Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Wrong Voice, Wrong Solution
Today, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Tom Cotton, the junior senator from Arkansas, called for the U. S. military to be deployed into American cities where American citizens and residents are protesting the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd and countless other African-Americans. Despite being an elected leader, Senator Cotton has neither the moral standing necessary to make such a suggestion nor, apparently, the wisdom or experience to offer a constructive solution.
Last night, I joined a multitude of protesters in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas, as we gathered to express our anger and our resolve. We chanted, "Black Lives Matter!" We proclaimed George Floyd's name, and we repeated his final words, "I can't breathe." People raised their fists. People yelled out criticisms of the President. Some of the homemade signs used profanities and demeaning caricatures to describe the police. Emotions were high. People were unhappy. We were all on edge. But no one threw rocks or bricks or water bottles, and I am convinced that the good decisions made by our city's leaders and police department that were designed to deescalate the situation from the beginning is why.
Early in the day yesterday, I began receiving warnings that the rally might become violent. Friends and colleagues sent me screen shots of supposed posts that called for violence and looting. We knew that a similar protest in nearby Bentonville had become violent the previous night. I heard that there was news footage being shown in another state of random piles of bricks being dropped off throughout our downtown--presumably so that protesters could pick them up and throw them. Our church provided water for the medical tent, and we decided to use five-gallon jugs instead of bottles because we were advised that bottles could be thrown. Several members of our church decided ahead of time to leave before dark just in case things became violent. It turns out that all the predictions of looting and violence were unfounded. Nothing bad happened.
Our police showed up in soft clothes instead of riot gear. They walked around the town square more than an hour before the protest started, greeting protesters kindly as they arrived. When the crowd was asked to kneel for eight minutes in memory of the knee-hold that killed George Floyd, all of the police officers knelt, too. The Chief of Police was one of the speakers at the rally. He condemned police brutality, naming specifically the murder of George Floyd. He acknowledged that neither he nor his department were perfect and that they needed to learn from the criticisms of the public. He announced that he and his officers would stay all night with the protesters in order to hear how they could do their job better. More than anything, he let us know that the officers were there not to deter the protest but to make sure we were able to protest safely.
In other words, despite being yelled at, cursed at, denigrated, criticized, and likened to pigs, our police department showed up to do their job and keep us safe. They enabled our protest rather than hindered it. And it's really hard to be mad at someone who kneels down on the concrete next to you for eight minutes. If things had gotten ugly or violent, they would have done their job and stepped in with whatever level of force was necessary. But things didn't get ugly or violent because our local police showed up and showed us that they weren't there to stop us but to help us.
When police or, even worse, soldiers show up in riot gear, they represent opposition to the protesters. By putting on tactical gear, they harden themselves and the division between the police and the community. It's a lot easier for a protester to throw a water bottle or brick at a police officer when that officer is wearing a helmet and face shield and holding a long baton and a metal shield. It's a lot easier to start a riot when the line of police officers standing in front of you are prepared for one. Instead, when you can see the face of the police officer across from you, you can begin to recognize that officer's humanity and distinguish between the idea of cops who murder innocent people and the actual officer standing in front of you.
After Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, people came out to protest, and the police showed up in riot gear. Accordingly, riots broke out. Afterwards, the conversation about policing began to change. The need for community policing by officers who reflect the identity of the community they police was emphasized. Tom Cotton's suggestion that the military enter our cities and towns to restore order contradicts the wisdom of experienced police officers and community leaders. Military personnel are trained to defeat the enemy with lethal force. Community police are trained to support the residents of their hometowns. Both are capable of using force when necessary, but calling upon soldiers to enforce order begs for a stronger, more violent response from the protesters. As such, it is the wrong approach.
Instead of listening to Tom Cotton or Donald Trump or me, for that matter, we should be listening to the people of color whose lives are threatened by police brutality. At the protest last night, every single speaker--white and black and brown--made it clear that violence had no place in our protest. Repeatedly, from the outset, anyone who wanted to cause trouble was told to leave. If the police chief, who is white, was the only person calling for peace, that call might go unheeded, but he echoed the voices of people of color who called for the same. Despite what Senator Cotton would have us believe, the truth is that organizers of rallies and protests are calling for peace, and they are the ones who are best able to condemn looting and rioting. Their voices must be heard, not the senator's.
When white people like him and me criticize those whose actions lead to the destruction of private and public property, our criticism cannot be distinguished from criticism of those who are peacefully protesting police brutality. As a result, any white voice that calls for an end to rioting instead of echoing the voices of black leaders who are calling for the same is a voice against the protest, and a voice against the protest is a voice for the murder of innocent people. Instead, those of us with power and privilege must do what we can to support those people of color who are in a position to call for an end to violence while also supporting the protest. We must be silent so that people of color can speak.
Instead of promoting the peace he claims to pursue, the language Mr. Cotton uses in his op-ed piece fans the flames of racial division. He describes participants as "criminal elements" and "nihilist criminals" and "left-wing radicals." He describes what has taken place as "an orgy of violence." He claims that those who would defend the rights of protesters are making a "revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters" without ever addressing the source of the rioters' anger or acknowledging the escalating role of repeated acts of unprovoked police violence at the protests where looting has broken out. He's right that rioting and looting and violence are wrong, but his words show that he is more interested in appealing to white voters than protecting the lives of the minorities in his state.
He concludes his piece with words that condemn the premise of his argument: "The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety." The death of George Floyd is evidence that the government itself has failed to maintain public order and safety. The solution needs to come from those who are being killed, not from the government that has failed to stop the killings. He's right that the American people aren't blind to injustice, but he fails to grasp that he and his words represent the very thing that most threatens the justice he claims to value--the preservation of power and wealth among white America at the cost of countless black lives.