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America at boiling point: how one death rocked a nation numbed by 100,000

Sociologists have long tracked a relationship between high temperatures and riots, and so it is now in the unofficial first week of summer. Temperatures are rising and tempers are fraying.

Minneapolis is on fire. Turn on any television set in America and you’ll see images of cars ablaze, of giant balls of flame erupting and plumes of black smoke blanketing a purple sky. Protesters hurl rocks at police. Grocery stores are being looted like Saddam Hussein’s palace after the invasion of Iraq. Mobs have stormed into police headquarters, hurling rocks through the windows. Anarchy reigns and the words of Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor in Network, seem to hang in the air: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”

When the coronavirus began spreading throughout the country, Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz invoked peacetime emergency powers to order his state’s residents to stay at home. Now, in response to the riots, he has declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard to try to take back control of Minneapolis’ streets.

Martin Luther King did not endorse violent protest but believed he understood what drove them. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said in 1966.

Floyd’s death touched a nerve in a way the 100,000 coronavirus deaths – private and out of sight – did not. Floyd’s death was captured on video in excruciating detail.


At least briefly, his death appeared to pierce America’s hyper-partisan divisions in a way the pandemic has not. Fox News host Sean Hannity, usually a law-and-order campaigner and fierce police defender, has excoriated the police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck.

President Donald Trump said he had asked the Department of Justice and FBI to expedite inquiries into his death and said he didn’t like what he saw on the video of Floyd’s death.

But then came the arson and rioting, prompting Trump to threaten to seize control of Minneapolis. When “the looting starts, the shooting starts”, he tweeted provocatively.

Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian strongman leader, also weighed in to say: “The racist and fascist approach that led to the death of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis as a result of torture has not only deeply saddened all of us, but it has also become one of the most painful manifestations of the unjust order we stand against across the world.”

You’d laugh if it wasn’t so demoralising.

America right now feels like the land of the angry and the home of the divided. A nation that is itself gasping for air.

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