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A Sigh of Relief
Like everyone else, I let out a sigh of relief when the jury came back with guilty verdicts for former police officer Derek Chauvin. Of course, this relief was manifold. After all, citizens should not feel the weight of expectation for a jury to return with what should be an obvious verdict. We had a trial in which the accused was caught on video suffocating a bound and prone victim to death by kneeling on his neck. There is no reasonable context in which such an act could be acquitted.
Yet, there we were, as a nation, hoping for the right and just outcome because, in the United States, the context in which a white police officer brutally kills a black suspect, especially a large, black male suspect, is not reasonable. This crime is laced and interwoven with a long history of racism and institutionalized power dynamics that does not often translate into the right and obvious verdict. After years of disappointment and shocking deliberations, we have learned that we cannot rely on a just verdict in matters where justice cuts across the grain of racial prejudice.
According to the Washington Post, police officers fatally shoot1 around a thousand people a year. Vox reports that since 2005 only 139 officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting. According to Vox, “Of those 139 officers, just 44 were convicted (with 42 cases still pending). Many of those convictions came on lesser charges: Just seven officers have been convicted of murder in police shootings since 2005, with their prison sentences ranging from 81 months to life. The remaining 37 were convicted on charges ranging from manslaughter to official misconduct, in some cases serving no prison time.”
With no further information than that, we have to ask ourselves as a society to what extent policing as an institution is justified in producing such a body count. In a free society should the police be able to kill a thousand citizens a year without so much as a second look into their methods and culture? This is the United States, however. So, we do have to add the race variable into our analysis. Black and Hispanic men are disproportionate victims of police violence. Black communities are often over-policed and the actions and motives of black citizens are more likely to be interpreted as confrontational and threatening.
For these reasons, one element of our collective relief was that the justice system, for once, actually resulted in a just outcome2. Perhaps we can argue that we are finally making progress toward police reform. After all, many jurisdictions are instituting changes in policing practices, from body cameras, to banning tactics such as no-knock warrants and chokeholds, to instituting bias awareness and de-escalation trainings. Now, an officer who brutally and fatally exploited his power and violated the public trust is paying the penalty for his actions. Maybe we’ve turned a corner. Maybe we are seeing the first signs of real, institutional, and cultural change toward a more civilized and democratic policing.
Or perhaps this is a one off event.
Another layer to our collective relief is fear that had the verdict gone the other way, had Chauvin been acquitted as so many others before him, chaos would have exploded onto the streets all over the country. At best, mass protests would have been inconvenient for businesses and impacted communities. Based on what we know of past protests, peaceful but inconvenient protests were the most likely outcome. That being said, a nationwide wave of mass protest, especially in the face of clear injustice, would certainly have resulted in some measure of violence and destruction of property. Likely this would have happened in only five to ten percent of cases. Regardless, it’s impossible to think that mass collective action at a national scale could be conducted without some level of violence and/or property damage.
A guilty verdict allows us a reprieve, most likely brief, from the intense anger and resentment that has played out on the streets since the death of Michael Brown, culminating in the largest wave of protests in U.S. history last year. Yet, we must admit that there is a great deal of work to be done before we can close the book on this long, violent, and excruciating chronicle of the American experiment. We need to assess the value of street protest in redressing historical grievances in the face of political maneuvers designed to squelch such democratic expressions.
Silencing the Streets = Gagging Democracy
We have to ask ourselves one thing. Would the Chauvin verdict have happened if it had not been for Black Lives Matter?
Of course, the answer is obvious. Witnesses. Video evidence. These things notwithstanding, it’s almost certain that without Black Lives Matter Derek Chauvin would still be on the beat.
Furthermore, would communities and municipalities all over the nation be rethinking their policing practices even if they are not considering “defunding the police?” If there was one great sign of progress during the Chauvin trial it was the number of police officers who were willing to take the stand and state for the record that their colleague had crossed the line. The Washington Post, NPR, NBC, ABC among others all reported that the Blue Wall, the great barrier to police reform, may be cracking. Perhaps police officers are willing to acknowledge that a change is necessary. Maybe they are learning that their jobs become much harder and more dangerous when the public they are entrusted to serve looks at them with fear, resentment, and anger. Maybe painfully slow progress is picking up speed.
Does any of this happen without Black Lives Matter?
So, it should come as no surprise that as I write this, state governments all over the country are passing legislationto make street protests more difficult and more dangerous. In my home state, Florida, the Governor just signed a law that could make it a felony to even be present at a protest in which a riot takes place–regardless of whether or not one actively participates in violence or destruction of property. In the meantime, this law expands civil protections for anyone who runs a over protestor with their vehicle so long as the driver can make the claim that they “feared for their safety” at the time. We have “stand your ground”. I guess we can call this “drive your road”. And this was the compromise legislation. Governor DeSantis wanted even more draconian measures like giving counter protesters legal immunity for vehicular manslaughter.
