The black community did its best to fight back, without protection from the state. In some cases, police actively participated in the lynchings. The US attorney general, A Mitchell Palmer, claimed that leftwing radicals were behind the uprisings – a false charge and one that further endangered African American lives. Palmer worked for President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist who screened Birth of a Nation in the White House and praised the Ku Klux Klan even as it deployed terrorism to keep blacks away from the voting booth. Wilson had been silent while whites slaughtered African Americans in East St Louis in 1917, and he did little to nothing in 1919 when they again attacked and killed black people, this time on an even more horrific and grisly scale.
When African Americans fought back, when they protested, when they made clear they would not quietly accept the destruction of their lives, Palmer mobilized the power of the federal government to brand black unrest as the work of the enemy of the state – communists. It was his version of peace without justice. To do this he ignored the destructive and violent white supremacy that his president had helped unleash. He remained unconcerned about the bold, brazen killing of black people. And he had no qualms about a criminal justice system in which being black meant the presumption of guilt.
More than 100 years later, in the wake of the brutal, merciless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – not to mention an incident in which a white woman attempted to put a black birdwatcher in the crosshairs of the NYPD – our current attorney general, Bill Barr, does not appear to see injustice. Instead, he sounds much like his ancient predecessor, A Mitchell Palmer.
Barr, like Palmer, has largely ignored the continued killing of black people by vigilantes and agents of the state. He has also ignored the root causes of the current uprisings, such as the flat-out refusal of American institutions to address the violence and conditions that create a life where black people cannot breathe. Instead Barr has chosen to focus his attention on what he characterizes as rioting and “domestic terrorism”. Mimicking Donald Trump, and without evidence, he has blamed the current eruption on “far-left extremists, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence”, and he has warned that he will prosecute these (mostly phantom) anti-fascists. Barr previously said that if communities had the audacity to protest police brutality, they might “find themselves without the police protection they need”.
For his part, Trump has branded the protesters “thugs” and threatened to have American citizens shot and “vicious dogs” unleashed on them. On Sunday he tweeted that antifa would be labeled a “terrorist organization”.