many of us know, love and have lived in. It is important to separate the two. Political gain is being made by combining them.
It is a tragic repetition of history, replicating scenes from 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown. Or should that read ‘the shooting of another unarmed black man, Michael Brown’?
Violence and looting tarnishes peaceful and justifiable protest. Smashing shop fronts and stealing only serves to slander the cause of those who protest rightly, lawfully, and peacefully. Such behaviour cannot be excused but it speaks to an underlying anger and frustration that has been simmering in the United States for decades and has boiled over once again. “There can be no excuse for criminal acts”, Barack Obama said after shots were fired at police officers. It dispelled the notion that Democrats support the destruction and looting of American cities.
At that time, America was led by its first African American president. Obama urged restraint and called for peaceful protest. He acknowledged that “the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation”. He used healing words to calm tensions. Still, Ferguson burned for days on end. It was further proof that a black man in the White House was not going to single-handedly solve America’s racial divides.
Six years later, Donald Trump is a very different kind of president. Neither calm nor caution are in his current repertoire. The White House podium will not be the site of a great soothing address to the nation. The Rose Garden will not be the ground on which the President stands and calls for national healing.
Instead, the evidence so far suggests he will seek to establish political gain. There is an election to win. Law and order could win him four more years in the White House. Governors must therefore “dominate” the protesters, so the President urged on a conference call.
Trump has painted those protesting thus far as members of a radical left-wing movement hell bent on bringing America to its knees. Now, he wants to draw a link between the protest movement and Joe Biden, his likely presidential rival. The proof, as is so often the case, is on Twitter:
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more. Joe doesn’t know anything about it, he is clueless, but they will be the real power, not Joe.”
The differences in approaches taken by Presidents Trump and Obama could hardly be clearer. With an empathetic African American president in office, Ferguson was still blighted by civil unrest for days on end in three distinct waves. Trump is not African American by birth. He is not empathetic by choice. And so there is no suggestion that American cities and communities will begin the healing process required to calm the tensions that have captured the country yet again.
Congress is unlikely to be the bastion for change given the hyper-partisan culture that divides it. Justin Amash, a conservative independent from Michigan, plans to introduce legislation this week that would allow victims to sue officers for illegal and unconstitutional acts.
Biden, the Democratic nominee in waiting, took to Philadelphia to make his first significant speech after three months in lockdown in an attempt to position himself as a leader in waiting with a radically different, and crucially softer, approach to that of Trump.
Despite a markedly quieter start to the year than his campaign team would have expected, with the campaign trail becoming entirely virtual owing to COVID-19, Biden is 10 points ahead of Trump in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. ‘Could Biden win by staying quiet and just not being Trump?’, I was asked yesterday.
Not if this election replicates that of 1968, in which Richard Nixon ran as “your president of law and order”. But Nixon was the challenger whilst Mr Trump is the incumbent, on which basis Americans might question why law and order has seemingly regressed during his four years in office, not progressed.
A light unto other nations in so many respects, the ongoing question of race in America poses an existential threat to the very principle of American exceptionalism on which the country was built.
Race in America. The relationship between the police and the African American community. The militarisation of the police. These are all topics which any student of and writer on American politics will unfortunately have to encounter at some point. There is nothing to suggest these questions will go away any time soon: 57 per cent of Americans think the police treat white people better than they treat black people, according to new CBS polling. The tide must start to turn sometime.
Good policing matters. Community tolerance and understanding matters. Black lives matter. We must all work harder to create communities in which placards and protests are not needed to reinforce that.