Amid mounting protests against the death of George Floyd and other unarmed black Americans, President Trump took to Twitter early May 29, calling protesters “thugs” and warning, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
When President Trump advocates violence against political opponents and protest groups, extremists hear approval for their actions. Trump’s tweet glorifies violence against protesters and coincides with the president’s and the Republican Party’s history of encouraging harm against Black Lives Matter protesters. Right-wing extremists have previously responded to such calls with violence and have already responded favorably to Trump’s tweets threatening “shooting,” raising fears that some may act amid the violence and tension surrounding public health closures amid the ongoing global pandemic.
Since February 23, at least four unarmed, black men and women have been killed. Three of those deaths were at the hands of police.
George Floyd died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. The incident comes on the heels of the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville, Kentucky, woman shot in her home by police March 13, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, by two white men armed with guns while Arbery was jogging. Sean Reed livestreamed his own shooting death at the hands of Indianapolis police on May 6. These incidents are reminiscent of the spate of deaths that birthed Black Lives Matter, a decentralized protest movement aimed at stopping the extrajudicial killing of African Americans.
Republican politicians and pundits quickly took aim at the movement and related protests. Former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin said in 2016, “#BlackLivesMatter is a farce and hyphenating America destroys us.”
In October 2015, Fox News host Sean Hannity criticized the movement and likened Black Lives Matter protesters to the KKK.
Like other Republican leaders, Trump has previously criticized Black Lives Matter, telling Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, “I think they’re trouble. I think they're looking for trouble.”
Trump has responded to Black Lives Matter protests at his campaign rallies by endorsing violence. Trump supporters tackled, shoved, punched, kicked and shouted racial epithets at a black protester holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a 2015 Trump campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama. Rather than criticizing the incident, then-candidate Trump responded by stating of the victim, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
Trump’s baleful response did not go unnoticed in extremist circles. The Trump campaign’s charged rallies and demonization of migrants energized white nationalists, who saw Trump’s candidacy as an opportunity to normalize their views and to engage in increasingly hostile ways toward minority communities and political adversaries under the cover of Republican politicians’ rhetoric.
At a March 1, 2016, rally, Trump screamed at Black Lives Matter protesters who interrupted his speech: “Look at these people. Get out of here. Get Out. Out. Out Out! Get out.” Supporters in the crowd pushed and shoved a black woman. Among those supporters was Matthew Heimbach, then the leader of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP).
As reported by Gizmodo, in January 2017, Fox News’ Fox Nation republished a video originally shared on Fox correspondent Tucker Carlson’s website The Daily Caller. The video features multiple incidents where black “liberal protesters” were run over in the streets by moving cars. The video, which has since been deleted from both websites, instructs viewers to “study the technique” as “it may prove useful in the next four years.”
On Aug. 12, 2017, after a state of emergency canceled the planned “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields drove his car around a police barricade and accelerated into a crowd of protesters, many of them carrying signs reading, “Black Lives Matter.” Several individuals were injured, and one, Heather Heyer, died from her injuries. President Trump initially responded to that day’s events by defending white supremacist protestors he referred to as “ very fine people,” though he later made statements denouncing white supremacism and racism as “evil.”
During Fields’ trial, authorities testified that Fields had used social media to share memes that “advocated using a car to run over protestors in the streets.”
Trump’s latest tweet condoning violence occurs in the midst of a spike in antigovernment groups attending lockdown protests and advocating for a second Civil War, referred to as the “Boogaloo.” “Boogaloo” groups have already co-opted the deaths of unarmed black Americans to justify their antigovernment activism, listing Breonna Taylor, George Flord, Ahmaud Arbery and Sean Reed alongside movement “martyrs” such as Duncan Lemp. Many of these groups have called for violence against law enforcement in the aftermath of the shooting death of Lemp, an antigovernment activist from Maryland.
In 2015, members of the antigovernment militia group Oath Keepers armed themselves to the teeth for protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the death of 18-year old Michael Brown, a black man, ratcheting up the tension in an already heated environment.
Antigovernment groups’ “solidarity” with black Minneapolis residents has strict limits. In one recorded interview, two armed antigovernment activists who described themselves as “heavily armed rednecks” stated: “Solidarity for Floyd and we hope people stop looting. If there were more of us we could go stop them from looting.”
Photo via Alamy Stock Photo