In an age when 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, it is often a single indelible photograph that tells you where we are, where we’ve been, and who we are.
The photograph that captures the here and now of the here and now is of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, slowly, calmly, choking the life out of George Floyd, a recently laid-off restaurant worker. It’s the blithe calmness of the execution that is so unsettling. Chauvin has his knee planted firmly on Floyd’s neck, placing a good part of his weight on it. Floyd is handcuffed, so not much of a threat to Chauvin. The police officer has his sunglasses perched on top of his head, the way people do at parks or in backyards. But it’s the way Chauvin’s left hand rests casually in his pants pocket that just did me in. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt so memorably described Adolf Eichmann’s indifferent manner at his 1961 trial for war crimes, was also on full display in Minneapolis that day in May.
And so began a tearing apart of the frayed American fabric, a rip so violent and so shocking that you began to wonder if the whole would just come apart. Anger, protests, combat, and looting in more than 140 U.S. cities. Dead bodies on the streets. More than four dozen journalists arrested—the sort of occurrence that is rare in democracies. Sirens wailing through the night as they had done earlier in the month during the hell zone of the pandemic.
As the United States burned, crowds gathered in London, Paris, Berlin, and Toronto, as well as in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, to protest racism, many of them chanting Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe.”
Trump? Trump did his best impersonation yet of a tin-pot dictator, ordering riot units, military police, and cops on horseback to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters in front of the White House. All so he could walk with strongman bravado to St. John’s Church, which was damaged in the riots, squint his practiced squint, and brandish a Bible—wrong side up.
The image of Trump holding that Bible like no one has done before, save perhaps a Bible salesman, will be another image that will tell the story of these times. Three weeks ago, a friend who has been around and seen a lot expressed concern that Trump would do away with his Secret Service protection and replace it with ICE. Such an action, he said, would be a very troubling move. Well, he hasn’t done that exactly. But his all-purpose legal toady, William Barr, has assembled something similar. Trump is now in command of his own unmarked military force that includes federal-prison guards and border-patrol officers. What’s next? Blackwater recruits? The sight of these men—and they’re all evidently men—patrolling the streets of the U.S. capital is a very dangerous signal that we are in the opening chapters of another volume: the Fascist playbook.
The Vietnam conflict was called “the living-room war” by the New Yorker writer Michael Arlen. What he meant was that it was the first war in which footage of combat was relayed through television sets across America every night on the evening news. And yet, when we look back on that godforsaken tragedy of American imperialism, three photographs, more than all the tens of thousands of hours of film of the conflict, remind us of the story. Who can ever forget Nick Ut’s 1972 picture of children running from a napalm attack? Or Eddie Adams’s picture of a South Vietnam police chief shooting a Vietcong prisoner at close range? The photograph captures the moment the bullet passes through the prisoner’s head. And there was the seminal 1970 photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of a classmate shot dead by a member of the Ohio National Guard during the protests to the war at Kent State.
It can reasonably be said that 2020 is shaping up to be one of those years of calamitous and memorable history—perhaps exceeding 1968 and 1970, two of the more momentous years of the recent past. And we’re only a little more than five months into it. The fact that we have the president we do at a time like this only paints a bleaker picture of the road ahead. When an American commander like Trump threatens to deploy the military to impose order if state governors won’t, well, it just makes you despair.
At a time of global injustice and inequality, it is not surprising that a photograph like the one of Chauvin calmly squeezing the life out of Floyd lit the flame of protest around the world. And it is almost impossible not to side with the response. Time and time again over the past decade, American courts have failed to charge police officers who have killed African-American men, women, and children. If you are black and living in the U.S., you have every right to demand justice and equality. To do otherwise is to turn the American Dream—if ever there really was one—into a waking nightmare.
When you add the “I can’t breathe” uprisings to the protests against the Chinese incursion into Hong Kong or the riots in Brazil over the corruption unleashed by President Bolsonaro, you’ve got a world very much on edge.
For this disaster, a photo of a protester with an upside-down American flag running by the blazing Minnehaha Lake liquor store in Minneapolis is another of the unforgettable images of this sorry chapter in American history. It was taken by Julio Cortez, a photographer for the Associated Press.
Cortez’s photo couldn’t be further from another storied American-flag image—a picture shot by Joe Rosenthal, also for the Associated Press. You know the one. It’s of six Marines hoisting the American flag as the battle of Iwo Jima coursed its way toward its end. That photograph was taken during one of the bloodiest battles during the bloodiest war in human history.
And look what happened. America won that one and came back. And America will come back again. But only if it learns the searing lessons of the past. That, however, is not the picture we are seeing now.