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Trump Tweets ‘Vicious Dogs’ Threat
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On Friday, President Trump responded to protests erupting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by tweeting that that, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It’s a line that dates back to Southern officials of the civil rights era, giving his deployment of the already brutal phrase an especially grim undertone. And on Saturday, the president once again recalled violent civil rights era imagery when he warned that protestors at the White House could face “vicious dogs.”
After praising the Secret Service for handling protestors who “got too frisky or out of line” by coming “down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them,” Trump noted that “nobody came close to breaching” the White House fence. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons,” wrote the president.
The threat of vicious dogs greeting protests sparked by the police killing of a black man echoes the police dogs sicced on civil rights activists of the 1950s and ’60s. “To make a reference to vicious dogs is no subtle reminder to African-Americans of segregationists who let dogs out on women, children, and innocent people in the South,” said DC mayor Muriel Bowser in response to Trump’s tweets. “Those of us who weren’t alive then, we know it well from our history. And many people who were alive then are just shaken that an American president would utter such words.”
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“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” has similar ties to historical American racism, and was used in 1967 by Miami police chief Walter Headley. “The NAACP and other black organizations had for years complained about the treatment of the black community by Miami police,” Howard University professor Clarence Lusane told NPR. At one hearing, “in discussing how he would deal with what he called crime and thugs and threats by young black people, he issued this statement that the reason Miami had not had any riots up to that point, was because of the message he had sent out that ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts.'”
Lusane noted that Headley may have taken the phrase from Birmingham, Alabama’s infamous segregationist Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, who loosed dogs and hoses on protestors, including children.
Trump told reporters Friday that he was unaware of the history behind the phrase, but the president has a knack for reviving racist language from the nation’s past. “America First,” a slogan he used often during his first presidential campaign, recalls the America First Committee, which worked to keep the US from entering World War II and which included in its ranks vocal anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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