It’s hard to believe that violent protests and looting would have erupted across the country without the COVID-19 lockdowns which have left so many feeling helpless, angry and scared.
We all had every reason to be outraged by the event that triggered the demonstrations – a viral video showing the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while being detained by police with a knee to his neck in Minneapolis. But the city took swift action, firing the officer and indicting him for third degree murder.
In contrast to many incidents where the police have hidden or defended such criminal behavior, the response to Floyd’s death was a sign of the progress.
So, too, is the fact that the police forces in many of the cities where marchers railed against brutality, including Raleigh, are now led by African Americans. Communities have made sincere efforts to address the legitimate concerns about policing that have come to the fore since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013.
Many have retrained officers in the use of force, reexamined sentencing, reformed bail procedures and marijuana laws and explored expunging some criminal records so that short sentences don’t become lifetime obstacles. Not all of these moves are wise, but there can be no doubt that government is responding.
I doubt the looters who left a trail of destruction in Raleigh, Fayetteville and other cities this weekend know much about those efforts. Many leaders of the initially peaceful protests that the violence grew out of properly branded them as criminals who saw opportunity on a warm night after months of COVID-19 confinement.
That condemnation is also a sign of progress, as for too long such low-grade hooliganism has been falsely cast as high-minded resistance.
But we should not allow these miscreants to obscure the dynamics that led so many people to march in the wake of Floyd’s death.
The conservative argument that America is not a viciously racist country bent on controlling and destroying black bodies is compelling. Numerous studies show that black women do not face the same legal, educational and economic problems as black men, suggesting that behavior drives many outcomes.
That only takes us so far because it ignores the mountains of research showing that African Americans believe they are under siege. A Washington Post op-ed published Friday detailed a range of studies that found:
- “74 percent of black parents had cautioned their children to be cautious around police, versus 32 percent of white parents …
- “7 in 10 white people thought police usually use the right amount of force, versus just 1 in 3 black people …
- “Blacks were significantly more likely than whites to report being sworn at by a police officer and experiencing physical violence at the hands of a police officer …
- “Black people were more worried about being a victim of police violence than being a victim of violent crime.”
Public policy should not be driven by perception and emotion; law enforcement must be able to maintain order even if it creates tension with people who live in high-crime communities.
But as most anyone who has been stopped by a cop can attest, policing hinges on authoritative domination – as they serve and protect they demand submission to control the situation. This is a recipe for resentment and conflict, especially among those for whom such encounters are not a rarity.
Establishing the hard presence required to keep our communities safe while demonstrating the soft skills of respect toward every citizen is a momentous challenge. It will take work which this moment demands.