John Oliver discusses a week that saw the Republican National Convention, a horrific series of shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a strike in professional sports -- three stories that are really one story, about race in America.
RNC 2020 & Kenosha: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 23
Aired on August 30, 2020

Main segment: 2020 Republican National Convention, Kenosha protests
Other segments: Danbury, CT

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John: Hi there! Welcome to the show, still taking place in this blank void. Think of it like the moon, in that it’s frigid, colorless, and occasionally occupied by one very lonely, malnourished man who has definitely urinated in his suit. And we’re actually going to dive straight in with our main story this week, which — unusually for us — concerns the week that we’ve just had. It’s one of the rare times we’re actually living up to our show’s title, unlike what it probably should be called, “28 minutes on the corn tax or whatever the fuck with John Oliver.” And the reason we are doing that is that this has been one hell of a week. So tonight, we’re going to talk about two things in particular: the republican national convention, and the horrific events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was repeatedly shot in the back by police, and a vigilante killed two people. And we’ll talk more about Kenosha in a bit, but let’s start with the RNC, an event to celebrate the stewardship of Donald Trump — a tough sell at the best of times, but something that felt particularly out of step this week considering we have a pandemic on the rampage, an economic catastrophe unfolding, and wildfires and hurricanes battering the country. All of which made it a little jarring that the republicans’ opening argument seemed to be essentially this:

Kimberly Guilfoyle: Ladies and gentlemen! Leaders and fighters for freedom and liberty and the American dream! The best! Is yet! To come!

John: Okay, then! That’s Kimberly Guilfoyle, bringing an energy to the RNC that can really only be described as “sorry, I thought doves were going to shoot out of my hands.” And that very much set the tone for the week. The main theme of the convention seemed to be “telling lies in front of flags.” Because it was four days of a full-throated denial of objective reality. For one thing, there was the misleading portrait they painted of Trump’s opponents.

Jason Joyce: If Biden wins, he’ll be controlled by the environmental extremists.

Natalie Harp: We’d be one step closer to government-run healthcare.

Eric Trump: Biden has pledged to defund the police.

Donald Trump: And he’s even talking about taking the wall down, how about that?

John: Honestly, that sounds great! Unfortunately though Biden has promised to do exactly none of those things. Biden is a radical environmentalist police-defunding socialist in the same way I am history’s greatest Zazu. You can say I am all you want to, and I wish I were, but the fact is, it’s not even close to being true. And the lies told about Biden were just the beginning. Convention speakers also claimed that Trump never called white supremacists “very fine people,” which he did; that he passed the veteran’s choice act, which he didn’t; and that he’s trying to protect patients with preexisting conditions, which he very much is not. I’m honestly surprised a speaker didn’t at one point claim that trump invented parakeets, or that he stopped the murder hornets by sucking them straight out of the air. And yet, even in the midst of a blizzard of lies, some still managed to stand out — like white house economic adviser Larry Kudlow referring to the coronavirus with an odd choice of verb tense.

Larry Kudlow: Then, came a once-in-100-year pandemic. It was awful. Health and economic impacts were tragic. Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere. But presidential leadership came swiftly and effectively, with an extraordinary rescue for health and safety to successfully fight the Covid virus.

John: What are you doing? You can’t talk about the coronavirus in the past tense, when it is, in a very real sense, still raging. If you’re a character in a Saw movie, you don’t say, “phew, that was a close one” while the bear trap is still on your head. But maybe the biggest gulf between the RNC and objective reality concerned race. Again and again, RNC speakers were at pains to reassure viewers that racism in America is mostly a relic of the past, and whatever remains can be easily overcome. Take Nikki Haley‘s speech, in which she flatly insisted America is not a racist country, and then told the inspirational story of how the confederate flag at her state’s capital was taken down in 2015 after the massacre at Mother Emanuel church.

