Whether the President Understands the Racist History of “Looting and Shooting” Is Beside the Point

Don’t take him literally or seriously, they smirk.

A diptych of Donald Trump speaking on the left protesters in Minnesota on the right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via Getty Images.

Because there is no fire he cannot turn into a conflagration, Donald Trump poured gasoline all over the protests taking place in Minneapolis and around the country over the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. As fires blazed, Trump took to Twitter to threaten protesters (whom he labeled “THUGS”): “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Twitter almost immediately labeled the tweet with its in-house warning about “glorifying violence” noting in a statement that the tweet “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

It wasn’t hard to track down the provenance of the “shooters and looters” quote. As NPR notes, not only did George Wallace, who ran for president as a segregationist, use it, he actually borrowed it from Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who first made the statement at a news conference in December 1967 as racial tensions simmered in response to months of unchecked police brutality. In his statement at the time, Headley announced that the black community “would henceforth receive concentrated treatment with double patrols armed with shotguns and dogs.” According to a report on Miami’s public disturbances in 1968, published after his death, during the eight months between the new “get tough” policy and the riots of August 1968, there was frequent use of shotguns and dogs in black neighborhoods and aggressive use of stop-and-frisk, accompanied by word rapidly spreading in black communities that police were “regularly hailing black males on the street, addressing them as ‘boy’ or ‘nigger’ and requesting identification and disclosure of the purpose of their being where they were.” The police, the report continues, showed up at black clubs and bars, with dogs and guns, demanding ID from all patrons.

When riots exploded in August 1968, the escalation in violent policing of blacks was seen as having contributed to the tension. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence found that Headley’s remarks and his aggressive policing were a significant factor in sparking the riots. The “looters and shooters” line made it into Headley’s New York Times obituary in 1968.

As we grapple with Trump’s decision to quote Headley in the midst of racial unrest, there is one question that will come up: Did Donald Trump even know what he was referencing? As is so often the case, we can hastily tumble into a pointless wormhole to nowhere, debating Trump’s understanding of the summer of ’68 and whether he deliberately invoked a racist politician quoting a racist cop about deliberate police brutality, or if he just liked the phrase because it sounded like it was possibly minted by a racist Dr. Seuss.

Did Stephen Miller, who surely knows his history, put him up to this? Or was Trump quietly telling militias and law enforcement to go ahead and smash some heads into cars, as he has done before, and he just stumbled into a rhyme? Trump’s defenders will certainly say, as they have done a thousand, thousand times before, that this wasn’t deliberate racism or incitement; that he was joking/being ironic/owning the libs/masterfully diverting attention or whatever else they invoke to excuse him. Don’t take him literally or seriously, they smirk. Later on Friday, Trump himself tweeted to “clarify” his remarks, first repeating the phrase and then noting that his use of it meant he doesn’t “want this to happen,” and that “it was spoken as a fact, not a statement,” whatever that means. In the words of the president, “nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters.”

But the truth is that if you are Donald Trump, artlessly calling for people to take up arms against Hillary Clinton, as he did in 2016, or calling for citizen protesters to LIBERATE their states from beneath their governor’s public health directives, as he did last month, whether you understand the meaning and context of your statements and whether you intend for them to be read as inviting violence just doesn’t matter. Trump is the most obvious and careless beneficiary of the ultimate manifestation of white privilege: Like the law itself, anticipation of consequences and understanding of context are for suckers. If you’re wealthy, white, and devoid of a worldview that contemplates the reactions of others, you can exist in this way, without knowing what you are doing, and still never, ever be held to account.

Consider that if you are George Floyd, Ahmaud ArberyBreonna Taylor, or Christian Cooper, you are asked to move through the world not only accountable to everyone around you for what you do, how you jog, where you sleep, and how you speak, but also to be somehow responsible for everything you don’t do as well. As my friend Aymann Ismail wrote this week, if you are an American of color, you spend your days smiling to disarm people who may fear you irrationally, or crossing streets to avoid alarming people who may think you want to harm them. In America, if you are a person of color, you must possess so capacious an imagination that you need not simply control your every word and move and act so as to avoid looking like you want to do harm, but you must also anticipate how anyone and everyone will interpret your words and behaviors, because it is their perception that matters. R. Eric Thomas says that if you are a person of color, what you think is immaterial: “You learn, at some point, how to perform being non-threatening and you learn that often it matters less how well you perform and more whether the audience for said performance believes it. Or wants to believe it. Or is in the mood to believe it.”

Ah, but if you are a white man, armed with, say, a bazooka, which you believe to be a benign First Amendment statement rather than a threat, attending what you insist is a lawful protest, which you believe to be another benign First Amendment statement, regardless of what the police say, well then you are responsible for nothing. Not the terror of others, which isn’t your concern, and not the public retreat or silencing of others, which is, after all, not your concern. The entire sphere of your responsibility is you. And if you are a brown man? Doing journalism as protected under the same First Amendment? Well, then you just have to hope that you haven’t sent a silent signal to the Minneapolis police that you are a threat. One side demands no awareness of the thoughts and fears of anyone; one side demands infinite awareness of every possible reaction by anyone, everywhere. Imagination too, it seems, is for suckers.

Donald Trump thinks he is immune from any consequences, violent or otherwise, that may stem from his Twitter feed because he has never for even a moment in his life been asked to imagine the harm his words can do to others. The world has seemingly never asked him to do so, and it has never burdened him with accountability for such harms. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed a century ago, the very wealthy in America are stunningly free from consequence: “[T]hey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” And Donald Trump has constructed an entire theory of personal and presidential immunity around the proposition that he cannot be held responsible for anything he says, or does, or initiates, or incites, because he doesn’t care to be. If we are foolish enough to seek meaning, or impute logic, or lash history and context to his words, well, we’re the real suckers. Donald Trump doesn’t even have to understand the brutal history of American racism and racialized police violence—the lifeblood of his slurs—to utter them, or to benefit from them. Racism has enabled his entire, illiterate, clueless existence, whether he understands it or not.

It cannot continue to be the working definition of “liberty” that one class of Americans is permitted to break and to smash, solely because they are incapable of imagining that their actions have any consequences, while a second class of Americans can neither jog, nor sleep, nor go bird-watching, nor film news, because the first class of Americans is imagining make-believe harms. One of the reasons the country is on fire is that millions of people are tired of living in a world in which their every word and step can get them killed, while for a shrinking handful of others, nothing they do can ever matter. Just because the president cannot comprehend this reality doesn’t immunize him from inflaming it.

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