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.”

Jeff Sessions re-declares war on pot

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One way Sessions and Trump want to #MAGA: trample states’ rights and throw more people in jail over a plant.

On January 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama-era directive that recommended a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. Prior to the Cole Memo, federal authorities clashed routinely with legal pot businesses, especially in states like California. The memo substantially slowed the prosecution of state-sanctioned pot growers, sellers, and users. In rescinding the memo, Sessions declared his intent to re-escalate the war on pot. Continue reading

The problem of cop-on-citizen crime is cultural

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Police use violence to contain a crowd in Anaheim protesting police violence in 2012.

Whenever a black, brown or Muslim person commits a crime, pundits spend the next news cycle trying to diagnose what it is about those communities that produces such violence. White Americans are so convinced the problem is with the groups themselves, and not individuals or social forces, that they elected a president who wants to ban all Muslims, build a wall to keep out immigrants, and instill law and order in black neighborhoods.

Yet when a police officer kills an unarmed citizen, media presents the officer’s side of the story; digs into the victim’s past for any evidence of wrongdoing, no matter how petty; and urges the public not to turn against law enforcement. When the officer is truly indefensible, he’s cast as a bad apple. But if there’s any group in America whose violence needs to be examined on a systemic level, it’s the police. Continue reading

Trump and the coming era of mass incarceration

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a huge advocate of the abuse-riddled private prison industry.

Thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, the United States houses the world’s largest prisoner population. More than 2 million Americans are behind bars. With less than a quarter of its population, we even have more prisoners than China. This is one of the great scandals of present-day America, and it doesn’t receive the serious attention it deserves from politicians and mainstream media. And the GOP, led by the Trump Administration, plans to make it much worse. Continue reading

Why liberals protest and Republicans stay home

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Even for a billionaire like George Soros, it must have cost a pretty penny to pay all those protesters and buy them all hats.

Concerned citizens have been antagonizing Republican lawmakers in state town halls for the past several weeks. Their concerns range from worry about how they’ll survive when Republicans take away their healthcare to wondering how our fragile civilization will survive with a lumbering, fascist orangutan in the White House. Republicans have done such a terrible job addressing their constituents’ concerns, many are simply skipping the events altogether.

So-called President Trump hasn’t tweeted much lately, but he did say, “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!” Trump is right that the confrontations are, to some extent, planned. That hardly makes them illegitimate. If Trump didn’t want to contend with an organized citizenry, he should not have sought public office in a democracy – even one as flawed as ours.

Republicans insist that protesters are paid agitators, even the millions of Americans who protested Trump’s inauguration. Protesting isn’t easy, so to believe that is to believe they’re being paid well. In reality, many protesters take time off from work to march, and many don’t have jobs with generous leave policies. Walking, shouting, braving harsh weather, making signs, risking a confrontation with the police – all of it is a sacrifice compelled by concern for the country and the world. Continue reading

DAPL standoff is textbook little guy vs. big business/big government

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On one front, militarized police in riot gear; on the other, protesters with drums.

While the news cycle remains fixated on Washington politics, the biggest story in America is unfolding in a remote region of North Dakota. In the small town of Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation, activists are defending sacred burial ground and their community’s water supply against construction of a major oil pipeline. Militarized police and private security forces are there to ensure the project is completed, arresting reporters and assaulting protesters.

In America’s hotly divided political and social climate, it’s rare to find a conflict in which one party is so clearly right and the other so clearly wrong. Continue reading

Bundy separatists: How America tolerates right-wing protest and stomps the left

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Ammon Bundy, left, and Ryan Bundy, sons of infamous rancher Cliven Bundy, are leaders in the occupation.

A group of heavily armed right-wing ranchers and self-described militiamen have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Their stated purpose is to protest the jail sentence of father and son ranchers convicted of arson charges, Dwight and Steven Hammond. More importantly, they are protesting perceived overreach from the federal government.

Leading the occupation is Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the rancher who made headlines in April 2014 for his armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. No shots have been fired and the group has no hostages, but they insist they are ready to defend themselves against law enforcement and claim they have enough resources to occupy the refuge for years. Continue reading

Threats against Tarantino highlight extreme police mentality

Tarantino's short speech at a Black Lives Matter rally invited strong criticism from police unions. --- Image by © M. Stan Reaves/Demotix/Corbis

Tarantino’s short speech at a Black Lives Matter rally invited strong criticism from police unions. — Image by © M. Stan Reaves/Demotix/Corbis

Following his brief speech at a demonstration against police brutality last month, director Quentin Tarantino has experienced a backlash from police unions. In particular, Fraternal Order of Police executive director, Jim Pasco, issued vaguely worded threats about surprising Tarantino and harming him economically. Perhaps he’s bluffing. But threats from police, even nonviolent ones, against a private citizen who has broken no law are totally unacceptable. Pasco highlights just how paranoid and reactionary police culture has become.

Tarantino’s remarks were not even especially controversial. USA Today reported that Pasco’s threats were in retaliation for Tarantino’s “inflammatory remarks against police brutality.” Such a premise is difficult to understand. It’s like accusing someone of making inflammatory remarks against child abuse. What’s inflammatory is police officers going on the attack against anyone who calls out their brutality. Continue reading

Ohio rejects historic marijuana legalization initiative

Medical marijuana growing at a facility in Denver. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Medical marijuana growing at a facility in Denver. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Citizens of Ohio overwhelmingly rejected Issue 3, a proposal that would have legalized marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. The results are a textbook example of the messiness that ensues when business, interest groups and government all get together in the legislative process. Squirrely as Issue 3 and its corollary, Issue 2, were, the state still missed an opportunity to set a historic precedent. Continue reading

School resource officers contribute to violence in schools

#AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh: a school resource officer slams a student and her desk to the floor.

#AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh: A school resource officer slams a student and her desk to the floor.

At a high school in South Carolina on Oct. 26, an insubordinate student was thrown out of her desk and dragged across the floor by a policeman. It’s far from the worst overreach of force demonstrated recently, but it’s deeply emblematic of America’s police problem. The so-called “school resource officer” was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Unless that investigation determines the girl had a bomb around her waist, the violence was completely uncalled for.

Disturbing video of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, certainly offers nothing to condone the officer’s actions. According to a local report, the girl was being disruptive in class and didn’t cooperate when her teacher and an administrator asked her to leave. So the officer handled the situation the only way increasing numbers of cops seem to know how – by becoming physically violent. Continue reading