Nikki Haley: After that horrific tragedy, we didn’t turn against each other. We came together, black and white, democrat and republican. Together, we made the hard choices needed to heal, and removed a divisive symbol peacefully and respectfully.

John: Oh, that’s what happened, is it? That sounds nice. Just a few things there — it’s a peaceful story of unity and hope as long as you start the story immediately after a white supremacist killed nine people at a historic black church. Also, Haley’s version of that story ignores the fact that the eventual removal of the confederate flag was jump-started by artist and activist Bree Bewsome Bass, climbing the flagpole in front of the state house like she was on an anti-racist version of American ninja warrior, and that she was then arrested, and that the flag was then reraised 45 minutes later. Haley also conveniently leaves out the part where the candidate she’s endorsing has defended those who proudly fly the flag it represents the South. So Haley turning what happened in South Carolina into a smooth, hopeful story of racial reconciliation is a bit like if someone asked her what the film Do the Right Thing is about and she said, “a Brooklyn neighborhood comes together to help redecorate a pizza place.” I mean, sure, Nikki, I guess that’s technically true, but some pretty important parts there. And a lot of the RNC’s messaging on race seemed intended not so much to win over black voters as to reassure white people that they could vote republican without being racist. The audience they were talking to was pretty clear, even in small moments like this:

Mike Pence: The American people know we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and standing with our African-American neighbors.

John: Well, hold on, Mike. Who is the “we” in that sentence? Because it seems you’re making a distinction between “we, the American people” and “our African-American neighbors,” who I guess, by extension, are somehow a different group entirely. But I guess that sentiment shouldn’t be really surprising, coming from Mike Pence, a man who permanently looks like he should be living in “Ken’s white flight dream house.” And all of this overt talk of racial harmony was very much in conflict with the steady diet of barely-disguised racial panic that viewers were also being fed. Perhaps the most flagrant example of this came on Monday night, when the RNC chose to feature the St. Louis couple who was charged with threatening black lives matter protestors at gunpoint last month. And the message they were there to send was pretty clear.

Mark McCloskey: It seems as if the democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals, but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens.

Patricia McCloskey: They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs all together by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods. So make no mistake. No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical democrats’ America.

John: Wow. Okay, first, C-Span, you really didn’t need to put up the banner that says they’re “personal injury attorneys,” I very much got that from the everything. But much more importantly, think about how incendiary that message is. “Violence and criminals are coming to your community in the form of “low-quality apartments,” and you must defend yourself. Take it from us, the couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matters protestors.” And rhetoric like that has consequences.

Which actually bring us to the second part of our story this week: what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where — to reiterate — Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police, with three of his children in the car. And then, in the protests that followed, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who had traveled there from out of state, and was illegally carrying a weapon, killed two people. And look, I don’t know if he saw the McCloskeys speak the night before he chose to drive to a city he didn’t live in, to defend property he didn’t own. What I do know is that he was an avid Trump supporter, even sitting front row at a rally back in January. And Trump and his media ecosystem have been delivering essentially the same message as the McCloskeys for years now. Just look at how quickly Tucker Carlson moved to try and explain away Rittenhouse’s actions as a natural response.

Tucker Carlson: So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?

John: Well, you don’t seem to be shocked, and that alone should be pretty fucking shocking. Let’s be clear: a 17-year-old vigilante with a rifle cannot maintain order, because a 17-year-old vigilante with a rifle trying to maintain order is, himself, the definition of disorder. Except, of course, if you’re a regular viewer of Tucker Carlson, a show that exists to teach its viewers precisely three things: property damage is violence, homicide is order, and pillows are for sale. And the events in Kenosha really hammer home the flagrant double standard baked into American society. Just look at the difference in how the police in Kenosha responded to Blake, and how they responded to Rittenhouse.

CBS Evening News: Alleged gunman Kyle Rittenhouse walking away, gun in tow, as people screamed that he just shot protesters. One law enforcement officer, seeming to ask Rittenhouse if anyone was hurt. Two incidents, two videos, with some asking why two different responses.

