On June 1st, 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump made the news once again as reports broke out of BLM protesters being violently cleared out of an area by the St. John’s Church by the police in order to make room for his photo op. The event was perceived as a symbolic moment that encapsulated the Trump presidency through his casual willingness to weaponize racism and authoritarianism in order to garner and maintain power.
While America has long held itself as a shining ideal of how a democracy should function, in most recent years the national discourse has shifted towards becoming more self-critical of its democratic processes. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 as president was surely a catalyst for opening up such dialogue. Shocking images of a violent, repressive police force dressed in full riot gear and the brutal attack of Black bodies covered nearly every news outlet and triggered countless discussions on how American democracy was at risk.
While Donald Trump’s moments as a totalitarian-adjacent leader are by no means limited to June 1st, it is important to highlight black folks were the main target and victims of Trump’s decision to violently and undemocratically shut down the protest. In retrospect, the January 6th invasion of the Capitol that took place in the beginning of 2021 stands out as a reminder that Trump had very little qualms with his nearly all-white supporters threatening Congress and overturning the results of the election. June 1st emphasizes the connective link between authoritarianism and racism. It is no coincidence the frequency at which dictators have come into power by relying on a collective scapegoating of an outsider ethnic or religious group. The seemingly subtle and invisible effects of American democratic erosion are very much racially stratified, which means that marginalized racial communities like Black and Indigenous people will suffer the worst effects first.
It should noted that some of the most undemocratic practices and norms of the US government are very much tied into the oppression of black people, dating all the way back to the creation of the Constitution and the institutionalization of slavery. From the structure of the Senate, which was created in order to balance out the powers of the Southern slave states out with the North to the practice of gerrymandering, which disproportionately disempowers black votes, the odds have always been stack against black people in elections. Even into the present, whites in power continue to undermine black votes in new ways by making voting booths difficult to find in black neighborhoods and disenfranchising felons and imprisoned folk, who are disproportionately black. Practices that should immediately set off an alarm for an encroaching authoritarian threat such as the removal of voting rights and the undermining of elections have mostly gone under the radar because they have been endured by the underprivileged. Additionally, black people are not only kept from expressing opposition to white power at the polls, but are also monitored and controlled through a variety of government institutions such as welfare offices and the police.
How could it be that a democratic society for one group can behave so authoritarian and repressive against another? According to political scientist Vesla Weaver, the government actually has two faces: one that works to protect and secure the individual citizen’s rights, the other which functions through “the activities of governing institutions and officials that exercise social control and encompass various modes of coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence.” While a white person will likely encounter positive or neutral experiences with the government, whether it be through political campaigners knocking at their door, voting for a local election, or calling on the police for an emergency, black people will likely experience an entirely different array of interactions, such as being harassed by the police or having a close friend or family member be imprisoned. The outcome is that black people are deterred from political participation, again stacking the chances against them, and a plague of overpoliced, over monitored, and disempowered poor black communities across the United States. In order to combat democratic erosion and emerging authoritarianism, America may need to look deeper past simply the presidents it elects and into the communities that are already suffering due to the undemocratic features of American government.
“Learning From Ferguson” by Vesla Weaver.