There has been “nothing comparable in American history” to the huge outpouring of protest unleashed by the murder of George Floyd, says world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky. Even at the very peak of Martin Luther King Jr.’s popularity, the mass protests that King led and inspired “didn’t come anywhere close” to the massive racial justice protests that have erupted over this past year, Chomsky adds.
As the anniversary of Floyd’s murder approaches, I invited Chomsky — a brilliant thinker who combines deep and unbelievable historical breadth, critical conceptual sharpness, and profound passion in his analysis of political and existential issues — to talk with me about George Floyd’s death and the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin, as well as anti-Black violence in North America and how the U.S. fomented a “gun culture.”
Chomsky is an intellectual whom I have come to greatly appreciate, to admire and to think of as a friend. Through his example, I have learned how to practice disobedience and dissent in a world that is filled with indoctrination. As a rule of thumb, he has taught me that when everybody agrees on something more complicated than “two plus two equals four,” we should question it.
George Yancy: For some of us, witnessing the killing of George Floyd and hearing him say that he couldn’t breathe brought back memories of 43-year-old Black male Eric Garner’s death back in 2014, though he said, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. When you think about what happened to George Floyd within the larger historical context of white racism within the U.S., how does Floyd’s death speak to you? For me, it was not anomalous, but how did it speak to you?
Noam Chomsky: His death dramatically symbolized 400 years of hideous crimes and atrocities, and evidently it meant that to a large part of the population. It is quite striking what happened after his assassination, as we should call it. There was a huge outpouring, nothing comparable in American history. There were huge demonstrations; there was a sense of dedicated solidarity of Black and white people marching together. They were nonviolent overwhelmingly, though the right wing would like you to believe otherwise. There was also enormous public support, with two-thirds of the population supportive of protest. There is nothing remotely like that in U.S. history.
Protests led by Martin Luther King Jr., at the very peak of his popularity, didn’t come anywhere close to that. That’s the result, I think, of a lot of work that’s been done on the ground by Black Lives Matter and other groups which have raised the level of consciousness and awareness to the point where when this thing happened it just lit a spark, and the kindling was ready to burn. And it’s had a longtime impact. I think it’s changed perception and understanding considerably, and not undermined by the fact that police-perpetrated killings continue almost daily.
As I was watching the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, I’m sure that Floyd’s family had experienced some sense of relief and perhaps they could breathe again as well. Yet, it also occurred to me that in the case of finding Chauvin guilty on all three charges, there was such a low threshold to demonstrate his guilt. He had knelt on him for nine minutes and 29 seconds. I don’t want to come across as pessimistic or cynical, but what do you see as “triumphant” or “progressive” regarding the guilty verdict?
You know, there had been an atmosphere in the past, as you know, better than I do, in which Black lives just didn’t matter. The sentiment was that if a white person was brought to trial after killing a Black person, the reasoning was that they probably had a “good reason.” So, just free them. Of course, there were even worse cases where whites carried out murders and lynchings and were praised. Well, fortunately, we’re past that.
But not so far in the past, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, for example, was assassinated in a Gestapo-style murder, set-up by the FBI, who fed to the Chicago police fake stories about guns being stashed in his apartment. The police raided his apartment at about 4 o’clock in the morning and murdered him and his friend, Mark Clark. Just murdered them. The reason for killing Hampton was very simple. He was the most important of the Black Panther organizers. The FBI wanted to go after the successful organizers and Hampton was the peak of them; he had to be killed. In fact, it was the last of a long series of efforts where the FBI tried to instigate a feud between the Black Panthers and the criminal group, Blackstone Rangers, which were in Chicago.
The FBI sent fake letters to the Rangers written in fake Black dialect saying that the Panthers had a contract out on their leaders. But they were closely enough integrated, so they knew what was going on. In the case of Hampton, however, they had an FBI infiltrator, who was his bodyguard. The point is that there was a long FBI plot not just against the Panthers, but against the Black movements altogether. It took years of dedicated work by some great young lawyers, Flint Taylor and Jeffrey Haas, working on the case for years to finally get a kind of civil settlement.
This one case vastly outweighs anything that was charged against Richard Nixon. Was he charged for his use of national political police carrying out murder and assassination campaigns against Black organizers? And regarding your question, that’s a big difference between then and now. Now at least circumstances are such that a jury can convict someone for the perfectly obvious murder of a Black man. But if you turn on Fox News, notice the reaction. Listen to Tucker Carlson, who claims that the trial of Derek Chauvin wasn’t legitimate because the jury was intimidated, they were terrified that Black people were going to come and destroy their houses and kill them all. Alan Dershowitz, the so-called civil libertarian who likes to present himself as that, also claimed that the trial was illegitimate because the jury was intimidated.
We haven’t freed ourselves. There’s a lot of distance to go, but the killing of George Floyd did bring out something very positive in the society, namely the beginnings of understanding that there’s something really hideous at the core of our history. It has come up in other ways, like the 1619 Project published by The New York Times. Some historians are carping about it, “You got this wrong; you’ve got that wrong.” But it’s not even relevant when, finally, we have a recognition in the main media and the country that we’ve had 400 years of hideous atrocities experienced by Black people. So, let’s take a look at it, ask who we are and what we are. This is not something irrelevant to American history. It’s the basis of U.S. economic prosperity; that’s why I’m privileged.
