By Bonnie James*
The civil unrest that has engulfed dozens of US cities since the Memorial Day murder by Minneapolis police of an unarmed, 46-year-old African American, arrived at moment when the nation was already reeling: The Covid-19 epidemic had already taken more than 100,000 American lives; the pandemic’s sudden and drastic economic consequences had brought levels of unemployment not seen since the 1930s Great Depression; and the stupefyingly cruel and heedless presidency of Donald J. Trump had already shaken the American people to the core.
By now, people all over the world, who are themselves dealing with the deleterious effects of the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, have seen the stomach-turning video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of a supine George Floyd, for nearly 9 minutes, choking the life out of him. Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis policeman, who had 17 previous disciplinary charges against him, after being accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. He wasn’t the first such black victim of police brutality. Before Floyd, there were Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and many, many more.
But the murder of George Floyd, and the video that went viral immediately afterwards, turned out to be the trigger for a nationwide uprising, mostly of young people, people of all colors and backgrounds. They were not simply reacting to a horrendous event, or even a series of such events. After years, and decades, and centuries of institutionalized racism, dating back to our nation’s “original sin,” despite the bloody defeat of the Slave Power in the Civil War, followed by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, white supremacy, African Americans continue to be economically and spiritually crushed by unequal treatment in housing, education, health care, employment, income. Add to that the fact that people of color have been dying at significantly higher rates from Covid-19 than the population overall. Many are frontline worker: doctors, nurses, EMTs, transit employees, delivery workers, etc., who have borne the brunt of exposure to the virus. The rage and pain of all of that, and more, erupted on May 26.
America now needs a leader who would address that pain and injustice, and seek ways to create a better future for all Americans—to draw good from evil, as has happened in this country before: Abraham Lincoln and his general Ulysses S. Grant saved the Union which had been rent asunder by the treasonous Confederacy; Franklin D. Roosevelt gave hope and economic relief to the country out of the depths of depression; John F. Kennedy thrilled us with the Apollo Program and put man on the Moon, inspiring generations of young people to reach for the stars.
Trump, instead–who has shown precisely zero understanding or compassion for what the country has been experiencing, except insofar as it affects his poll numbers, and whose narcissism prevents him from considering anything except that which feeds his endlessly starving ego–pulled off a stunt that could turn out to be the denouement of his presidency.
Leaving the White House on the afternoon of June 1, as demonstrations and riots spread across the country, he swaggered across Lafayette Square, which just been violently cleared of peaceful protestors by heavily armed National Guard troops and federal police, toward St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the Church of the Presidents. The would-be strongman, who vowed to “dominate” the demonstrators, as he blustered to state governors in a conference call earlier that day (“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks”), was followed by his sycophantic retinue, including Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and “senior advisors” Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
The church was intended to provide a backdrop for a staged “photo-op” in which Trump held up a copy of the Holy Bible, a book with which he has no familiarity (as with all other books—he proudly does not read), nor did he open the sacred text, or quote from it, to speak to the pain and suffering which Americans are feeling. He simply stood before cameras, turning the book this way and that, posing for his foolish Evangelical supporters, whose votes he needs if he is to be reelected.
Speaking afterwards, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Marianne E. Budde, who has responsibility for St. John’s, spoke truth when she said of Trump: “He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years.”
The Governors Step Up
Nor have America’s governors, who have been forced to manage the pandemic in their states while being repeatedly undercut by the federal government, failed to respond to Trump’s outrages. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has been a favorite target of the president (he can’t tolerate strong, independent women!), has faced riots provoked by Trump’s tweets, has emerged as a national spokesperson for effective handling of the health emergency; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has held daily press briefings since early March when the coronavirus began to spread in his state, has become a voice of leadership, not only in New York, which experienced the greatest number of cases and deaths in the US, but throughout the country. He and his government have, more quickly than elsewhere, defeated the “beast,” as he called it today. His FDR-style “Fireside Chats” have provided day-by-day numbers, and the measures being taken to, first, “flatten the curve, and then, to bring it all the way down.
Cuomo began his briefing this morning, which focused almost entirely on the political upsurge underway, mocking Trump’s ignorant and transgressive use of the Bible as a stage prop, by opening his own well-thumbed scriptures, and quoting from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God,” and from Romans 12:” Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
A Tale of Two Cities
Cuomo’s father and former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a scholar and author, wrote several books including one titled, “Why Lincoln Matters—Now More than Ever,” and who gave a legendary keynote speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which made him a revered national figure. The speech, “A Tale of Two Cities,” challenged President Reagan’s “Morning in America” happy talk by insisting that not every American lived in that “City on a Hill”:
“There’s another city,” he said, “the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
“In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city. In fact, Mr. President, this is a nation — Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a “Shining City on a Hill.”
Mario Cuomo’s words, sadly, still ring true today, 36 years on; their stunning prescience, and their expressed love for “the least of us,” ring truer than ever. America will find, or create leadership like that which the elder Cuomo and his notable predecessors embodied, or we shall not overcome these frightening times.
*Bonnie James is the former managing editor of Executive Intelligence Review/EIR; she is an art historian and writer, and currently lives in Leesburg, Va., with her husband Fletcher, two dogs and a cat.