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.”

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

America was not ready for a black president


President Obama convened his controversial beer summit in 2009, after the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

During Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, pundits spent a great deal of time on the question, “Is America ready for a black president?” The question seemed both deeply racist – as though black people had to wait for white America to be ready for them – and insulting to all Americans’ intelligence. But after two terms of President Obama and the rise of Donald Trump, the answer in hindsight seems to have been a decisive “No.” Continue reading

In America, white terrorists are the deadliest kind


Robert Lewis Dear is accused of opening fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three.

Around the globe, Muslims carrying out jihad are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Americans are occupied with what to do about the problem. Terrorism is a permanent fixture of the media cycle and our politics, but the deadliest terror threat to Americans is neither foreign nor Muslim: It’s the terror from a homegrown insurgency of angry white men.

Two atrocities, both bearing the grim stamp of white terror, bookended Thanksgiving week. In Minneapolis on November 23, four white men opened fire on a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, injuring five. And in Colorado Springs on November 27, Robert Lewis Dear opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing two civilians and a police officer. Continue reading

Trump’s extremism further divorces Republican base from reality


After being ganged up on by civilian Trump supporters, a Black Lives Matter activist is ejected from a Trump campaign event.

When Donald Trump formally launched his presidential campaign on June 16, he brought out a seemingly contradictory response in commentators. The most straight-faced of news commentators thought he was a joke and didn’t expect him to last. Only the cynics, Sarah Palin fresh in their memory, worried that he had a real chance. Five months later and the cynics were right: Trump remains on top in the GOP primary.

According to Nate Silver, the analyst who famously predicted nearly every state in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Trump’s prospects of actually winning the nomination – let alone the presidency – remain slim. Silver may well be right, but it doesn’t mean Trump will be disappearing off American TV sets anytime soon. His mere presence in the race has already done enormous damage to our national conversation. Continue reading

Stop trying to change the name of Black Lives Matter

Protesters carry signs insisting all lives matter.

Protesters carry signs insisting all lives matter.

Since it became a national movement, Black Lives Matter has been met with antagonism for its name alone. The phrase “black lives matter” is seen by some as divisive, confrontational and perhaps even racist. It reveals a great deal about the struggle black Americans face that controversy arises when they assert the value of their lives.

But there’s an important reason why the name shouldn’t be changed: In our criminal justice system, black lives are not treated like they matter. The name is therefore both an expression of what we wish reality to be and an exposé of what reality isn’t. Continue reading

White people shouldn’t need a video to demonstrate police racism

Community-oriented keepers of the peace slap handcuffs on a dying man who the officer on the left just shot five times in the back.

Community-oriented keepers of the peace slap handcuffs on a dying man who the officer on the left just shot five times in the back.

Add another notch in the American police force’s belt. This time, it’s Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, summarily executed by sociopath-in-blue Michael Slager. Scott is just one of, statistically, three people to be killed by a cop that day, April 4. But his story has generated special attention for two important reasons: first, his murder was filmed by a passerby, and second, his killer has been fired and charged.

Because of shoddy recordkeeping, there’s no accurate count of how many citizens have been killed by police, justifiably or otherwise. But in just the past eight months, several high-profile cases have made household names of black Americans killed by police. There was Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was shot for the crime of playing with a toy gun in Cleveland; Eric Garner, the man who was choked to death for selling loose cigarettes; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot in the climax of an altercation that began with his jaywalking; and now, Walter Scott, who was executed for fleeing a broken taillight traffic stop. Continue reading