(Originally published here in South China Morning Post on April 27, 2021.)
How close was America to a replay of the chaos that ripped through its cities a year ago in response to George Floyd’s death?
With many riled up by similar incidents that occurred in the days leading up to and throughout the trial, including the police shootings of Duante Wright and Adam Toledo, it seemed all but assured that we would have been watching smoke rise from cities and towns across the country had Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, been acquitted.
Confronted with graphic video evidence and damning testimony from the officer’s own colleagues, the jurors in the trial of the man who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes delivered a verdict that prevented the tinderbox from igniting. And, with it, some of the racist underpinnings of the United States melted away like tonnes of granite subducting under a continental shelf.
The police killings of Floyd, and of Breonna Taylor just a few months before, set off the long-overdue tectonic shift in a way that the lynchings of many scores of African-Americans throughout the country’s history never managed to.
The verdict felt like another milestone in the course that the country has adopted since last year’s general election, when a majority of Americans rejected an administration that made division and discord its prime mode of governance.
Former president Donald Trump’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo, along with many top officials in the last administration, tried to bury the reality of America as a multicultural nation where every American, whether or not they fit in with the cast of a 1950s television sitcom, is entitled to equal treatment under the law.
It was a message that clashed with Pompeo’s constant haranguing of China on the human rights front, and made it more difficult to take Washington’s rhetoric seriously.
But no one should think that racial injustice in America is over. Nor is the discord that Trump and his allies worked hard to entrench by pushing their fiction about a stolen 2020 election and refusing to condemn right-wing terrorism and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
While the Chauvin trial verdict might have been a positive signal, many in the Republican Party – particularly those who see racial equality and efforts to rein in police violence as a threat – have only doubled down on their evidence-free allegations of voter fraud by preparing legislation that restricts absentee and early voting.
In an egregious example of voter suppression, Georgia’s Republicans passed a law that will make it illegal to offer food or water to those queuing up to cast their ballots.
Republicans of the Trumpian variety are also trying to criminalise protest. The states of Oklahoma and Iowa, for example, passed bills this month granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets. A Republican proposal in Indiana would prevent anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding public office.
Ted Cruz and Rick Scott are among the senators who wrote to the departments of justice and homeland security, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this month to demand information about “what efforts your agencies have made to investigate, arrest and prosecute” protesters in Portland, who demonstrated for months against police brutality after Floyd’s death.
What is more befuddling here? The fact that Cruz and Scott both travelled to Hong Kong during the protest movement to fan the flames that had engulfed the city, or their demand for information about left-wing protesters just weeks after their party’s head incited a right-wing insurrection against the US government?
Cruz, who slammed America’s door in the faces of the very Hong Kong protesters he had used as a political prop, has shown us how protest is praiseworthy if it’s against the Chinese government, but a disgrace if it’s against police brutality or white supremacy.
But this is a digression. America’s movement towards a more just society, a model of what an advanced civilisation should be, is slow and precarious, but at least the direction is now more aligned with its diplomatic rhetoric. This makes it more difficult for Beijing and other authoritarian governments to call Washington’s diplomats hypocrites.
Fortunately for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others on the receiving end of Washington’s lectures about human rights, however, the US has plenty of lawmakers apparently willing to give them cover.