The world is watching as Donald Trump and his team incite violence against nonwhite Americans across the United States. Trump’s team spans a broad array of warriors: his core staffers at the White House, senior Justice Department officers, many police departments across the country, key politicians in Congress, Fox News and other extreme media outlets, invisible right-wing trolls behind keyboards, armed vigilante militias, and many others. Their violent rhetoric spawns physical violence and emotional trauma on the vulnerable. For viewers afar, these flashpoints are baffling as they are incompatible with the imagined promised land of the U.S. Yet, for Black America, this is a continuation of the American odyssey. History is replete with unfathomable violence against Black people.
The U.S.’s proclamation of exceptionalism bears out the saturation of military-style weaponry among its civilian population and by the extraordinary level of violence meted out by both the state apparatus and individual citizens within a democratic society. In Trump’s America, this violence has been exposed with the confluence of social media and a president who unleashes his most private impulses.
The contemporary political era brings to mind the fable of Rip Van Winkle, an ordinary villager in colonial America, who, upon waking up from a deep sleep of 20 years, discovered that he had slumbered through the American Revolution, and that life as he knew it had passed him by. Like Rip Van Winkle, some Americans do not understand the current moment; they yearn for a return to the past, to the way things used to be, to a time of unchallenged racial supremacy, and as Trump’s slogan evokes, to Make America Great Again. For some, it is difficult to distinguish the Trump team rhetoric, as was recently aired during the Republican National Convention, from reality. Others are acutely aware that this fable is a cover-up for white supremacy. They understand the codes of Trump’s presidency and that he articulates white grievances and racial bigotry.
The violence of this rhetoric is multifaceted and all-encompassing; it is historical and contemporary. It is the lived experience of Black people, who, for centuries, have resisted violence. For more than 400 years, Black people have expressed in countless ways that Black Lives Matter. “Black Lives Matter” was articulated through the responses of the enslaved as they resisted sheer brutality; it was articulated through distorting of Black bodies in agony and the contorted expressions of anguish on their faces that connoted their humanity. Today, Black Lives Matter is a continuum of protest against systemic discrimination, against physical violence by the apparatus of the state, against economic violence, against environmental violence, against interpersonal violence, and all forms of structural violence.
The actions of police reflect societal values. They work as agents of the state; designed to protect property and affluence, and to protect those with excess from those with little. They employ lethal force, even in the absence of threat. In many instances, such brutality is met with impunity. The relentless shooting of Black people by agents of the state and the ensuing rhetoric from the president’s team attempts to dehumanize the victims.
The police officer who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd and murdered him while other officers stood by intended to show through a spectacular use of force that Black lives have no value, and that Black people do not deserve the air they breathe or the blood that courses through their arteries. Despite witnessing these spectacular acts of violence against Black people, Trump and his team remain unperturbed. Like Rip Van Winkle, they sleep during a monumental period.
When we protest injustices, Trump and his team persecute us. Their aversion to protest shows that they expect us to be indifferent or to acquiesce and validate subjugation. We are expected to be complicit with violence against us and with the destruction of Black bodies. We are expected to remain silent. Evolutionarily, even lower species in our ecosystem develop mechanisms to resist destructive stimuli. There is no reason a complex human being would do the contrary. Putting your knees on our necks and expecting our submission and our complicity defy all physiological and mental instincts of living beings to respond to adverse stimuli.
Trump and his team seek to cling onto power by stoking fear of the “Black villain” who intends to “invade” the suburbs. This was reinforced at the Republican National Convention when the McCloskeys, a couple from Missouri who had threatened violence against protesters, warned fellow (white) Americans that their suburban way of life would be abolished and that their children would no longer be able to play in the backyard without fear if Donald Trump is not reelected. Despite the rhetorical disinformation, they were right on one account: The quest for a good life is universal. Black people, like all other groups, desire the good life, be it anywhere, including the suburbs, where our children can also play in the backyard without fear. Black people want the same bounty of the “American dream” that white people want for their children.
Trump’s campaign cry in 2016 was to cordon off the southern border. In the 2020 election season, his attention has turned to internal borders between urban and suburban spaces, the cordon within. Trump intends to protect and reinforce this wall within the U.S. through rhetorical and physical violence.
We cannot erect artificial walls internally and assume they are unscalable. We cannot continue to lay dormant as the police employ violence against a segment of our society. We, the American people, have the power and the authority to end this trajectory of violence. As the world watches, we can change our course and be exceptional for constructive action. Black people ask for nothing more than to be treated for who we are: full and contributing members of the human family. We call on the state and its security apparatus to acknowledge our humanity and treat us with dignity. We implore our fellow Americans in positions of power and influence — whether at educational, financial, and other economic and social institutions — to grant us equitable access. As Americans, with progressive action, we can be a true beacon on the hill.