Cotton was the oil of the 19th century. The large part of the wealth of the United States, and also Britain, and to a lesser extent the continent, was based on cheap cotton. How do you get cheap cotton? Well, by the most hideous, atrocious system of slavery that ever existed. A lot of this is just coming to light. Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told, provides an astonishing picture of things that maybe professional historians knew something about, but certainly the general public, even the informed public, wasn’t informed about. I didn’t know a lot of the things he described; they were way beyond the horrors that I knew about. A lot of this is just beginning to come out after hundreds of years. It’s about time.
And we have to look at a lot of other things. For example, why do so few Black people have access to wealth? There are many reasons. One reason is the New Deal measures, which determined that federal housing had to be segregated. And in the 1950s, for the first time, a Black man had a chance to get a decent job in an auto union job at an auto plant, to make some money and perhaps buy a house. But he couldn’t buy a house, because the Federal Housing Projects (Levittown, in Long Island, New York, for example) kept Black people out.
In the U.S., wealth and housing are very closely related. A lot of people’s wealth is in their house. Once Black workers finally got just a little bit of emancipation, a chance to get a job, they were told, “Sorry folks, but you can’t buy a house here because we have racist laws.” This ran into the later 1960s, which was finally overturned by the popular activism in the 1960s. I should say that the liberal Democratic senators who voted for this law were strongly opposed to segregation. They were not racists. They wanted nonsegregated housing, but they couldn’t get anything through the Southern Democrats, who dominated the Senate. This is very similar in our own time when you can’t get anything through unless you somehow get the Republican Party, which is dedicated to wealth and power, to agree. And this is a big problem in this country.
In the past few months, we have heard about shooting after shooting. Could you talk about the escalating danger of gun violence? My sense is that there are profound cultural myths regarding gun ownership. Could you speak to this as well?
Gun violence is increasing not just here, but one of the worst effects of the U.S. gun culture is in Mexico and Latin America. They’re flooded with American guns, which are killing people at a hideous rate. Mexico is a killing field with largely American guns. In Central America, there is the same thing. You flood areas with guns where there are plenty of tensions and crises and you’re going to get killings. Instead of people shouting at each other, they’ll shoot each other. And it’s shocking that somebody like me, for example, who doesn’t know which end of the gun to hold, could go into a store in Arizona, where I live, and pick up a fancy gun and hand it over to somebody from a Mexican cartel. Basically, things like that are a curse for the world. And it just has to be cured.
The history of this is worth remembering. In the 19th century, there was no gun culture. People had guns. After all, it was an agricultural country, so farmers had old muskets to chase coyotes away and so on, but there was no gun culture. What happened apparently — and there is a good study of this by historian Pamela Haag, who has examined this in some detail — is that gun manufacturers were facing an economic crisis.
The American Civil War provided a huge market for fancy modern guns. European states were at war, they were buying up guns. But the Civil War ended, and Europe went into a temporary quiescent state. There were not a lot of wars and fighting and so the market dried up. So, they hit on the idea of trying to create a market through advertising. The first great advertising campaign began with concocting an image of the “Wild West,” the kind of thing that I grew up with. There was Wyatt Earp, a sheriff who was quick on the draw, or there was the Lone Ranger who would ride to the rescue. There was nothing remotely like this in the West, but it was invented and had a big effect. I can remember it from my childhood, and we all believed it.
Of course, the bottom line of all of this was that you better buy your son a fancy rifle, or he won’t be a “real man.” Well, that established the basis for a kind of gun culture, and it was copied by other advertising campaigns. We all remember the Marlboro Man. You know, you want to poison yourself with cigarettes and be like a cowboy who runs to the rescue. And it turned out to be very effective. The tobacco campaign killed — though nobody knows, probably millions of people — and the gun culture is still killing people at a horrific rate, which was all escalated by the Supreme Court in 2008 — the District of Columbia v. Heller — where Justice Antonin Scalia reversed 100 years of precedent and reinterpreted the Second Amendment to grant free access to guns by individuals. Scalia was an originalist, a textualist.
The idea here is that you don’t pay attention to what the people who introduced the legislation meant by it; you’re not allowed to do that. You just have to look at the text, not what it meant to the people who wrote it. That’s illegitimate, not true scholarship.
So, he looked at the text and tried to show that somebody living in the 18th century would have interpreted the Second Amendment to mean disregard for militias. True or false, it’s totally irrelevant. We know exactly why the founders instituted the Second Amendment. One reason was the British Army. They were the main force in the world. The U.S. barely had an army, and the British might come right back. In fact, they did a few years later, and one had to have militias to call up to protect oneself against the British.
The second reason was slavery. In places like South Carolina, enslaved Black people outnumbered white people. And there were slave rebellions going on all over the Caribbean, and they could spread here. In fact, they did. So, white people decided they needed guns for militias. But the main reason was aggression and genocide. One of the main reasons for the American Revolution was that King George III had instituted a royal proclamation which banned the colonists from going to the territory of the Indian Nations. They were not supposed to invade them. Colonists were supposed to stay east of the Appalachians, but they didn’t want that. They wanted to kill and displace the American Indian people. They could then settle out there. Land speculators like George Washington wanted to move out. As soon as the British were gone, well, the white settlers needed militias, they needed guns.
Later on, the army was created, the cavalry took care of it, and through the 19th century, Indigenous nations were destroyed, attacked and expelled. They needed lots of guns for that. You see, that’s why the founders needed guns, but we’re not allowed to talk about that. Instead, we generally say what someone like Scalia thinks someone would’ve understood by the Second Amendment. And now that has become holy writ. Most people in the U.S., if you ask them what’s in the Constitution, the first thing they’ll say is the Second Amendment. It has just become a dominant part of the culture.