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A Perfect Storm: Social Protests in the United States in Defense of Constitutional Freedoms

Aggiornato il: nov 14

(by Giacomo Forges)


1. An unpredictable year

In the entire western hemisphere, the political climate of recent years seems to be highly polarized, as evidenced by the presence of anti-establishment leaders with more radical positions also in South America. Especially in the United States, the situation has been particularly heated, at least since the end of the Obama presidency.

The images of the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, the capital of the state of Minnesota, undoubtedly sparked strong feelings of disgust in the American and international public opinion. Different personalities expressed words of dismay and harshly condemned the fact. President Donald Trump himself, a few days after the incident, called Floyd's death a “grave tragedy” that “should never have happened” and that “has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief”[1].

Following this tragic event and the outbreak of the protests across the Union, the situation in some areas of the country progressively worsened, making necessary the imposition of a curfew in over 200 cities and the activation of the National Guard by the governors of 27 states.[2].

It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that, in a country severely strained by the health and social consequences of the coronavirus epidemic and made even more unstable by the presidential elections scheduled for November 3, any further episode, with sufficient media coverage, could lead to an uncontrolled increase in violence and disorder[3].

In fact, since the beginning of this spring, chaos and unrest seem to have spread all over the United States to the point of becoming the leitmotif of the internal situation in the country.


2. Threats to individual freedoms

First of all, the outbreak of the coronavirus, and especially the consequent quarantine measures, abruptly awakened the minds of a people that has always been very jealous and attentive to the conservation of the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. In spring, the most intransigent citizens even compared these emergency measures with those put in place a few months earlier in China, a regime that many in the United States consider as much authoritarian as ideologically opposed.

The analysis of the material publicly available online, namely on social networks, widely used not only for propaganda but also for the organization of the movements and the demonstrations, allowed observers to ascertain the existence of a vast and complex plethora of groups and, in some cases, of real militias, characterized by diversified positions and a peculiar symbolism.

3. The Boogaloo Bois

This is especially the case for the Boogaloo Bois[4], an anti-lockdown group, driven by an apocalyptic and anticipatory vision of a Second American Civil War, considered necessary to defend the Constitution from a meddlesome government and the claims of the left-wing groups. The movement, although defining itself as libertarian, includes both adherents linked to the extreme right, and members with more moderate and libertarian positions, in turn, outraged by the police attacks on African American citizens and even partisans of the nationalist-black self-defense groups[5].

The ideological pillar of the Boogaloo Bois is the extensive interpretation of the II Amendment to the American Constitution. They declared themselves ready for an armed confrontation with the police to keep inviolate the right, for every citizen, to carry weapons and therefore, in case of need, be able to effectively oppose, through the force of arms, to any prevarications of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms.

Bogaloo Bois (Insider.com)

4. A particular symbolism

There are several aesthetic symbols that distinguish the members of this movement: firstly, the militants applying the text of the Second Amendment to the letter, are often armed even with high caliber weapons and assault rifles. Another specific feature of the group is the use of military fatigues (tactical pants, camouflage suits, body armor and military belts), and sometimes even of Hawaiian shirts[6].

A version of the Bogaloo Bois flag (Bellingcat)

Furthermore, they can be identified by another accessory, directly linked with the war culture, the siege mask (a mask or a neck gaiter with a skull). During the protests, they even carried different flags with explicit references to these symbolic elements, sometimes accompanied by the names of those – considered as real martyrs – killed by the police in unclear circumstances.




5. The return of the #BlackLivesMatter

The death of George Floyd then led to the thunderous return to the streets of movements committed to protecting the rights of African Americans. The guiding principle of these movements can be summarized in the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, created back in 2012 after the murder of the seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in Stanford (Florida), but it became extremely popular and widely used just after the clashes that occurred in Ferguson, a suburb of Saint Lous (Missouri) in 2014 after the murder of Michael Brown[7]. As regards the symbology, the kneeling draws its origins from the unusual gesture of the American football player Colin Kaepernick, who in the summer of 2016 refused to stand during the national anthem before the game. He later declared, “ I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”. Over time, many other athletes followed his gesture and they were widely criticized. Even today, the world of sport worldwide is equally divided between those who support and those who criticize this gesture.

With the awakening of the supporters of the slogan #BlackLivesMatter, i.e. those who constitutionally draw attention to the XIV Amendment, groups – linked to the egalitarian hashtag #AllLivesMatter or the pro-law enforcement #BlueLivesMatter – opposed to the movement, deemed too exclusive, got back under the spotlight.

6. The onset of chaos

Obviously, as it generally happens worldwide with this kind of demonstrations that involve many people, there is a high risk that the protests escalate into violence. The anti-racism protests of 2020, also called George Floyd protests, which started in Minneapolis (Minnesota), have rapidly grown and spread all over the country and even abroad.

While most of the time the demonstrations have been peaceful, in some cases, public and private properties such as cars, public transportation, shops, statues and monuments were lootedordestroyed. The vehemence of the devastations, the high number of demonstrators and the risks associated with the ongoing viral epidemic led, in some cases, the authorities to opt for a strong response, activating the National Guard and imposing curfews.

Devastations in the area of Lake St., Minneapolis (Minnesota) (Ph. L. Shaull, Flickr)

7. Police attacks on the press

In some cases, even the police response degenerated into excessive use of physical strength. Several unjustified attacks on journalists and information officers were caught on camera and the videos are now available online. Journalists were, in some cases, arrested, hit with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. According to some, these incidents undermine the freedom of information because the media have the key role to keep the society informed about the current events and because the freedom of the press in the United States enjoys strong constitutional protections, indeed, this right is enshrined in the I Amendment to the Constitution[8]. Therefore, this could lead to a clash between the security regulations needed in an emergency, and the freedom of the press, a right provided by the Constitution. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the work of the US Press Freedom Tracker, which is collecting all the violations of this right on its Twitter page.

