BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. This was a year of revelation and reckoning. Giving bumper-sticker status to a pair of phrases already known to the bone by some and shrugged off by others. Systemic racism, black lives matter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We don't know precisely why. The death of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis was so galvanizing amidst so many other sickening videos of police murder. It may have been the prolonged cruelty of it. Eight minutes and 46 seconds of slow suffocation under an officer's knee, or the icy disregard of the cop for the man he was killing. Or how George Floyd said, I can't breathe, please, and called for his mother until he spoke no more.
BOB GARFIELD Maybe it was the shared threat of death by virus or the pressure of quarantine or all of those things. But the death of George Floyd drove a great diversity of people into the streets night after night in city after city, here and around the world.
NEWS REPORT we see actually every day we're listening and we're coming out with you. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT We saw protesters tear gas yesterday to make way for a presidential photo op. I'd like to ask you what you think about that. And if you don't want to comment, what message do you think you're sending here? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for a very long 20 seconds or so, but I'm not supposed to air all that on the radio. Silence sounds like a mistake.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU We all watched in horror and consternation what's going on in the United States. [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH As the country marks 100000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah. Not long after Floyds death reading from her column titled How Western Media Would Cover Minneapolis' if it Happened in Another Country.
KAREN ATTIAH And I was just up at like three am kind of in shock and despair and just grief honestly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seemed to be a satire of how Americans and American journalists set themselves and their nation apart from the rest of the world.
KAREN ATTIAH Yeah, I spend a decent amount of time in the Caribbean working with the Associated Press. I also reported in Nigeria and in Ghana. And so I'm coming at this understanding the foreign correspondees. My parents are immigrants from West Africa. And so I also come at this with the experience of having us considered in the periphery and being flattened, frankly, by media narratives that say, oh, well, Africans are diseased and poor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You were inspired a little bit, right, by the famous Trevor Noah bit comparing Trump to an African dictator.
TREVOR NOAH Yeah, what I'm trying to say is Donald Trump is presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent. In fact, once you once you realize that Trump is basically the perfect African president. You start to notice the similarities everywhere. [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH There is a history of some of these leaders proposing bogus health remedies.
TREVOR NOAH The president of Gambia says he can cure AIDS with bananas and I can also cure cancer using AIDS. [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH So I just kept thinking of Trump suggesting that maybe bleach could be a cure or sunlight's. To me, it's just ironic, right? Because this is the president who called the Africa asshole countries, but he's cut from the same cloth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, what happened in 2020 was set in motion long before the forty fifth president. America was already a pressure cooker ready to blow its top. It just needed the nudge of a lockdown and the brazen showmanship and prejudice of Donald J Trump for the response to lethal police brutality and structural racism generally to burst into the streets.
SPEAKER So you think a lot of this is borne out of frustration?
PROTESTOR Yes, they're sick and tired of being sick and tired. And this is what the inside looks like. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For many white Americans, 2020 was a time of revelation. For many black Americans, the time of reckoning, as in - enough. No justice, No peace. Abolish the police. Another phrase that burst into the mainstream this past year.
BOB GARFIELD The idea of defunding the police seemed so radical that some politicians quickly sought to redefine it as just another call for reform. Proponents, though, said that they meant exactly what they said. Amna Akbar, law professor at the Ohio State University, told us that the call to take money from police departments and redistributed to improve the social conditions that drive criminality is not new, but...
AMNA AKBAR When George Floyd is killed and the police respond in the way that they do to the organic uprisings all around the country, countless numbers of police outfitted in all sorts of expensive vehicles and vests and wood pellets and sound devices, I think it creates another kind of visible moment of the contradictions of life in the United States. We are repeatedly telling the public that we don't have enough money for books in the schools. Our health care workers don't have access to masks, PPE, and at the same time, you have the police forces mobilized like that to crush an organic uprising. Responding to the scale and depth of police violence around the country.
BOB GARFIELD That organic uprising was mostly peaceful, but sometimes it wasn't. Rage can bubble over, and those outside the movement can hijack the coverage of righteous marches with acts of blazing destruction.
PROTESTOR So what I see happening on the streets of Atlanta, this is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn't do this to our city. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD A Monmouth poll earlier this year asked respondents about the actions of protesters, including the burning of a police precinct in Minneapolis. 57 percent said the protesters anger was fully justified. But as to whether the actions themselves were justified, only 17 percent said yes. White support for the Black Lives Matter movement started to slide. There's a belief that human rights movements falter if they engender violence, a belief bolstered by what New York Times political reporter Maggie Astor calls a cycle of public opinion about these movements. First anger and derision, then sanitization and nostalgia, she told us. This soft focus revisionism reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of protest and of American history itself.
MAGGIE ASTOR It sort of perpetuates this myth that if people just stand up politely and state what is right, then society will change. But if the idea is that a movement was promoting were universally accepted and not controversial, then there wouldn't be any need for the movement to begin with. You know, the protest movements that have been successful are very complicated. They are accumulations of many different people using many different tactics. And it is really impossible to separate out one person and one tactic and say this is the one that caused the movement to succeed. So this mythology really inhibits our understanding of how movements do achieve their goals and what they actually look like when they're happening.