John: Why two different responses? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. It’s the same reason why, ahead of the shooting, there was video of the police trying to enforce a curfew against protestors, even as they offered water to Rittenhouse and the militia, saying, and I quote, “we appreciate you guys, we really do.” If you’re looking for a better visual illustration of the differences between being black and white in America, I don’t think you’re going to find one, except maybe for seeing exactly who sits down and who stands up when “Cotton Eyed Joe” comes on at a wedding. And that disparity in treatment continued even after the shootings — just watch how, the next day, the Kenosha police chief couldn’t help but spread blame to the protestors who were shot at and killed.

Chief Daniel Miskinis: Everybody involved was out after the curfew. I’m not going to make a great deal of it. But the point is, the curfew’s in place to protect. Had persons not been out involved, in violation of that, perhaps the situation that that unfolded would not have happened.

John: Okay, first of all, thanks so much for not making a great deal out of that. The people who got murdered were up way past their government-imposed bedtime and you were nice enough not to even mention it except to imply that maybe it was a reason they kind of had it coming. That is the kind of restraint we’ve all come to expect from the Kenosha police department. And you might think, “well, hold on, that’s just one guy. Surely not all law enforcement there thinks that way.” Although, I will point out to you that the guy standing next to him is the Kenosha sheriff, who, just two years ago, gave a pretty striking press conference. A group of five young black people had allegedly stolen some clothing from an outlet mall and had led police on a chase that ended in a minor car accident. And in that press conference, he expressed some views that are pretty explicit.

Sheriff David Beth: Let’s put them in jail. Let’s — let’s stop them from truly — at least some of these males going out and getting ten other women pregnant and having small children. Let’s put them away. At some point, we have to stop being politically correct.

John: Sorry, can I quickly interrupt you there? Because calling for American citizens to be stopped from “having small children” isn’t “politically incorrect,” so much as “politically 1940s Germany.” And he wasn’t just idly saying that — he had really thought through a whole plan. I know it is deeply unpleasant, but it’s worth listening to just how detailed his solution was.

Sheriff David Beth: If there’s a threshold that they cross, these people have to be warehoused. No recreational time in the jails, we put them away. And maybe we’ve got to do is build warehouses that, after this generation is gone, they’ve perished in these buildings, we can turn them into something else. Maybe it’ll be malls. Maybe, maybe Amazon will buy ’em as — as warehouses later. But at some point, we have to get rid of this group of people– we have to lock them up. I don’t think I’m saying anything different than most people in society aren’t thinking, but they’re afraid to say it and I’m just to the point that I’m — I’m saying it.

John: Okay, if that is what most people in society are thinking, then we are, and this is true, a terrible society. And I honestly cannot believe that was an idea from a still-employed sheriff, and not a pitch from “Shark tank: light genocide edition.” “Good question, Mark Cuban. The answer is, these concentration camps could easily be converted into amazon warehouses. Ooh! Looks like I’ve got a bidding war on my hands!” And look, the events in Kenosha would be infuriating at any time. But it’s somehow especially infuriating that they took place in the same week where the RNC desperate to reassure the country that America isn’t racist, while simultaneously fearmongering about violent crime threatening law-abiding citizens. It’s a disconnect that was pretty well summed up by NBA coach Doc Rivers in an emotional postgame press conference on Tuesday.

Doc Rivers: What stands out to me is just — just watching the republican convention, and they’re — they’re spewing this fear. Right? Like, all you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that — we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s — it’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.

