American politics has been a tinderbox for quite some time. The dry, aged kindling of partisanship and ideological hatred was just waiting for a spark and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last week provided it.
Now, as cities across the country burn, both sides point fingers and cast blame. In truth, elements of both sides want violence and have helped to bring this weekend about.
The most obvious targets are Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Both groups have long histories of civil disobedience. While Antifa is the more violent of the two, BLM has been associated with rioting after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015.
Although some BLM protests have devolved into violence, many have remained peaceful. Violence notwithstanding, black activists have legitimate complaints about police brutality.
Police brutality is often thought of as a racial issue, but it transcends the color barrier. One example is the 2016 shooting of an unarmed white man, Daniel Shaver, in a Mesa, Arizona hotel. The officer who killed Shaver was acquitted.
All too often, police who misbehave are given a slap on the wrist and the legal doctrine of qualified immunity can make it almost impossible for victims of police misbehavior -or their survivors – to be compensated. It should not be too much to ask that those who enforce our laws abide by them or face serious consequences for failing to do so.
If BLM has some saving graces and legitimate gripes, the same cannot be said of Antifa. The anti-fascist, pro-communist group is built around violence and has taken over entire cities as municipal leaders stood by and watched.
But the fault does not lie solely with the left. I remember distinctly in a Sunday School political discussion in 2016 when a member of the class, who ran for the Senate in Texas, said that the best thing that could be said about Donald Trump was that he would burn down the whole corrupt federal system. This man’s view was not uncommon. A common refrain among Trump supporters that I knew during the election was “burn it down!”
Fast forward to 2020 and it seems possible that some members of the alt-right are doing just that. Mia Bloom of Georgia Sate University described in Just Security the evidence that some of the violence has been instigated by members of the alt-right and white supremacist groups.
While many will be skeptical that right-wing provocateurs are playing a role in the riots, past right-wing plots to foment civil violence are an established fact. Dylann Roof’s shooting spree at a black church in South Carolina was intended to launch a race war and there have been several right-wing terror attacks in the US since then. The uprising against the federal government on behalf of the Bundy family in 2016, the Charlottesville nazis, the street-brawling Proud Boys, the Three-Percenters, and the recent armed protests against the Coronavirus shelter-in-place restrictions are further examples of right-wing violence or threats of armed revolt.
Our political division is so intense that scarcely more than six months ago, polling showed that Americans believed the country was two-thirds of the way to a civil war. The Georgetown University poll was only one of many surveys over the past few years that revealed that many Americans believe that political violence is inevitable.
Not all Americans look to potential war with anticipation but some do. I have known many Republicans who believe that the only way to save the country is to take up arms against the left. The question that should be obvious is that, if right-wing activists cannot peacefully win support for their ideas at the ballot box, how do expect they win support for an armed revolt? Or how many people will they have to kill to destroy opposition to their ideas?
Right now, America is watching a cycle in which political violence escalates. Activists protesting police brutality in turn brutalize police officers and businesses. The police react violently against the protesters. Both sides view the other as brutal and dangerous. Both sides are right.
As injuries are inflicted, hearts become harder. It becomes easier to hurt and kill members of the opposition. If innocent bystanders suffer collateral damage, that’s just too bad. They shouldn’t have gotten in the way.
What we are experiencing is not a quick flare up that will quickly die out. Our current conflagration is the result of decades of deep-seated partisanship that paints the opposition as not just wrong but evil and un-American. That sort of attitude makes compromise and bipartisanship treasonous rather than preferable, as the Framers intended.
What America desperately needs is someone to bring the two sides together. A healer who can bridge the gap and unite the country. What we got in 2016 was the farthest thing from that sort of leader and no one with that capacity seems to be waiting in the wings.
America is burning and it is burning because we cannot work together. It is burning because we see each other as stereotypes and political opponents rather than fellow countrymen. America is burning because this is what the hotheads and bomb-throwers of both sides want.