In his convention speech Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence backed cops to the hilt, while baselessly warning that a Biden administration would leave America unprotected. Pence even invoked a line from the mythology of American policing — that cops represent a fragile barrier between social order and unbridled violence. “Under President Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the Thin Blue Line,” Pence declared. “We’re not going to defund the police — not now, not ever.”
Pence’s unabashed, uncritical support for cops came as a slap in the face to grieving Americans seeking justice — and reform of violent and discriminatory policing. But Pence’s erasure of the Black Lives Matter movement was entirely in keeping with Republican National Convention messaging, which has sought to gaslight America into overlooking our gravest challenges, including not only systemic racism, but the coronavirus pandemic and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Pence delivered his speech just days after a Kenosha, Wisconsin cop, Rusten Sheskey, senselessly shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back as the black father attempted to rejoin his children in his car, reportedly after breaking up a fight. The shooting of Blake sparked an uprising in Kenosha — as well as reactionary violence. Two protesters were shot dead on Tuesday night, allegedly by a 17-year-old vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, now charged with first degree murder. Video footage appears to show law enforcement treating Rittenhouse and other armed vigilantes with friendly deference, even providing them with bottled water. After his alleged shooting rampage, Rittenhouse was allowed by cops to walk the streets of Kenosha with his AR-15 and to leave the scene of the violence. Screen grabs from Rittenhouse’s Facebook page feature pictures of him with his AR-15, and numerous posts of “Blue Lives Matter” iconography — including the increasingly infamous black-and-white American flag with a single blue stripe, a visual reference to the Thin Blue Line that Pence paid homage to.
As offensive as the vice president’s speech was, it could have been worse. Pence’s speech was delivered at Fort McHenry, site of the 1812 battle against the invading British Navy that gave inspiration to Francis Scott Key’s poem, which makes up the words to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Pence has long taken umbrage at kneeling during the national anthem and famously wasted taxpayer money in a stunt where he huffed out of an NFL game before it began, after players took a knee to protest police violence.
Willfully misinterpreting the gesture, Pence said at the time: “I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” But in the wake of George Floyd’s shooting in Minneapolis, the world has moved on from such blind obstinence. Kneeling has become commonplace at sporting events, with athletes now put under a microscope when they fail to kneel for racial justice.
Even so, Pence’s convention address seemed ripe for a trollish revival of the notion that kneeling is a sign of disloyalty to America, rather than a demand that she live up to her highest principles. The windup was there — the setting at Fort McHenry, the historical interludes underscoring the patriotism of the 1812 battle, the night’s theme of honoring American heroes. But Pence didn’t follow through. During the day on Wednesday, NBA players decided to strike from playoff games as a protest for police accountability. And athletes from Major League Baseball to Major League Soccer to the WNBA followed suit. The administration which delights in “owning the libs” read the room for once. Pence’s only reference to standing for the flag was veiled. “The heroes who held this fort took their stand,” Pence said, “for Life, liberty, freedom and the American flag. Those ideals have defined our nation.”
Pence, who said not a word about the fight for racial justice, instead inveighed against Joe Biden for attempting to grapple with America’s dark underbelly of discrimination. “Joe Biden says America is ‘systemically racist,'” Pence said in a mocking tone, “and that law enforcement in America has a, quote, ‘implicit bias’ against minorities.” Pence then rebuked Biden for his silence, “about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country.” Pence gave lip service to supporting peaceful protest, but pivoted to a message of law-and-order. Taking a stand for statuary, he declared that all bronze matters. “Tearing down statues is not free speech,” Pence said. “Those who do so will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Decrying unrest in Minneapolis, Portland, and Kenosha, Pence made a passing reference to the experiences of Black America, only to insist that the demands to defund the police have no justification. “The American people know we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, and standing with African American neighbors,” he said.
Pence closed his strongman speech by warning, again, about the social upheaval that could come under a new administration, one that does not promise to lavish the cops with unlimited taxpayer funding, and allow them to escape any measure of accountability. It was a dog whistle. The same shameful one sounded by “law-and-order” GOP politicians since Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. It was a warning to white Americans that, if the brutal policing stops, America’s racial hierarchy could collapse with it.
“The hard truth is,” Pence said, “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”