A way of understanding America’s civil unrest

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People run in front of the Minneapolis Police Department, 3rd Precinct, as it burns in the background.

Cities across the country have erupted in protest following a spate of police killings of unarmed black people – most prominently George Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, and others. Police have attacked crowds with teargas, rubber bullets, batons, and vehicles. Rioters have burned buildings and looted stores. People have been seriously injured and several have been killed.

Amid the chaos, President Trump has quadrupled down on his most authoritarian instincts. He’s frequently screamed “LAW & ORDER!” in all-caps tweets. Trump urged the nation’s governors to “get much tougher,” “dominate,” and jail protesters for “five years or ten years” so that “you’ll never see this stuff again.” He deployed the military in Washington, D.C., and threatened to use the 101st Airborne against American citizens in American streets.

The history of black oppression in America is too long for any one article, but it’s critical to understand it in order to grasp the facts of the current unrest. Racism is thoroughly baked into the history, culture, and consciousness of America. Many police forces began as slave patrols hunting down escaped slaves and then as segregation enforcers. Civil rights legislation in the 1960s formally outlawed discrimination, but did little to address the legacy of centuries of abuse, poverty, and bigotry. To this day, fully 400 years after the first slave came to America, blacks face well-documented discrimination in housing, education, business, banking, media, and of course, the justice system.

Breonna Taylor was shot eight times in her own bed by police who broke in to the wrong address. Police shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun at a park, on sight. The whole world watched Eric Garner plead with his dying breath for police to stop choking him. Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray – the names of unarmed black people killed by police for minor crimes or nothing at all are known in every home.

Cop defenders say these tragedies represent the actions of a few bad apples. But bad apples are not exceptions to be waved away. Bad apples spoil the bunch. Police culture views America as a warzone. It demands the unwavering defense of their brothers in blue. Cops who kill or use excessive force rarely face any serious consequences. Whistleblowers on the force who tell the truth about bad cops routinely face retaliation. The problem is with the whole orchard.

Against this cultural and historical backdrop, amid an economic downturn and a global pandemic that have also disproportionately impacted black Americans, came the broad-daylight murder of George Floyd. People finally had all they could take. Protests began in Minneapolis and quickly escalated into riots, culminating in the burning down of a Minneapolis Police Department precinct building. Solidarity protests popped up in cities across America and, within days, around the globe.

While most Americans sympathize to some degree with the protests and the need for justice for Floyd, the riots and looting have been controversial. They’ve also been the most difficult aspect of the story to accurately gauge. Only a small percentage of protesters participate in the looting. Agitators unsympathetic to the Black Lives Matter cause, including members of alt-right organizations, the Ku Klux Klan, and, potentially, undercover police, have caused much of the destruction.

Violence, when it has occurred, has almost always been instigated by police. Heavily armed units loom fearsomely around the protests, flying helicopters, aiming weapons, and raising the tension all around. Cops in many cities used curfew hours as a green light to initiate force. Social media is filled with real-time, first-hand accounts of protesters being shot with rubber bullets, teargassed, beaten with batons, or shoved to the ground:

Donald Trump

In order to take this awkward photo op, President Trump had to teargas and forcibly remove peaceful protesters from the church grounds.

Police targeted journalists, including a black CNN reporter who was arrested live on air. In Asheville and elsewhere, police slashed water bottles and destroyed food and medical supplies. Cops fired at medics wearing the red cross, an internationally recognized and protected symbol, in Austin, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The National Guard disrupted a protest in Washington, D.C., using a medical helicopter. If committed by a foreign military, these actions would be war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

One standout incident showed police in Buffalo, New York, casually shoving a nonviolent 75-year-old man to the ground. His head smacks the pavement and a pool of blood forms around it as officers march on. Two officers were charged and suspended over the incident. Then, in a show of solidarity with the bad apples, 57 Buffalo police resigned and a department in Florida offered to hire them all.

The Trump Administration and right-wing media have fully endorsed this attack on the American people and the First Amendment. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton called for police and the military to restore order with “an overwhelming show of force” in America’s streets. President Trump credited police with doing a “fantastic job.” Their response to police brutality is to shut the people up about it as brutally as possible.

It’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. These protests are about centuries of oppression and generations of terror inflicted on black communities. No amount of property damage or highway blockage justifies the violence we’ve seen from police or the fascist bullhorn of the White House. Brutality brought this moment into being. More of it is not the answer. We need serious, structural change – a whole new way of imagining what community safety looks like.

Fortunately, there are signs that the protests are having a positive effect. Movements to defund the police are growing, including in Minneapolis, where the city council recently voted to dismantle its police department. Much of the duties of law enforcement, like resolving domestic disputes, treating drug addicts, or ensuring the safety of the homeless and severely mentally ill, will be better handled by social workers and healthcare professionals.

Such a radical transformation requires more imagination than politicians are capable of on their own, and this is exactly why the protests are so important. Politicians may support modest reforms, but America’s political class has a deeply entrenched “tough on crime” mentality. In order to shake the foundation enough to make truly transformative progress, people have to make their voices heard too loudly and too clearly to be ignored. Riots, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, are “the language of the unheard.”