One thing made abundantly clear during the Trump era was the extent to which protest movements driven by the demands of White Americans could expect to encounter a very different level of state response than movements focused on the demands of African Americans or other racialized groups. One only need compare the response to Black Lives Matter protests held in June 2020 in Washington DC after the police murder of George Floyd to what happened when an overwhelmingly White mob attacked the Capitol seven months later in a deluded attempt to subvert the results of a free and fair election to see who is more likely to encounter a violent response from the state.
After three days of mostly peaceful protest by BLM activists (though interrupted by occasional nighttime outbreaks of violence and vandalism) President Donald Trump, frustrated that local officials had failed to clear the streets, oversaw what the Washington Post called “an outsize and militarized response,” that drew on personnel from “a host of federal agencies, some with no identifying insignia, and National Guard from the District and twelve states.” Infamously, after the protestors had been cleared, Trump and several top aides walked – uninvited and unwelcome – to the front of St. John’s Church, where the President of the United States posed triumphantly, holding a Bible (…an upside down Bible, but still…). The message was perfectly clear: American military power could and would be deployed against American citizens in order to uphold White supremacy and Christian national identity.
On January 6, 2021, some of the people who presumably applauded Trump’s authoritarian display on sanctified ground gathered at the Capitol to undo the results of an election they had been fooled into believing had been stolen. A mob stormed the seat of American legislative power, attacking officers who represented the same “Thin Blue Line” that is core to their own sense of political identity in a premeditated violent attempt to overthrow the government, driven by the words of an outgoing President grown desperate in his desire to preserve his grip on power. The insurrectionists were too-nearly successful in their attempted coup in part because, even though it was clear that a mob was descending on the Capitol, authorities did virtually nothing to prepare a security presence that could have marshaled a suitable response, or defused the situation entirely. As lawmakers literally huddled in fear of their deaths at the hands of enraged MAGA supporters, it took hours to mobilize the National Guard.
Other recent examples show that the disproportionate use of force against protest movements rooted in minority-group issues was evident before Trump took power: compare, for example, the armed response to Indigenous activism at Standing Rock, which began during the Obama administration, to, say, the tolerance the state displayed during an armed standoff led by White supremacist and Christian nationalist Cliven Bundy in 2014 and the relatively mild response to a similar standoff by people associated with Bundy in Oregon two years later.
That said, during the Trump era, the question “Can you imagine if those had been Black people?” became a social-media refrain whenever the state’s apparent tolerance for White grievance-fuelled protest revealed itself.
This week’s Doonesbury strip hints at a long history of the use of militarized power against African-American protest movements, specifically about the use of air power.
The strip begins with Earl, Duke’s son and partner in his political consulting operation, reading the January Sixth Report, astounded that “it took the Army all afternoon to deploy the Guard.” Trff Bmzklfrpz, the former dictator of Berzerkistan and Duke’s client, suggests that perhaps officials didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Earl responds with the question of the moment: “Thousands of rioters storming towards the Capitol? Imagine if they’d been Black!”
“Well,” Bmzklfrpz replies, “that would’ve been a job for the Air Force, no?”
“No, not at all,” says Earl. “But what an amazing guess.”
Bmzklfrpz wouldn’t have to go too deeply into American history if he wanted to buttress his reasoning with examples of air power being used against African American communities and movements.
In 1921, Greenwood, an African-American neighborhood in Tulsa Oklahoma, nicknamed “Black Wall Street” because of its relative prosperity, was attacked and destroyed by a White mob following a conflict over a Black man’s arrest for an alleged assault of a White woman. A 2001 commission determined that 39 people (26 of whom were Black) were confirmed killed, with up to a possible 300 deaths; some 10,000 people were left homeless. While accounts differ and clear empirical evidence supporting eyewitness testimony has not emerged, there are serious allegations that White men in privately-owned aircraft dropped firebombs on Black-owned buildings and fired rifles at Black families fleeing the violence. Greenwood resident Buck Colbert Franklin described how he
…could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top … The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.”
While questions remain about the extent to which aircraft figured into the Greenwood massacre, a shocking incident from 1985 left much more solid evidence of the use of air power against Black Americans. MOVE was a communal revolutionary African-American organization founded in Philadelphia in 1972. In 1985, police charged MOVE members with a variety of crimes including firearms offenses and making terroristic threats, and Philadelphia’s mayor and police commissioner classified MOVE as a terrorist organization. On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police evacuated the neighborhood surrounding MOVE’s headquarters and attempted to execute arrest warrants. An armed standoff ensued, and shots were fired by both sides. Police then dropped two bombs on the MOVE building from a helicopter: in the resulting fire, eleven people died, including five children.
Though nobody was criminally charged for dropping explosives in a residential neighborhood, the city of Philadelphia has been found civilly liable in at least two trials and has been ordered to pay out close to $15 million in damages to relatives of victims and people who were displaced by the bombing. Recently, the MOVE bombing again made the news after it was revealed that remains of one of the children killed in the bombing raid were being used by Princeton University in an online forensic anthropology course without the permission of her family.
Trff Bmzklfrpz joined the Doonesbury cast during the War on Terror as a stand-in for the corrupt and abusive dictators who, historically, have been both supported by and brought down by American military power, depending on the particular foreign policy needs of the United States at any given moment. His ongoing association with Donald Trump has revealed a truth more uncomfortable than a history of American complicity with authoritarians punctuated by moments of ill-fated attempted regime change. The kind of corruption and the authoritarian impulses that the United States has selectively tolerated abroad can resonate with a home-grown authoritarian (and his supporters). In one recent appearance, Bmzklfrpz talks about how Adolf Hitler dealt with disloyal generals, and finds a receptive audience in the Former Guy: “Hmm ….” Trump thinks. “Meat hooks.”
Earl’s take on Bmzklfrpz’s suggestion that the Air Force could be called in on a Black protest movement reveals a dark truth about how America deploys violence against its own people, particularly communities and movements that disrupt racial hierarchy. No, it wouldn’t, or at least, shouldn’t be “a job for the Air Force” to deal with any kind of uprising – if only because a truly open and democratic society should never let political tensions get to the point where that option is even thinkable.
And yet suggesting that such a course of action would be in the cards is an “amazing guess.” Because it has been.