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American Unrest

American Unrest

For almost a week now, protests have surged across American cities in response to the videotaped police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man detained for allegedly using a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes.

Alongside largely peaceful demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racial injustice, there have been instances of looting, arson, and aggressive police violence. Several journalists have been arrested.


In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic and recession, which have disproportionately affected black and Latino Americans, have added to the anger on the streets.

The central question of whether, and how, a deeply divided country can make progress towards racial justice can't be answered yet. But here are a few observations.

The scale and immediacy of these protests is unprecedented. Never before have protests in America against racial injustice gone both national and viral this quickly. For previous protests at this scale – whether the upheavals of the late 1960s or those that followed the Rodney King case acquittals in 1992 – you have to reach back to a period well before social media was around to capture injustices on video and to fuel further outrage. Today, everywhere that police and protesters meet, there is a flurry of smartphone cameras and an audience waiting for the footage.

Will the protests change the 2020 election? The protests are about issues that transcend any single ballot or president. And as some activists have pointed out, the policies that shape policing are made at the local level, and demand local accountability.

But with a national election just five months from tomorrow, the upheaval and its aftershocks will surely echo into the campaigns. Will they help Trump? Or his opponent, Joe Biden? The impact either way might be smaller than you think.

To make a difference in the outcome, the protests would need to change many minds either about whom to vote for or whether to vote at all. But this election is shaping up to be mainly a referendum on Trump(ism), and views of him are largely set at this point. In fact, one of the curious features of his presidency, tumultuous as it's been, is the uncanny stability of his approval ratings in the low to mid 40s.

Given the broader political polarization over the protests themselves – when Trump's supporters look at them they see destructive threats to law and order, while his critics tend to see them as justified civic actions radicalized by a violent police response and exploited by provocateurs – it's hard to see many minds changing.

How is it playing abroad? Not so well for the US. Solidarity protests have erupted outside US consulates and embassies in London, Berlin, and Milan. Meanwhile, several authoritarian countries that have recently gotten an earful from Washington over their own repression have gleefully shot back at the White House: Turkey's president decried the US' "racist and fascist" police, Iran's supreme leader let off a tweet in Spanish about the perils of being black in America, while the country's ultraconservative former president allowed himself a provocative Tupac quote. China, for its part, had a field day in light of recent criticism of its crackdown on Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Russia and China seem to be doing their best to further inflame political tensions over the protests – not that the US needs much help on that score at the moment.

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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The Democrats shocked the country by eking out a 50-50 majority in the US Senate earlier this month, securing control of the House, Senate and Executive. But do they have enough power to impose the kinds of restrictions to Big Tech that many believe are sorely needed? Renowned tech columnist Kara Swisher is not so sure. But there is one easy legislative win they could pursue early on. "I think it's very important to have privacy legislation, which we currently do not have: a 'national privacy bill.' Every other country does." Swisher's wide-ranging conversation with Ian Bremmer was part of the latest episode of GZERO World.

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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