As usual, Florida is at the vanguard of reactionary, anti-democratic, legislation. States all over the country, specifically those where Black Lives Matter protests were most lasting and significant, are following Florida’s example. And following Florida’s example is never good.
On Riots and Protests
Reactionaries like Governor DeSantis use riots as justification for draconian legislation that just happens to have the consequence of making it more difficult to organize peaceful protests. [As an aside: It’s funny that those cheering the loudest for attempts to make riots illegal3 are the same folks who insist that gun laws are useless because criminals aren’t going to follow the law anyway. I guess rioters are more law-abiding criminals.]
It’s true. Where there are mass protests, there’s the potential for riots. It comes with the territory. People protesting are doing so because they are angry and they see no other way to redress their grievances but to take to the streets. Hence, we get a congregation of angry people amassed in one place. Under such conditions, all it takes is a spark. A broken bottle. a bumped shoulder. Someone tripping. All it takes is one person who lashes out in anger amidst a crowd equally aggrieved, and a riot can happen.
Nobody wants this. The last thing that a protest organizer wants is for a riot to break out. Violence often de-legitimizes the movement. Ten thousand people take to the streets. Ten people riot and what makes the papers the next day? What do you see played over and over again for months on FoxNoise? The movement’s message gets lost in the noise of people responding to the riot.
Nobody wants a riot.
A Simple Solution
Knowing that nobody wants a riot, there is a simple solution that does not involve…well…fascism.
The solution is, stop waiting for the protest to redress reasonable grievances.4
Protests surrounding George Floyd were pretty intense, but they weren’t the first street movements to call attention to police brutality. Believe it or not, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were all killed six years before the George Floyd protests. Are we to believe that nothing could have been done, no policies could have been put into place, police departments couldn’t have used these examples of extreme malpractice to take a closer look at their own practices within this six year period.
If six years isn’t enough time, then how about thirty? It was 1992 when police officers were acquitted for the brutal assault on Rodney King and Los Angeles erupted into a burning flash of street level anger and violence.
The reality is that activists from the black community and other communities of color have been calling attention to police brutality for decades. In Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech he stated, “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In 1966, the Ten Point Program of the Black Panther Party included a call for the “…immediate end of police brutality and the murder of black people…”
In 1965, the city of Watts erupted into a violent wave or protests and riots. The official story is that the riots were caused by an allegation of police use of excessive force. But this isn’t true. Protests and any corresponding riots are never the result of a singular, isolated incident. They are the ultimate expression of collective anger, fear and frustration manifest after decades of unremedied abuse and exploitation.
After the Ferguson Protests a Department of Justice report revealed that Ferguson police officers, “violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force.” The report identified these practices as “trends” and “routines”, indicating that they are structural behaviors incorporated into the department itself. This is an historic pattern of abuse. Michael Brown and George Floyd may serve as catalysts for street protests, but they are never in and of themselves the causes.
In every instance of street protest we see people who have suffered indignities for years, decades, generations. They’ve requested a redress of grievance by filing complaints, writing letters, filling in the appropriate paperwork. They wrote about, sang about, waxed poetic about, and communicated the abuse they suffered to the outside world. They organized. They took a knee during sporting events. Yet time and again their pleas were ignored. Time and again they watched their sons and daughters gunned down by those tasked to protect them. By the time they take to the streets, before the first bottle is thrown and the first bonfire lit, we see a history of abuse, exploitation, and dehumanization.
As Martin Luther King pointed out, a riot is the language of the unheard. That being the case, the solution to riots and even the inconvenience of street protest is simple. Start listening! When an entire community tells you that they are being abused, do something to end the abuse. Riots are not caused by a single incident. They happen because of neglectful, closed-minded policy designed to serve the needs of the elite few rather than those of the Demos as a whole. Democratic policies that hear the voices of the oppressed, listen to their real grievances, and confront the actual problems are the sure fire strategy for ending riots.
- It’s important to put this stat into perspective. The Washington Post Project is intended to track fatal shootings only. This stat does not represent victims like George Floyd, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray as they were not shot by police.
- Many of us are involved in a debate as to how “just” our carceral system is as an institutional response to crime. This debate should continue. As it stands, however, our given definition of justice involves prison for killing another human being. This is the standard by which judgment was made.
- For the record, rioting is already illegal.
- I had to include the modifier “reasonable.” African Americans protesting police abuse within their communities have data and historical support for their grievances going back to Reconstruction. Right-wingers upset that the 2020 election was stolen simply do not.