Black and white protesters wave a black and white US flag as demonstrations and riots roil American cities. Photo: AFP

The ongoing outbreak of wanton violence in the US has moved well past mere vengeance or shock over the vicious killing of a black man by a brutal and stupid thug wearing the uniform of a policeman in a large Midwestern city. It has unleashed emotions buried deep in American and world history that extend right up to the present, creating a crisis that’s not going away any time soon.

It comes at a time when Covid-19 has led to the loss in of tens of millions of US jobs, of daily living wages and of the means of survival for millions who ultimately will be joining the world’s impoverished, poverty-stricken, hungry and homeless if relief doesn’t come soon.

It’s not likely that a lot of the people we see on television smashing windows and looting stores across the US would put their dilemma in quite those terms. And there’s no excuse or justification for destroying valuable property, stealing costly stuff that belongs to others and ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people whose misfortune was to own shops and property where mobs were running wild.

But what did many if not most of these robbers and looters have to lose?

Surely some had jobs, but many did not – or, if they did have work, it was for miserable wages, for part-time shifts, gig work, for no future and for no point.

For years, for all their lives, they’ve been seeing “Beautiful People” on screens, on attractive streets, in sleek vehicles, through wide windows in stores overflowing with luxuries. They have seen them in fine restaurants, in places where they’d be lucky to be sweeping the floors or washing dishes, saying, “Thank you sir/ma’am” if a tip is dropped their way, getting paid minimum wage and told to get lost if the boss decides he can do without them.

And a lot of bosses have been saying exactly that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than that, while they’re lucky to get enough to feed themselves and a few kids, others, the majority of their fellow citizens, are making out like bandits. Forget about the top 1% or 3%. We know they’re doing great on a stock market only slightly rocked by the pandemic and now the riots.

Prosperity, in fact, goes deeper. Right down through the upper and middle classes, most Americans have been doing pretty damned well in the recent economic surge.

But that leaves many millions who aren’t sharing the wealth, aren’t joining the party, aren’t feasting on the fun. 

And America is violent. Men get killed every day, in every city, making few headlines – often not good enough for the front pages of even the local papers.

But the killing of a defenseless black man by a cop in the name of law and order was more than just another death in the neighborhood. It was a spark that triggered the deepest emotions, added salt to long-festering wounds – a final indignity that touched off the deepest sense of rage, of hatred for the masses of those above them who may not all be that wealthy but who live in relative comfort, secure from hunger, able to pay the rent or mortgage and own a car or two.

It would actually be skewing the picture to say that the resentment now boiling over is purely a racial thing.

Sure, resentment among blacks goes back to an era that formally ended with the abolition of slavery in the American south in the Civil War. But it endures in the form of discrimination, violence and suffering to this day. Blacks, and in recent decades Latinos and Hispanics from south of the border, share common cause.

But so, too, do millions of others – poor whites who deeply resent all of them as competitors for crumbs off the table of the rich. They, too, are victims of social and economic prejudice and repression.

The ongoing American revolution may be broader and more diffused geographically, ethnically and in other ways quite different from the recent historical experience of many other countries. American-style democracy, however, has been an exemplar for democratic movements around the world. 

In the next few months, in a presidential campaign like no other, amid pandemic, protest and violence, US-style democracy faces its severest trial since the Civil War.

The world waits to see if American democracy passes this stern test.

Veteran reporter Donald Kirk has been covering Asia since the early 1960s, taking in Indonesia’s “Year of Living Dangerously,” the Vietnam War and the rise of South Korea among many other events and trends. He divides his time among Manila, Seoul and Washington, DC, and is the author of multiple books, notably Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae-jung and Sunshine.