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Conditions for unrest created from above as much as grassroots

The United States of America is tearing itself apart - and it's an outbreak that appears to be driven from on high as much as its grassroots. 

The gravest civil rights crisis since the era of Martin Luther King has wrought disruption all over the country. 

From its origins in Minneapolis to San Francisco to New York and, with the most potent symbolism, Washington, D.C., where the leader of the free world remained underground in a protective bunker, much of the country has been set ablaze.

But a country, certainly not one with all the material advantages and strong political institutions that America has, does not become a tinder box overnight.

The death of George Floyd, which a coroner has now conclusively proven was caused by the asphyxiation that resulted from a Police Officer crushing his windpipe with his knee, it can even be said, was not out of the ordinary, 

Several fatal confrontations between African American men and Police - and even armed citizens - have occurred in recent years. 

A total of 1,134 people died during confrontations with Police according to statistics published by the Guardian newspaper. Despite making up only two per cent of the population, Black Americans accounted for 15 per cent of those arrests. 

It is difficult to argue that the protesters - and the broader Black Lives Matter movement that has surrounded it - are righteous in their indignation.

A quote from the great and non-violent civil rights leader, who was killed in the wake of the country’s last great episode of mass racial violence, seems particularly appropriate for the events of this week: “A riot is the language of the unheard”.

Some instances of apparently excessive use of force by Police against minorities have captured America’s attention before; they have drawn protests and mobilised people in large numbers before. 

In 2015, Freddie Gray died from spinal cord injuries suffered while being apprehended by Police and taken into custody in what was alleged to have involved the excessive use of force.

In 2017 a young black American, Eric Garner, died after a New York City Police Officer placed him in a chokehold causing him to enter cardigan arrest and die. 

These incidents are united by the outrageous circumstances of the victims’ deaths. And they also usually happen to be filmed clearly by bystanders, allowing them to rise to the top of America’s television dominated media market and opening the door for a difficult and all-too-rare conversation about racism in America. 

But according to the Mapping Police Violence project, an estimated 750 black men were killed by Police between 2013 and 2019.

It was only last month that another black man, Ahmaud Arbery, was chased through the streets of a Georgia neighbourhood where he was killed by a father and son who pursued him through the streets before shooting him to death in an apparent case of vigilantism. 

In light of these cases, it is perhaps more extraordinary that the cases that we do hear about and that we see that the events of the past two days are comparatively rare.

The question arises. What made the incident of Mr. Floyd’s death capture the attention of Americans and provoke them into action. Why did it, in particular, make Americans so angry?

As gruesome as the footage of his death was, that did not distinguish it from the cases listed above. 

Something was different about Mr. Floyd’s death - and it says something about the state of American politics. 

To some degree, each of these incidents has the effect of compounding national discontent and anger a little more each time. At some point anger can no longer be contained; it boils over.

The sheer size of the movement that Mr. Floyd’s death inspired a muddy analysis of its causes.

Any massive civil uprising that challenges that superiority of law enforcement will be taken advantage of by those who have long-held desires to perpetrate violence; to destroy property; and to simply steal.

And there is no denying that innocent businesses that stood in the path of these protests did suffer. 

Images of this unfortunate behaviour can and is being used to cast the broader movement of the past few days as a whole as nothing more than the actions of lawless anarchists. 

But it should not obscure the much bigger social problems of which these mass protests are merely a symptom. 

Any satisfactory explanation for the largest uprising in the United States in 50 years is going to require a more complicated explanation than anarchists simply seizing an opportunity. 

Citizens’ anger at authorities and the flashpoints that mobilise them to rise up is not  going to be a phenomenon that is easily explained.

But one point at least, is clear.

The riots took place amid a political climate created by the Trump Presidency that stakes its success on politicking across social division. 

Even at the peak of the riots, President Donald Trump was stroking their flames from behind his twitter account, putting the politics of division that helped him win office above the safety of the nation.

"When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the President tweeted, in an apparent reference to a slogan used in the ‘60s in relating to Police brutality against African Americans. 

When a predominantly black crowd of protestors converged upon the White House, Trump could not have been plainer that he saw the riots as a chance to boost his own political capital: "Tonight, I understand, is M.A.G.A. NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???"

M.A.G.A.is, of course, the political slogan - Make America Great Again - that President Trump used to great effect in the 2016 federal election, which he styled as a pitched battle between coastal elites and 'everyday Americans'. 

America is, of course, a world away from Samoa. It has a history all of its own. And the dynamics in which its politics take place are uniquely and infinite complex in ways that belie comparisons.

But perhaps there is a lesson for our country in the discord across America - the role of divisive rhetoric from leaders lays the groundwork for future intense unrest.

Statesmen and leaders build coalitions. They move to bridge divisions, not capitalise upon them. 

Increasingly fond of bypassing the media to deliver his message unfiltered through state-owned channels, our Prime Minister, Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, has turned his divisive rhetoric.

He has disparaged many people who are worthy of respect, such as the nation’s Judges and legal fraternity, simply for disagreeing with him. He has suggested that his political opponents may be suffering from mental illness, belittled their physical appearance, or suggested they might be inspired by Nazi ideals. 

In its willingness to dismiss everyone who disagrees with him in the most base and off-handed manner, Tuilaepa’s style of political communication is undeniably Trumpian.

His readiness to resort to the worst kind of slurs will not, of its own, create political unrest. But it does deepen division in the country. 

Sending the message to his followers that those who take different political positions can and should be dismissed with low insults has the effect of lessening the view of their humanity. It puts politics above decency. 

These are the conditions that create a tinderbox. And cause for us all to tread carefully. 




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