John: Yeah, exactly. It’s all exhaustingly depressing. Although in a week of incredible darkness, there was actually a bright spot, because shortly after Doc Rivers spoke, something genuinely extraordinary started to happen in his sport. The Milwaukee Bucks had a playoff game, but didn’t take the court, with rumors flying around that they were about to refuse to play. Then, WNBA players — who, incidentally, have led from the start on the Black Lives Matter movement — also refused to play, after arriving at a scheduled game with shirts with seven bullet holes drawn on their back. And eventually, wildcat strikes spread throughout both leagues, in an unprecedented, genuinely inspiring show of collective action. And they did this without union approval, so they were putting a lot on the line — their income, and maybe even their careers. Which is what makes it so infuriating that when Jared Kushner was asked for his response to the strike, this was what fell out of his mouth.

Jared Kushner: Look, I think that the NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to — to have the consequences to themselves financially. So they have that luxury, which is great.

John: Okay, first, get fucked, Jared, you Welcome to Marwen reject. For a start, they’re not taking a night off from work. The emotional toll of being black in America combined with the pressure to perform at an elite level during a global pandemic is, I’m guessing, pretty taxing. So by not playing, they’re not exactly taking a spa day. And if NBA players are too rich to take meaningful action, then who exactly is in the right tax bracket to have their protest approved by America’s most laminated prince? Because we’ve seen time and time again that wealth and fame absolutely do not protect you as a black athlete. It didn’t protect Sterling Brown from getting tased by the police after being stopped for a parking violation in Milwaukee, and it didn’t protect Thabo Sefolosha from having his leg broken by NYPD officers in an incident that forced him to miss the 2015 playoffs and put his whole career in jeopardy. And you might want to strap in, Jared, because this probably isn’t the last disruptive action like this we’re going to see going forward — nor should it be. Because people are sick of waiting. Just listen to Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman, making that very clear.

Letetra Widman: I’m not sad. I’m not sorry. I’m angry. And I’m tired. I haven’t cried one time. I stopped crying years ago. I am numb. I have been watching police murder people that look like me for years. I’m not sad. I don’t want your pity. I want change.

John: Right. This can’t be about pity. It can’t be about sympathy. That is why there is no section in the greeting cards store labeled “Centuries of Oppression.” This isn’t about what white people feel or say. This has to be about creating real change in a system that has been built to be non-responsive. Because history has repeatedly shown us that the system doesn’t respond until it is forced to. So it’s easy for RNC speakers to insist the only appropriate action is peaceful and unobtrusive. But the fact is, that’s just not how it works. Thousands of people marched in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and have continued marching, even as media coverage has steadily drifted away. Meanwhile, the NBA has made a lot of symbolic gestures of support for the movement, like painting “Black Lives Matter” on the court and allowing players to wear a social justice message on their jerseys, selected from a list of 29 agreed-upon options. But to underscore just how limiting that kind of “preapproved” protest can be, “say her name” was on the list, but “Breonna Taylor” was not. And I guess the only positive thing there is, if players wanted to protest that restriction, the NBA had a jersey ready made for them. The problem with purely symbolic protest is that it’s far too easy to co-opt. There might be no more visceral example of that than the fact that that Kenosha sheriff and human warehousing innovator got positive attention earlier this year when he kneeled for nine minutes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. So is it any wonder that basketball players felt they had to escalate their protest by not just wearing a jersey, but by striking — and in doing so, putting team owners money at jeopardy. Because real discomfort is the only thing that’s going to bring real change here. And it’s worth noting that already, the strike has had some effect. Not only did the strike spread to other sports and other athletes, but the NBA players now have a promise from owners to convert as many of their arenas as possible into polling places this November. Which is great, although it also brings us to the fact that simply voting this November is clearly not going to be nearly enough. Because as much as I or the RNC would like to believe that Joe Biden will be an agent of radical change, there is just no reason to believe that. To the extent that real change is possible through the ballot box this year, it will be if Biden is elected alongside progressive candidates all the way down the ballot, from the senate to state legislatures to city councils to sheriffs. And even that will be very much a beginning and not an end. None of this is easy. But it has to begin, and now. Because our current situation is completely unacceptable. And the RNC this week actually ended up being a pretty good reminder that where we still might end up going is genuinely terrifying. Because if it showed us one thing this week, it’s the danger in continuing to be governed by an administration that encourages the ugliest forces in American society, that lionizes threats of violence against peaceful protest, that tells us there is no conflict between supporting law enforcement and “our African-American neighbors,” and that insists that the “best is yet to come,” which, given everything we’ve seen in the last four years, is sounding less like a promise and more like a fucking threat. And now this.