BOB GARFIELD A majority of Americans. I still believe that polite protest is great, kicking up a ruckus bad and even more than that, counterproductive. You spoke with at least two scholars who have studied that very question. One researched the relationship between so-called intense protest and voter turnout, which is the most fundamental tool of orderly democracy.
MAGGIE ASTOR The study was by Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He ranks the intensity of protests on a scale. So, for example, a protest will get one point. If it involves more than 100 hundred people, it'll get another point if there are arrests made, another point of three injuries to measure how intense the protest is. What he found was that more intense protests were associated with increased voter turnout among people who were ideologically aligned with the protest. And he also found that intense protests in any given congressional district tended to influence the voting record of that district's congressional representative.
BOB GARFIELD And yet there's that myth that shares the violence from the story. Why?
MAGGIE ASTOR Well, I think that certainly there is a tendency for people to believe that if they had been alive during a particular period of history, that they would have stood on the right side. Obviously, that is something that is impossible to know. During the civil rights movement, a very large subset of the population did not support Dr. King. Either his tactics or his message violently resisted him. That fact is uncomfortable to a society that wants to believe that it would have stood with him.
BOB GARFIELD I am about to share with you an extremely troubling episode of my personal history. This was in 1970, let's say, four summertime. And I was visiting my freshman year college roommate in central Pennsylvania. It was in his family's family room and above the mantelpiece was a rifle. His father was there. I said, what's that? And he says, oh, that's a replica of the rifle that killed Martin Luther King.
MAGGIE ASTOR Wow. I spoke with two of his children for my article, and both of them emphasized that at the time that he was assassinated, he was one of the most disliked people in America according to polls. He was not the lionized hero that he is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We spent a lot of 20-20 going toe to toe with our myths. During our live three hours zoom on election night, we spoke to Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Stakes as High After the American Dream. In it he wrote that there's no immunity to the American myth, the, quote, promise of a free equal and just America in which your own destiny is completely under your control. Sounds wonderful. And because it hurts too much to think that your future is controlled by anything other than your own actions. It's easy to fall under the spell.
MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH What I was trying to get at with what you read there is that I'm not immune, I'm not immune to it. And I think so many of us, especially right now, are looking toward an election of Joe Biden. There's a lot of people hoping that it's a return to normal, that it ends the aberration of Donald Trump's four years as president, where the country lost its way. That's the myth. The myth is believing that Donald Trump is losing the American way instead of seeing him as an outcome of the very ideologies that we have so far not uprooted. The problem with that thinking is that we can't afford to then elect Joe Biden as president and to act as if that was sufficient. To act as if all of these things that we've come to fear during the Trump presidency have been solved. No, Joe Biden has to face the kind of pressure that makes the presidents that we remember for their virtues and that we exalt. You know, there's no Abraham Lincoln if it isn't for the abolitionists who push him. There's no FDR, if it isn't for the labor movements that push him, there's no Lyndon Johnson, if it isn't for the civil rights movement that pushes him. And so if we're not willing to engage again with the myth, with our own unlearning, with all of the things that we've seen and been. Horrified by during the Trump presidency and ensure not only that Biden doesn't repeat those things, but is undoing a lot of what has been erected during this time and before him. Then we fall into the trap in which we could see another Donald Trump in some incarnation down the road.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So in stakes as high, you call B.S. on the American dream and observe that what liberal white folks call a crisis is actually the everyday condition that people like me have simply learned not to see. Now you are able to manage depression all through your life, but you finally gave way to sadness in the last few years. And you wrote that the book at its core was, quote, a desperate plea for community. I want to shake loose the dread and I know I cannot do it alone, but I also cannot do it with the American myth hanging overhead. Empires fall. Nations end. What does not have to end is our commitment to one another. But first, it has to begin, right?
MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH Yeah, and I think you ask, so how do we move past that in the immediate? Maybe we don't. Maybe we just use that to get people engaged and maybe that's just the way that it has to be. I'm thinking strategically here, like maybe that's just their entry point. I mean, you know, everyone has a different one. So it's just, you know, this past summer protests that erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd, I mean, so many good white liberals were buying their anti-racist book kits. And, you know, for me, I'm sitting there saying, like, how is it that you still need these? Right? Like, how is it that you haven't gotten to that point, but, you know, it maybe Trumps just going to be there entryway. That's going to be the thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Earlier this hour, science writer Laurie Garrett said our response to the pandemic would reveal the mettle of the nation. But I think it's what happens when those working at home no longer have the time to marinate in righteous anger via video. When they go back to, quote, a real life that is not the everyday calamity lived by so many others. Revelation and reckoning, as we experience to this year, is not the same as redemption. That begins if it begins in 2021.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, how democracy almost broke and another new word for much of us this year, anti-majoritarian.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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