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America plunges into crisis as racial tension, unemployment grips amid pandemic

News Agencies | Updated on: 31 May 2020, 10:19 IST

After a global pandemic which has now killed more than 100,000 in the United States and left almost 40 million unemployed in a devastating blow to the country's economy, America is gradually plunging into another crisis after sporadic violence across cities over the death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis at the hands of police last week, The Washington Post said in a report.

The anger had been simmering for days - but now it is rapidly escalating through all cities in the US. It will prove difficult to contain because the protesters are demanding not a specific measure but a radical overhaul of America's entire criminal justice system. In Atlanta, a crowd also attacked the headquarters of CNN.

"The threads of our civic life could start unravelling because everybody's living in a tinderbox," Douglas Brinkley, a historian and professor from Rice University in Houston was quoted as saying.

Barbara Ransby, a political activist and historian from the University of Illinois in Chicago, further told the media that the toll of the coronavirus outbreak made long-standing racial inequities newly stark. Then, images of police violence made those same disparities visceral.

"People are seething about all kinds of things," said Ransby, the author of 'Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century'.

"There are major turning points and ruptures in history. . . . This is one of these moments, but we've not seen how it will fully play out," she added.

In the days after a 46-year-old black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police in an incident caught on video, demonstrators took to the streets. In that city, a police precinct was breached and set ablaze, along with other businesses. In Colorado, shots were fired near the statehouse. At a protest in Louisville, seven people were shot.

Authorities announced charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against the officer in the Minneapolis case on Friday -- which observers saw as a development that might quell some of the immediate unrest, as reported by the Post.

But some said the tumult, set in the broader context of the twin health and economic emergencies, could mark a rupture as dramatic as signature turning points in the country's history, from the economic dislocation of the Great Depression to the social convulsions of 1968.

"There seems to be very powerful inertia pushing us back to normal. I'm sceptical of those who think this coronavirus is going to change everything," said Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University.

It was only in February that the Senate voted to acquit Trump. The next month, much of American business and social activity shut down in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The country has just now begun to reopen, with culture wars raging over how and when it is safe and appropriate to do so.

Then, this week, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of a handcuffed black man, pinning him to the ground. George Floyd died. His cries of "I can't breathe" quickly rocketed around the world.

"It's natural to wish for life to 'just get back to normal' as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us," former President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly 'normal' -- whether it's while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park," he added further.

But Trump responded to the latest crisis on Friday in his usual way: by lashing out. In a tweet, the president attacked Minneapolis's mayor, a Democrat; labelled the protesters "THUGS"; and vowed to send in the National Guards.

The events amount to more than a crisis. The anger of the protesters is directed at the police, at prosecutors and at the President. Above all, it is aimed at racial injustices - and many of those have been amplified during the pandemic. They obviously present a serious challenge to the country's long-term prosperity and stability. 


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First published: 31 May 2020, 10:19 IST