In the past two weeks, everything has changed… and nothing has changed.
Two weeks ago tonight, 46-year-old Minneapolis man George Floyd was alive, going through his Sunday night as any one of us do, unaware—as we all are—of what the next day would bring.
Floyd's casual murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Monday, May 25, caught on video by a bystander, ignited protests across the world.
First, protesters of police brutality turned out onto the streets, then looters, who are as yet largely unidentified, started trashing city storefronts. Then, in a number of cities, police rioted against the protesters while Trump and Attorney General William Barr insisted without evidence that the trouble makers were the "radical left" and "Antifa," an amorphous identity of those opposed to fascism, a group that Trump said he was going to designate as a terrorist organization (although it is illegal to dub a domestic group as a terrorist organization). Notably, the police tended to attack people of color and journalists, the latter being such a sign of authoritarianism it earned condemnation from Germany, Australia, and Turkey.
Monday, June 1, a week after Floyd's murder, was the turning point. President Trump announced that he was ready to deploy the military to restore order to American cities, then walked across Lafayette Square for a photo op by historic St. John's Episcopal Church. Before his walk, troops had cleared the square of peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. Trump got his photo op, and then he and Barr increased the presence of unidentified troops on the D.C. streets—it later turned out many of them were riot squads from the Bureau of Prisons.
But Monday's stunts were too much for military leaders, who felt obliged to speak out against the use of the military against American civilians and in defense of the Constitution. By Wednesday, one military leader after another had reinforced the military's commitment to racial equality, called for the upholding of the Constitution, and implicitly or explicitly, condemned the president. And by Friday, June 5, the Pentagon had disarmed the National Guard troops stationed in Washington, D.C. and had sent the regular troops that had been moved to the city back to their home bases.
By yesterday, there were protests in London, Paris, Berlin, and Sydney, Australia, as well as in cities and towns all over America. In Washington, D.C. between 100,000 and 200,000 people turned out to defend the Black lives constantly susceptible to the systems that privilege white Americans. Today Colin Powell, President George W. Bush's Secretary of State, announced that he will support Democrat Joe Biden for president. Even more dramatic, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), the Republican Party's 2012 presidential nominee, joined the protesters today with a group of about 1000 evangelicals, singing "This Little Light of Mine."
The protests, and perhaps even more, the declarations of military leaders, have given anti-Trump Republicans room to buck the president. Tonight, news broke that former national security advisor John Bolton is planning to publish this month his tell-all book about his time in the White House. The book was supposed to come out in March, but the White House has delayed it for months, claiming to be checking whether it reveals classified information. Bolton has now decided to publish the book without White House clearance, claiming that he has been careful not to reveal classified information in it, and that the White House is holding it up for political reasons.
So everything has changed… but nothing has changed.
Trump is still president, tweeting anger and grievance today as his poll numbers slip. "If I wasn't constantly harassed for three years by fake and illegal investigations, Russia, Russia, Russia, and the Impeachment Hoax, I'd be up by 25 points on Sleepy Joe and the Do Nothing Democrats. Very unfair, but it is what it is!!!" he wrote.
Attorney General William Barr is still in office, and while he backed off today from claiming responsibility for ordering the troops to clear Lafayette Square, he still defended the administration's approach to the protests. On CBS's Face the Nation today, he told host Margaret Brennan that the pepper spray used against the protesters was "not a chemical irritant," and therefore, presumably, not an unreasonable use of force. Its manufacturer advertises pepper spray to police officers as "the most effective chemical irritant available."
Congress has passed no new legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) continues to push his own agenda, confirming two more of Trump's judges even as protests were raging in the streets outside the Capitol.
Tonight, we learned that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has given up its effort to get the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to testify at a budget hearing. Pompeo is under scrutiny for urging Trump to fire the State Department's Inspector General, Steve Linick, who was looking into Pompeo's $8.1 billion emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Pompeo clearly has no intention of putting himself in a place where lawmakers can ask him about the firing or the arms sales. The White House denies Congress's duty or right to question members of the executive branch, and it appears the Senate Foreign Relations Committee doesn't see the point of contesting that crucial issue.
The protests that were sparked by Mr. Floyd's murder are about more than Mr. Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, killed in a botched police raid as she slept in her own bed, or the many other African Americans murdered by police. They are an outpouring of outrage against a government that privileges a few at the expense of the many. But while that outrage is clearly deep and powerful, it has yet to change the government itself. The November elections are five months away. What happens between now and then will determine whether the past two weeks are remembered as the breaking point that turned the course of American history.
© 2020 Heather Cox Richardson Unsu