‘See the fire’: George Floyd and the effects of violent protest

Patrik Jonsson

After the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis last Monday, Karen White cried.

“I cry for George Floyd because I cry for my sons,” the black middle-class Savannah mom said while marching peacefully along with 2,000 people on Sunday.

The killing of a black man by a policeman’s knee to the neck awoke something in Ms. White, by her own account. The old her would have been horrified by images of people looting and setting fires to protest police violence. But now, she says, such offenses against property seem apt in the face of systemic racism.

“If all 50 states have to see the fire in order for justice to prevail, then so be it,” says Ms. White.

As protests intensify from Washington, D.C., to Walnut Creek, California, the morality of protest violence is being debated in new ways in a nation roiled by the reaction to a Minneapolis policeman choking Mr. Floyd.

To be sure, the vast majority of the demonstrations are peaceful.

But some aggressive elements within the crowds continue to clash with police, especially after dark, and especially in places where authorities have responded to protests with their own violent means, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

The protesters have angered President Donald Trump, who on Monday called state and local leaders “weak” for failing to “dominate” them. Former President Barack Obama, with more measured language, urged an end to the destruction of property in an essay released Monday on Medium.

“If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves,” Mr. Obama wrote.

Yet to many like Ms. White, what they see as intractable systemic racism and unjustified police killings of black Americans has begun to give legitimacy to what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the language of the unheard”: riots in the face of injustice.

“There are elements here that I have not seen before, including that I’m hearing the perspective that perhaps the violence isn’t as nihilistic as authorities make it out to be,” says Darnell Hunt, author of “Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’: Race, Seeing and Resistance.” “It seems different this time because you are hearing echoes of something bigger.”

American reckoning

The impulse of authorities to blame agitators and step up the response to “dominate” the streets goes back to the 1960s when Richard Nixon rode to presidential victory in part by exploiting racial tensions and promising law and order.

Nixon’s strategy found fertile ground in an America then reeling from widespread riots in the long hot summer of 1967, and following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. Back then National Guard and regular Army units deployed to city streets to bring widespread looting and burning under control.

Today America as a whole is facing a similar reckoning, says Dr. Hunt. The U.S. has suffered through numerous well-publicized incidents of people of color being killed after being falsely profiled as suspicious. Even before a self-appointed Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot a teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, in 2012, the beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the killings by police of Amadou Diallo in 1999, Sean Bell in 2006, and Oscar Grant in 2009 had been ingrained in the national consciousness.

The death of Mr. Floyd was only the latest such incident. Meanwhile well-armed white men who shuffled inside the Michigan Capitol to “liberate” the state from its pandemic closure were treated gently, says Jennifer Cobbina, author of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Yet peaceful protesters marching in Washington in response to Mr. Floyd’s killing were tear-gassed so President Trump could stand in front of a church.

“There’s a stark contrast in the response to when there were angry white men protesting with assault rifles against lockdown orders and were met by a police force that was very calm,” says Dr. Cobbina. “Yes, people are looting and rioting ... but the contrast remains stark because we see different reactions depending on who is demonstrating. [The situation] shows how the demographics of the people protesting shapes the police response.”

Meanwhile, in Greater Los Angeles, demographics figured in protesters’ larger strategy.

Organizers specifically chose upscale areas such as the gentrified downtown, Beverly Hills, and the beachside community of Santa Monica to bring their message home.

“We’ve been very deliberate in saying that the violence and pain and hurt that’s experienced on a daily basis by black folks at the hands of a repressive system should also be visited upon, to a degree, to those who think that they can just retreat to white affluence,” Melina Abdullah, a Los Angeles Black Lives Matter leader, told KPCC radio on Sunday morning.

In a pattern repeated throughout the weekend, demonstrations would begin peacefully, and then looting would set in into the night.

Los Angeles police and political leaders are publicly voicing support for the peaceful demonstrators and dismay at the death of Mr. Floyd. But they are condemning the looters, who they say are well organized and not from the area.

Similar claims made by authorities in other cities have been undermined by the facts. Minneapolis officials had to walk back charges that many protesters were infiltrators after a media analysis of public records showed that the vast majority of those arrested were Minnesotans. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio argued that the bulk of the troublemakers were out-of-towners, but this week his daughter was arrested during a protest.

The crumbling of the “out-of-towner” trope is evidence that authorities and the mainstream media are having a hard time controlling and shaping the narrative of the Floyd uprisings, says Dr. Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA.

Historically, “the media has traditionally parroted the official mind, ... minimizing the importance of what’s actually happening in the streets,” says Dr. Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA. He senses a different arc of coverage this time.

Violence and attention

Nonviolence has a storied position in the civil rights movement. King famously espoused nonviolence as the most effective means of lifting up black Americans.

But violence against property, despite the risks, may be a last-choice tool for change if a moral imperative makes it justified, say some experts.

“Property damage and social turmoil often do promote more social change as they force the authorities to pay attention,” says Pam Oliver, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who tracks media responses to social unrest, in an email.

Historically, she says, that has been a “two-edged sword” as focus shifts from the underlying structures to the scope of violence. But many Americans, she says, seem to be reassessing the meaning of violence with respect to property damage. In Minneapolis, for example, one owner of an Indian restaurant that went up in flames told friends and relatives, “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.”

The difference now, “as you are seeing, [is that] many people make a moral distinction between property damage and hurting people.”

David Harris, author of “A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations,” has a somewhat different opinion. He has watched the violence vs. nonviolence scenario play out just miles from his house in Pittsburgh, where protests turned violent Saturday and where there was more conflict Monday night, allegedly exacerbated by the police response.

“The pain and the anger are real and great and, honestly, rational,” says Mr. Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “The concern is that when the protests become violent either against property or the police, even if you can make an argument that it is somehow understandable, what happens is that those who would prefer to ignore the underlying and real issues all of a sudden have a way to stop discussing what happened.”

“The president isn’t talking about George Floyd or a systemic failure to correct police accountability. He’s talking about the violence he sees on his TV screen,” says Mr. Harris.

Meanwhile, one positive development highlighted across the U.S. in recent days is evidence that protesters are not strictly anti-police. In Savannah and elsewhere, protesters have urged police to “walk with us!” Some have.

Over the past week, that pattern has sharpened, as police strategy has been divided between escalated use of force and what’s called “negotiated management” where officials take a hands-off approach amid assurances from organizers that protest remains peaceful.

Crackdowns have multiplied violence, says Ms. Cobbina. Acknowledgment and solidarity have won hearts – and limited damage. That dynamic could be seen in Newark, New Jersey, a city where 26 people were killed in riots in 1967, but where there were no arrests on Sunday despite a large, raucous protest.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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