In 1919, as soldiers returned from the first world war, many white Americans saw African American men in military uniforms for the first time. That sight, and the challenge it posed to the political, social and economic order, was deeply threatening to them. Groups of armed white men hunted down and slaughtered hundreds of black Americans across the country. The wave of lynchings and race riots came to be known as the Red Summer.
The black community did its best to fight back, without protection from the state. In some cases, police actively participated in the lynchings. The US attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, claimed that leftwing radicals were behind the uprisings – a false charge and one that further endangered African American lives. Palmer worked for President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist who screened Birth of a Nation in the White House and praised the Ku Klux Klan even as it deployed terrorism to keep blacks away from the voting booth. Wilson had been silent while whites slaughtered African Americans in East St Louis in 1917, and he did little to nothing in 1919 when they again attacked and killed black people, this time on an even more horrific and grisly scale.
When African Americans fought back, when they protested, when they made clear they would not quietly accept the destruction of their lives, Palmer mobilized the power of the federal government to brand black unrest as the work of the enemy of the state – communists. It was his version of peace without justice. To do this he ignored the destructive and violent white supremacy that his president had helped unleash. He remained unconcerned about the bold, brazen killing of black people. And he had no qualms about a criminal justice system in which being black meant the presumption of guilt.
Palmer worked for President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist who screened Birth of a Nation in the White House and praised the Ku Klux Klan.
More than 100 years later, in the wake of the brutal, merciless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – not to mention an incident in which a white woman attempted to put a black birdwatcher in the crosshairs of the NYPD – our current attorney general, Bill Barr, does not appear to see injustice. Instead, he sounds much like his ancient predecessor, A. Mitchell Palmer.
Barr, like Palmer, has largely ignored the continued killing of black people by vigilantes and agents of the state. He has also ignored the root causes of the current uprisings, such as the flat-out refusal of American institutions to address the violence and conditions that create a life where black people cannot breathe. Instead Barr has chosen to focus his attention on what he characterizes as rioting and “domestic terrorism”. Mimicking Donald Trump, and without evidence, he has blamed the current eruption on “far-left extremists, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence”, and he has warned that he will prosecute these (mostly phantom) anti-fascists. Barr previously said that if communities had the audacity to protest police brutality, they might “find themselves without the police protection they need”.
For his part, Trump has branded the protesters “thugs” and threatened to have American citizens shot and “vicious dogs” unleashed on them. On Sunday he tweeted that antifa would be labeled a “terrorist organization”.
Strangely, Barr and Trump did not apply the same threat to the armed white men who stormed the Michigan capitol, challenged law enforcement and shut down the government during a pandemic. Trump defined these gun-toting white men as “very good people”.
Despite all the smoke and mirrors and blustering threats, it’s obvious what Trump’s Department of Justice has done – or not done – that helped bring us to this horrific moment. It abandoned enforcing consent decrees with police departments that have a demonstrated history of brutality and discrimination. It refused to collect and monitor the data that would identify patterns and hotspots of bad policing so that safeguards could be put in place. Equally important, it didn’t shore up the voting rights of American citizens, so they could elect representatives whose policies could protect their lives. Instead, the Department of Justice lent its heft to conservative forces, like in Alabama, who were determined to block African Americans from the ballot box even during a pandemic.
Barr previously said that if communities had the audacity to protest police brutality, they might “find themselves without the police protection they need.”
As in 1919, we are dealing with an America where black and brown people must go into the streets to demand their rights because the institutions of democracy have failed to protect them. In 2020, we have a nation where large swaths of the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the federal and state levels have virtually abandoned millions of American citizens.
Why, for instance, did two district attorneys in Georgia see the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching and decide that there was no wrongdoing, even though the film contradicted and undermined the admitted killers’ statements? Why did it take the snuff film of George Floyd’s death to raise the question of how an officer with 18 complaints against him could still be on the police force to squat with his knee on a man’s neck for eight minutes? Why did Christian Cooper know that if he didn’t film his accuser delivering a Broadway-worthy audition for the 911 dispatcher, his life would have been imperiled? Why after the “no-knock” warrant killings of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit and now Breonna Taylor in Louisville, did it take protests, mobilization, righteous anger and the media spotlight to even get an investigation?
There is something so wounded in American society, in American institutions, that basic decency, basic commitments to justice, are simply not part of the operating code. Justice should not require a spotlight. Justice should not require an uprising.
Of course, the standard response to the uproar about police killing African Americans is the retort about black-on-black crime. That pre-packaged answer ignores that just as more than 80% of blacks are killed by blacks, so, too, are more than 80% of whites killed by whites. Yet we don’t get angst or pathologizing about white-on-white crime. That’s because the narrative about African Americans killing each other is not really motivated by concern about black life; it is a conjuror’s trick to take our eyes off the institutionalized, state-sponsored violence that has rained down on black people.
In their intonations about antifa instigators and leftwing radicals, that’s what Barr and Trump – like Palmer and Wilson before them – are doing: trying to distract us from state-sponsored or -condoned violence.
On the other hand, what blacks did in 1919 to deal with a political structure absolutely hostile to their very existence is exactly what we will and must do now. “Plot, plan, strategize, organize, mobilize,” as the rapper Killer Mike put it – and vote. That is how we get an attorney general appointed who is appalled at the desecration of Americans’ basic rights and determined to end that unrequited violence. That is how we get policymakers, judges, senators, district attorneys, school boards, congressional and state representatives, mayors, city council members, governors, and yes, even a president, who know that #BlackLivesMatter.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide