Stephen Colbert returned to The Late Show from a 10-day vacation to an America on fire, and addressed “the story that has pushed 100,000 Covid deaths below the fold … America’s pre-existing condition: racism”. The protests in dozens of cities have stemmed from what Colbert called the “extrajudicial execution” of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a white on-duty Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. “Now, in civilized countries, that’s called murder,” said Colbert.
And yet, despite video evidence of the entire interaction, it took four days for Chauvin to be arrested and charged with third-degree murder; the three other officers involved, who watched but did not intervene, have not been charged with any crime. “So if you’re wondering why people are so upset, it’s because this is so upsetting.”
Floyd’s killing comes on the heels of the murder of Breonna Taylor, an emergency technician shot by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in April, and Ahmaud Arbery, shot by two white men in Georgia while out for a jog in February, which “also has eerie similarities to Eric Garner in 2014”, said Colbert. “And in that same year there was the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland. All of those echo Emmett Till and the Scottsboro Boys, which happened in the context of Jim Crow, which itself was a soft relaunch of slavery. So you’ve really got to go back to the Triangle trade, which ultimately stems from man’s inhumanity to man, and our essential fallen nature. So, maybe start with the Garden of Eden.”
The point is: this is nothing new, and “we need empathetic and moral leadership. Unfortunately, we have Donald Trump.
“Now, I make a lot of jokes about Donald Trump because he is a dull and dark corrupting force that is undermining America’s moral leadership around the world and sowing hatred and fear among his own citizens,” said Colbert. “And during this Covid crisis, the president has totally abdicated his responsibility of leading the people to understand the need to do the right thing for themselves and each other. And yet, the large majority of Americans have done the right thing anyway. And my hope is that the American people will do the same thing now, because ultimately, they have to.
“For too long, those of us with opportunity and privilege have failed in our responsibility to look at the truth squarely and name the system of racial oppression that artificially divides Americans and benefits those already in positions of relative power,” Colbert continued.
“It’s time to ask ourselves, as it is always time to ask ourselves, what kind of nation do we want to live in? That answer requires moral leadership. So take it upon yourself to be a leader and set an example for the kind of country you want to live in.”
“If you had any doubts at all about the dangers of our overly militarized police culture, those doubts were answered in the response to nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd,” said Seth Meyers on Late Night, citing numerous examples of police being “needlessly violent” or escalating encounters with peaceful protesters for seemingly no reason.
“The police can’t even get through protests about police brutality without committing more police brutality,” he said. “It’s like if your wife accused you of having an affair in divorce court, and you tried to smooth it over by seducing the judge.
“Even just showing up to a protest in riot gear with military equipment is a form of escalation,” Meyers continued as he played footage from police rolling through the streets of Columbia, South Carolina, with a tank. “Ask yourself: why do local police departments have tanks when doctors and nurses can’t even get masks and gowns? We spend billions on military equipment for police and healthcare workers have to wear snorkel masks like retirees on vacation in the Caribbean. There are teachers in this country who are drowning in debt and have to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. If anyone deserves a tank, it’s them.”
We know police escalation isn’t necessary, Meyers added, because “just a few weeks ago, police were physically confronted by angry rightwing protesters calling for an end to lockdowns, and oddly, they seemed to have left their tanks and teargas at home.”
In the face of police escalation, “the very least we can do, the absolute minimum, is to acknowledge there is a deeply rooted, systemic problem here,” Meyers concluded, which is “that there’s a predatory system with a history of police misconduct built on a legacy of racism and exploitation that elevates the comfort and security of white people over the health and safety of black people”.
And on the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon offered “a different kind of show” – a mea culpa after it was reported last week that Fallon had once donned blackface to impersonate Chris Rock during his time at Saturday Night Live. Fallon said he was “horrified” that the story emerged, “not at the fact that people were trying to cancel me or cancel the show, which is scary enough, but the thing that haunted me the most was how do I say: ‘I love this person? I respect this guy more than I respect most humans. I am not racist, I don’t feel this way.’
“Instead, what I kept getting advised was to just stay quiet and not say anything,” Fallon said. “And that’s the advice because we’re all afraid. And I took it for a minute.”
Fallon explained that he thought, “I’m going to say something and get myself into even more trouble … I don’t know what to do,” but “realized that I can’t not say I’m horrified and I’m sorry.” The “breaking my own silence”, he said, pointed him in the direction of experts such as the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, his guest on the show, who made him realize that “the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing”.
“We need to say something, we need to keep saying something. And we need to say ‘that’s not OK’ more than just one day on Twitter,” Fallon urged. “We can’t just hope that everyone loves each other. We can’t say, ‘be the change.’”