CNN journalist Omar Jimenez arrested on camera during the protests for George Floyd in Minneapolis (Minnesota) (CNN)

However, it is necessary to specify that there is the possibility that dangerous protesters disguise themselves among the press. Therefore, in a context of urban violence, they tend not to trust those who approach them, even if they show identifying marks. It is necessary to bear in mind that these are situations of serious unrest, almost comparable to a theater of war, which might require a hard approach. A video also reveals that during the riots the police declared through their loudspeakers that anyone on the streets at that time was supposedly violating the curfew in force on the city of Minneapolis and that those who did not disperse would have been arrested. However, this might not be enough to justify obvious disproportionate actions by the police.

8. A risky and unpredictable scenario

In conclusion, the critical events of the first half of 2020 define a particularly unstable and insidious scenario. Even though all the movements born in the United States during the last six months champion profoundly different ideologies, they all share a sense of aversion or lack of trust in the authorities and the police, and their common goal is to change the established order, regardless of the constitutional principle in which they believe. They all are a particularly dangerous threat for the preservation of the law and order advocated via twitter by the President. Indeed, at the same historic moment, two independent forces (the Bogaloo Bois and the anti-racist movements), that might seem incompatible, protested the violation of two very important constitutional rights – the II and the XIV Amendment. The press later took part in this turmoil, bemoaning the violation of the I Amendment.

The feeling that their freedoms are increasingly restricted by the interference of the state (perceived as a governing authority in general and not necessarily identified with the current administration) and that the authorities do not adequately protect citizens' rights has been deeply exacerbated by the Coronavirus emergency.

The events of the first half of the year, both unpredictable and disruptive, seem to have triggered a perfect storm in America. The reassuring economic results achieved by President Trump last year may not be enough to guarantee his reconfirmation in November. Indeed, the sparkle and, in some cases, the return of radical protest movements could be decisive and tip the balance, especially in those states most directly affected by the clashes or in those mostly hit by the racial disputes or by the health crisis. The shocking episodes and the related responses from the Government could change voters’ choice at the ballots, compared to the 2016 presidential elections or the 2018 mid-term elections. Although the former democratic Vice President Joe Biden is currently winning the polls, reliable predictions can not be made because of all the variables involved and the strong dynamism of this historical period.



References [1] M. Mark, Trump says George Floyd's killing 'should never have happened,' vows to 'stop mob violence, and we'll stop it cold', in Business Insider, May 31, 2020. [2] A. Sternlicht, Over 4,400 Arrests, 62,000 National Guard Troops Deployed: George Floyd Protests By The Numbers, in Forbes, June 2, 2020. [3] Cf. R. Evans e J. Wilson, The Boogaloo Movement Is Not What You Think, in Bellingcat, May 27, 2020. [4] Also known as "Boogaloo Boys", the term – which probably has its origins, as the movement itself, from the environments of the web subculture linked to the board /k/ (page of the 4chan website dedicated to weapons) – alludes to the title of the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Over time, the noun "Boogaloo" – sometimes identifiable also with other similar-sounding terms like "Big Igloo", from which derives the image of the igloo, and "Big Luau" with specific reference to a traditional Hawaiian holiday – became the word with which the militants indicate the actual realization of the Second American Civil War. The movement's popularity grew a lot during President Trump's impeachment attempt and Covid-19 quarantine – namely on Facebook. Some affiliates seem to be living in a state of fatal – almost apocalyptic – waiting for an event that could start a Second Civil War. Searching on social media, used both for proselytism and for the coordination of the movement, a connection with the world of survivalism can be noticed. [5] Cf. R. Evans e J. Wilson, op. cit.

[6] Typical accessory of the Luau holiday: the traditional floral shirt accompanied by weapons and other tactical accessories became a symbol of the anti-lockdown protests and the defense of the II Amendment in 2020.

[7] R. Halstead, Keynote speaker at Be The Dream event a leader in protest against killings of unarmed blacks, in Marin Independent Journal, January 11, 2015. [8] Cfr. N. Waters, US Law Enforcement Are Deliberately Targeting Journalists During George Floyd Protests, in Bellingcat, may 31, 2020.

Bibliography

R. Evans, Shitposting, Inspirational Terrorism, and the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, in Bellingcat, March 15, 2019.

R. Evans e J. Wilson, The Boogaloo Movement Is Not What You Think, in Bellingcat, May 27, 2020.

C. Godart, Visualizing Police Violence Against Journalists At Protests Across The U.S, in Bellingcat, June 5, 2020.

R. Halstead, Keynote speaker at Be The Dream event a leader in protest against killings of unarmed blacks, in Marin Independent Journal, January 11, 2015.

M. Mark, Trump says George Floyd's killing 'should never have happened,' vows to 'stop mob violence, and we'll stop it cold', in Business Insider, May 31, 2020.

Redazione, America’s far right is energised by covid-19 lockdowns, in The Economist, May 17, 2020.

M. Safi, C. Barr, N. McIntyre, P. Duncan e S. Cutler, 'I’m getting shot': attacks on journalists surge in US protests, in The Guardian, June 5, 2020.

A. Sternlicht, Over 4,400 Arrests, 62,000 National Guard Troops Deployed: George Floyd Protests By The Numbers, in Forbes, June 2, 2020.

N. Waters, US Law Enforcement Are Deliberately Targeting Journalists During George Floyd Protests, in Bellingcat, May 31, 2020.

J. Wilson, E. Helmore e J. Swaine, Man charged with murder after driving into anti-far-right protesters in Charlottesville, in The Guardian, August 13, 2017.


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