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Announcer: And now… The RNC gets off to a great start.

In the state of Utah, we introduced the world to the frisbee.

We bring you microchips. Cheeses. And microbreweries. We are also the state of the home of president Calvin Coolidge. Thank you.

That freedom is not available to you if you can’t go to your place of business or drive down the street without fear of being bitten — beaten. Maryland is home of the underground railroad, and too, of our greatest segregation — of abolitionists.

Montana, affectionately and enthusiastically, gives its 40 — 27 votes to the next — the president.

I am the son of Anthony and Judy, and I cast Ohio’s 82 votes for Donald John president.

Today, we proudly and happily cast all 50 of our votes for the president of the United States, John J. Trump.

Donald J. Trump.

Mr. President and Mr. Vice president, you are rehired.

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John: Moving on. Finally tonight, a quick update about Danbury, Connecticut. Also known as the hat city, which is appropriate, because much like the bowler hat, Danbury is a superfluous accessory with no practical purpose that went out of style in the 1930s. Now you might have noticed, I’ve taken a few cheap shots like that at the city of Danbury over the last couple of weeks. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the people there have taken notice.

8 News: Oliver delivered a scathing sidebar smackdown about Danbury. And this is the closest snippet that we could air without getting our FCC license pulled. Watch this.

John: ‘Cause if you’re going to forget a town in Connecticut, why not forget Danbury? Because, and this is true, [bleep] Danbury. I know exactly three things about Danbury: “USA Today” ranked it the second-best city to live in in 2015, it was once the center of the American hat industry — and if you’re from there, you’ve got a standing invite to come get a thrashing from John Oliver. Children included.

8 News: Yeah, there was — you should watch the clip, there’s not, like I said, as — as my producer john says, there’s not a lot — there’s a lot of bleeps in that one.

John: Okay, did I tell Danbury, a seemingly charming, random city in Connecticut, to go fuck itself? Yeah, yeah, I did. Did I invite everyone who lived there to come get a thrashing from me? I can’t deny that. The only thing he’s technically wrong about is when he says there were a lot of bleeps in that clip. Because I only heard one bleep. The second time I said “fuck Danbury” the audio seemed to cut out. And I’m willing to assume that was our fault. You have to remember: this network is operated by AT&T. That’s right, business daddy! Guess who’s swinging again! It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, hasn’t it? How are things with you? Me, I’m just sheltering in a void, fighting with some zip codes in Connecticut and may or may not wish to be murdered by the costar of “marriage story.” It’s been a weird few months. We’ve got lots to catch up on — we should probably talk on the phone more, but I do realize that’s a big ask for you. And look, I did think the people of Danbury would take issue with what I’ve been saying. I didn’t expect them to simply sit there and cower in fear of my fists, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. What I didn’t expect was just how great their response would be. Because Danbury, as one, has risen up and fought back magnificently. Take this surprisingly well-produced response from a child who lives there:

YouTube, Caio Ninja: So according to my mom, HBO’s comedian John Oliver — John Oliver threw some shade on what Danbury has to offer. The things you mentioned about Danbury are so yesterday, like an article from 2015. I was, like, three-years-old when that came out! Three!

John: Wow! That kid came in hot! And that is all good. The only thing I object to was him putting my name in air quotes. Because, come on, kid! This is my actual name! If I was going to make one up, I wouldn’t choose something that makes me sound like a Dickensian caricature. I’d pick something incredible like j-suave or Big Johnny Two-soups. Also, for the record, that is the first time anyone’s ever landed a successful burn that started with the phrase, “according to my mom.” Kudos, kid. But that boy wasn’t Danbury’s only defender. There was also this official response from the Danbury hat tricks, their local pro hockey team.

