AFTER days of avoiding it, I finally sat down and watched a video (The New York Times’s edit) of the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin and his police associates in Minneapolis.

It has the horrific, transforming power of the naked, nine-year-old, napalm-covered Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running down a road near Trang Bang, South Vietnam in 1972. Powerful humans, to whom we grant a monopoly of force, inflicting intentional harm on manifestly vulnerable others.

That picture played its part in ending an American war. Will today’s images do the same? Yet how do we characterise this war? The systematic brutality wreaked by US police forces on black Americans has a long history.

Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, writes about the uniformed and professionalised Charleston City Guard and Watch, formed in 1783 (this was well before Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police).

Their job was patrolling slaves, and preventing revolts among them, “by ensuring they were not harbouring weapons or fugitives, conducting meetings, or learning to read or write,” says Vitale. “The Guard also played a major role in preventing slaves from escaping to the North, through regular patrols on rural roads.”

Killing was discouraged, however: you could be civilly liable to the slaveowner for destroying his property. No such inhibition, though, when faced with George Floyd, Eric Garner (who uttered Floyd’s same final words, “I can’t breathe” in 2014), Michael Brown (the Ferguson riots), Tamir Rice (aged 12), or any of the 1252 black people shot dead by police in the US since January 1, 2015, according to the Washington Post’s tracker.

This column won’t be my attempt to marshal sources and resources, in outrage and solidarity (though anyone who follows my Thoughtland Twitter feed will know I’ve been interested in doing little else this week).

Our friends in Los Angeles reminded us again in the last few days that they were still having “The Talk” with their dark-skinned sons.

If a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone. Use “sir” a lot.

He’s a marvellous young man.

That lands home.

So I am informed about (though can never know) the degree of daily oppression and fear that comprises black experience in contemporary America. Their president is now recycling segregationist slogans from the 1960s – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” – and may use law-against-public-disorder as his campaign theme for re-election later this year. What at least makes things different from 1968 – the hot year that 2020 is often being compared to, with King and Kennedy assassinated, urban riots, even a “Hong Kong” super-flu – is that the protest marches look gloriously multi-ethnic.

As Jeet Heer notes in The Nation: “In 1968, white America didn’t stand with African American protests over police violence and racism. This year, things are different.”

Heer continues: “In sixty-eight, Richard Nixon ran as a challenger who could bring order to a disintegrating country. Trump, by contrast, is presiding over the fraying of America and can thus be plausibly blamed for it, all the more so since he’s been an agent of chaos from the start.”

Maybe so, here’s hoping, go go sleepy Joe (Biden). But what’s in my heart here is really the nature of my own American dreams, forming me from birth. Are they currently being tested to destruction? Or is the challenge to make them even bigger and more capacious?

American music is the obvious entry point. It beamed into our Coatbridge home in the 1960s and 70s, filling our hearth with a kind of multiracial utopia. Sinatra, yes, but just as readily Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Earl Bostic, Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson ... black excellence was simply assumed, as my mum and dad danced around the living room floor to their soundtrack.

Yet when I started to become a yearning and seeking musician, rather than just being my father’s receptive son, something soon became obvious.

THE music I had been wired early to eventually discover and enjoy – James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – was also bringing news reports from a black America I had to get up to speed with.

To finally, properly sit down and engage with Wonder’s early-to-mid 1970s LPs – with tracks like Village Ghetto Land, Black Man, Living For The City, You Haven’t Done Nothin’, Big Brother – was to be inducted into an even bigger utopia: where sheer musical beauty supports a social (and racial) justice agenda.

It’s still the template of creativity that inspires me most. But whatever history I’ve managed to read – about the greats of jazz, soul or funk – I hope has sedimented something else into me. Which is the pain, loss and emotional damage that accompanies black music over the last century.

Yet one of the truths borne out by the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that it’s not enough for the response to oppression to be some beautiful art. A programme of action, policy and irreversible progress may be just as creative an act.

In the words of the rapper and activist Killer Mike, a few days ago: “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with the enemy. It is your duty to fortify your house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.”

My other key American dream is of the country, not as the home of fearful, reactive, prejudiced know-nothings, but the very opposite. This is America as a place of irony, restless wit, easy self-awareness, vernacular smarts.

It goes all the way down and up. Animations by Chuck Jones, where Wile E Coyote holds up signs saying: “How about ending this cartoon before I hit the ground?” Movies such as Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network, which essentially anticipates the next 50 years of the development of media and capitalism.

Novels by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, which couldn’t possibly be more self-aware of the operations of our minds, our wider systems, and their interrelation.

This is America as a home for genius. I did two radio shows for Radio Scotland in the 1990s where we toured the US talking to intellectuals and academics of all schools and ethnicities – from JK Galbraith to Stanley Crouch, Nelson George to Lewis Lapham. It’s still the most exhilarating cultural experience of my life. Endlessly eclectic minds flourishing within what the late legal scholar Ronald Dworkin told me was the “supporting conceptual framework” of a constitutionally-defined nation.

Will all that massive flexibility – all those potentials for incubating ideas and practices that make up the improvisational, experimental strain of American life – be stiffened and snuffed out, by the Dullard-and-Gangster-In-Chief?

Perhaps the solution may be the break-up of the Union itself – and we’ll have to abandon the miraculous “e pluribus unum” (unity in diversity) that is stamped on America’s Great Seal. It’s been brought to the fore with the coronavirus, where Trump’s feckless performance has compelled America’s States to consider their Federal loyalties.

“We have to meet the needs of all our diverse communities,” California governor Gavin Newsom said in March, as “a nation-state with six-plus million children”.

Will Americans, grouping around values, or even ethnicity, in flight from a Trump regime, start to regard themselves as Californians (or Oklahomans, or Illinoisans) first?

I would lament that. But it feels like something has decidedly ended in America, as a result of the slow, traumatising public death of George Floyd. An American nightmare has always been more the truth for many in the Republic. We dreamers may have to recalibrate our ideas and ideals, as the next six months wildly unfurl.