As President Donald Trump described himself in the White House Rose Garden as “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” reporters could hear the awful sound of peaceful protesters being cleared from Lafayette Park with tear gas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets.
After a day of peaceful protests Monday, the park directly across the street from the north side of the White House was being cleared so the president could be photographed walking through the park to historic St. John’s Church, which had been damaged by a small fire Sunday night after peaceful protests were displaced by vandals and looters.
The unrest in the president’s neighborhood was part of the fallout from the video-recorded death on Memorial Day of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who can be seen on video smothering to death under the knee of since-fired police Officer Derek Chauvin, for at least eight minutes. Civil unrest broke out before Chauvin was arrested and charged with the killing Friday and continued through the weekend.
In city after city, the ranks of peaceful protesters were infiltrated by vandals and looters, who captured the president’s focus after he expressed disapproval of Chauvin’s actions.
After the president was escorted by Secret Service agents to the White House bunker Friday night, he wanted to project a more man-in-charge image.
This, after all, is the former reality TV star who reportedly told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.
Trump earlier Monday had a confrontation during a conference call with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other governors over the president’s rhetoric in response to Floyd’s death. The rhetoric included a presidential tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and a call for governors to “dominate the streets.”
The president retorted in typical Trumpian fashion that he didn’t care much for Pritzker’s rhetoric either.
Trump preferred to take his show to the historic church, not for prayer or reflection but for a photo op as he held up a Bible, which he confirmed was not necessarily his Bible. It was not to be read anyway but to be displayed as sort of a trophy, in the eyes of Bishop Mariann Budde, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who did not approve.
In fact, she was outraged to have received “not even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” she told The Washington Post. She also denounced Trump for “holding a Bible that declares that God is love ... when everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.”
Indeed, one gets the same impression from his rhetoric directed to the governors. They’re going to be viewed as “weak” and look like “fools” and “a bunch of jerks,” he said, if they don’t “dominate” the streets, including bringing in the National Guard — an action some of the governors, including Pritzker, already were doing.
That’s OK from Trump’s political standpoint, since he likes to set things up to take credit for successes and leave the blame for failures to somebody else, preferably Democrats.
But meanwhile, the rest of us can just look elsewhere, including to the governors, for the leadership that we desperately need — which brings to mind a question asked under similar circumstances by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” is the title of his 1967 book.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” said King, as a way of explaining, not justifying, violent unrest in a 1967 speech.
And what is it that America has failed to hear? Among other things, King said, “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.
“And as long as America postpones justice,” King said, “we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
One hopes that Trump’s war talk is nothing more than his usual bluster, if amped for an election year. Of course, we need law and order. But, as King concluded, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” We’re still waiting.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.