John makes several valid points. Our railway museum is quite charming, and we do wear our “hat city” moniker proudly. He did his research like any intrepid reporter should, which he is. That is, when he’s not taking breaks to film such cinematic classics as “the smurfs,” “wonder park,” or my personal favorite, and this is true, his iconic role as dick pants in the “love guru.” There is one area, though, where john did not do his homework, and that is, of course, the idea that he could give anyone in Danbury a “thrashing.”

John: Again, very good. Honestly, Danbury might want to seriously consider changing its nickname from “the hat city,” to “the young people who seem more than capable of taking over my job” city. Although I’m not sure why they’d want it. Yes, we both live in sad, empty voids where hope goes to die, but at least Danbury has a railway museum. We haven’t had one of those since season four. But the strongest response by far actually came from the mayor of Danbury himself.

Behind me, you’ll see the city of Danbury sewer plant, and we are gonna rename it the “John Oliver memorial sewer plant.” Why? Because it’s full of [bleep] just like you, John.

John: Excellent. Simply excellent. Just calling it the “John Oliver sewer plant” would have comfortably been enough. They went a step farther and went with the “John Oliver “memorial” sewer plant,” which is completely appropriate, because it does seem that I’ve just been murdered by the city of Danbury. And I love everything about this, not just because that’s a superb joke, but because I know just how valuable that poop factory is to Danbury. We dug into their 2019-2020 adopted budget and found that Danbury’s sewer system was by far the most expensive public utility project for that fiscal year. They spent $103 million dollars upgrading it, more than 20 times their next budget item. And normally, I’d make some easy joke about Danbury being a town so backed up with shit that it had to spend nine figures on fixing their sewage system, but the truth is, my opinion of the city has now changed. Previously, I’d have seen this image of a mink about to dive into Candlewood Lake, and assumed it was understandably trying to drown itself because of its proximity to Danbury. But now I know that’s simply wrong. That mink’s probably got a decent YouTube show — everyone in Danbury seems to. It’s an incredible place. And the truth is, things have been so bleak recently, I needed something like this. Something to restore my faith in human nature. And that is why I was so incredibly disappointed to then see this.

Mayor Mark Boughton: Our video is in jest. We’re not really gonna name the sewer plant after John Oliver. However, he still is full of [bleep], so I’ll stick by that.

John: Wait, so you’re not doing it? Oh, fuck you, Danbury! You had the first good idea in your city’s history and you chickened out on the follow through? What a classic Danbury move. Listen. I didn’t know I wanted my name on your shit factory, but now that you’ve floated it as an option, it is all I want. So let’s get down to brass tacks here, because I’ve got a very serious proposition. I will donate $55,000 to charities in your area — $25,000 to this food bank, another $25,000 to fill all the requests, as of this taping, from Danbury schoolteachers on donors choose, and $5,000 to ALS Connecticut — apparently a cause close to the host of the Danbury hat trick’s video. And I will happily do all of that if, and only if, your mayor makes good on his promise to officially name that sewage plant after me. Because I want this. I need this. And if your mayor is thinking, “hold on — that sign was just a Photoshop. I’m not going to spend public money to make a real one” — don’t worry, that has been taken care of for you. So to you, Mr. Mayor, I say this, you have exactly one week to respond to this offer. And please, I beg of you, don’t Danbury this one up. Because if I don’t hear from you in one week time, this whole offer — charity donation, the sign, everything — opens up to your rival towns. Yeah, I’m talking about Waterbury. I’m talking about Milford. I’m even talking about Torrington. Yeah, Danbury, Torrington! I await your response with interest! Thanks so much for watching. We’re off the next couple of weeks, back September 27th. See you then, good night! Your move, Danbury. Your move. I want to hear from you. I want my sewage plant!

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