June 6, 2020
The silent weeping of millions of Americans is over. Now their cries are heard everywhere. People have taken their grief over the murder of George Floyd and so much more to the streets.
These protests go far beyond the police lynching of another Black man. Mostly young Americans of all races, in solidarity with Black people, are putting the country on notice that they will no longer tolerate business as usual in this country.
Protestors in over 700 American cities and towns no longer accept the murders of innocent Black men and women by the police. They no longer accept the deaths of over 100,00 Americans to COVID due to the incompetence and greed of this country’s so-called leaders. They do not accept that 40 million workers are out of work or that “essential” workers are forced to work at low wages without PPE. They do not accept mass incarceration, the murder of queer and transgendered people, the looming environmental crisis, and more. And they do not accept the outright racism emanating from the White House.
As Rev. William Barber said, “Thank God people are in the streets, refusing to accept what was ‘normal’ for too long.”
It is not surprising that the ‘disorderly behavior’ seen during or after many of the protests elicited more media and political attention than the righteous anguish and just demands that drove people into the streets in the first place. To do anything else—to empathize with and really try to understand this ‘disorderly behavior’–would require acknowledging that the “order” is itself the problem. One of the hallmarks of racism is to fixate on Black and brown peoples’ righteous anger instead of looking at the reasons people are angry. Once one asks the right questions—WHY are people so angry? WHAT do they want?—there can be no return to ‘normal.’ For many whites and some well-off people of color, still deeply invested in the American Dream and the middle class, asking that question is still too frightening to contemplate. But millions of protestors are now breaking the silence, and demanding that these questions be asked and answered.
The single-minded focus by government officials and most of the media on the “disorder” produced by these protests is a symptom of the problem itself. The point of the protests is that the existing order is violent and unjust. By all accounts, 99% of the protestors have made this point through peaceful and non-violent actions. The fixation on the “disorderly” conduct of a small minority within these protests has led elected officials of both political parties to support police violence, no matter what lip service they pay to the righteousness of the protestors’ demands for justice for George Floyd and so many others. Once again, America meets peoples’ just anguish and their demands for justice with escalating violence. The President declares the protestors are ‘domestic terrorists’ and calls in the military. Dozens of cities are put under open-ended curfews. The police kill a well-known restaurant owner in Louisville on Saturday; the Army deploys Apache attack helicopters against a peaceful protest in D.C. Sunday, Black college students in Atlanta are tased while sitting in their car on Sunday, etc.
These responses only confirm the failure of government to listen to protestors, and only deepen peoples’ feelings of loss, of grieving and rage. The escalation of police and military violence only makes it more difficult for protestors to speak in any language other than pure rage, yet the protests continue to be peaceful despite all these provocations.
But the escalation of police violence against these protests is telling us something important: the protestors are winning.
Despite the efforts to stop them, the protests are continuing, and are growing in both in size and the breadth of the people joining to demand justice for George Floyd. The protests have succeeded in securing indictments against the four police officers implicated in George Floyd’s murder. Six officers were charged in Atlanta for tasing college students in their car. Pressure is mounting on Louisville for charges against the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, and the killer of Ahmaud Arbery was finally charged. A bill to outlaw the militarization of the police and to end some now-accepted practices like carotid holds is rapidly making its way though Congress with bi-partisan support. A growing number of police departments are (perhaps) signaling some willingness to change by taking a knee in support of the protests. Biden has called for the “restructuring” of America in a few of his speeches. While these responses are still far too little, they are evidence that power is beginning to shift.
Far from being destructive acts of despair, these protests are providing a space for enraged and grieving people to engage in positive action, to feel that they matter, that they can make history. These protests are acts of hope in a time of crisis and despair.
These protests did not just spontaneously appear. Protests against police violence sporadically broke through the nation’s consciousness after videos of police murdering Oscar Grant in Oakland went viral in 2009. The national movement to defend Black lives began in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, and what is now the the Movement for Black Lives was formed six years ago as a national coalition in the aftermath of the protests over the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. This movement organized hundreds of existing community groups, spawned hundreds more new organizations and energized a generation of mostly Black and brown and young activists to fight for their communities. Many activists ran for public office, and Ferguson itself elected a Black woman mayor on Tuesday. When the video of George Floyd enraged millions of people, this movement was ready to give them a vision of what was possible, and has provided the scaffolding to sustain weeks of protests in the face of determined police resistance.
And this vision, the results of a generation of work, was able to keep the focus on the defense of Black lives while at the same time acknowledging the deep connections between George Floyd’s murder and the ways the failure of the U.S. in the time of COVID had impacted working class people, women, queer and trans communities, migrants, and the environment.
Yes, acts of store looting, brick throwing and arson fires on which the media and government were far too focused are a real problem. These acts are a problem because they provide police with the pretext to escalate the use of force. They are a real problem because they can be used by defenders of the old order to de-legitimize the protests’ demands for justice. And always lurking in the background is the real fear that Trump would love to find an excuse to declare martial law in this country.
So, who are the people who are acting in ways that undermine the protests, and provide ammunition to the police? At least part of the answer is that these acts are being instigated by police and right-wing agents. During America’s last era of national ‘unrest,” from 1964-1968, we learned that the police often inserted agent provocateurs into radical organizations and demonstrations, inciting disorder to justify police crackdowns. The scale of these operations was revealed in 1976 when the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which had been started in response to the civil rights movement and had secretly run from 1956 until 1974. Credible reports from Minneapolis and Atlanta indicate that right-wing groups have infiltrated the demonstrations in order to incite ‘a race war.’
But responsibility for the widespread looting and brick-throwing and arson cannot be solely placed on police agents provocateurs and right-wing agitators. Many of the protestors who trash stores and set fires are young people who have grown up in a time of trauma and despair. They are people who have no hope that positive change is possible. They have seen too much and too often have encountered no one to inspire them that their world can be safe and meaningful.
It should therefore come as no surprise that in a moment when people are engaging in a collective act of mourning and are demanding to be heard, there will be some who feel hopeless. For some, participating in these protests can make them re-visit their traumas, and make them feel even angrier at a society that has not acknowledged their humanity. For some, acts of destruction feel empowering because they have no other language with which to utter their grief.
So, if we acknowledge the presence of violence within the protests, what do we have to do about it? First, we have to consistently point to the source of this violence. We have to show this country that for hundreds of millions of Americans, the social order that dooms them to the violence of racism, poverty, militarism, pandemic and climate change is the problem itself.
Secondly, we must denounce the steady escalation of police and military violence as a solution to property damage and looting. We must show this country that police violence is the problem and can never be the solution. We must call out the Louisville police department who murdered a Black man on May 31 during a protest against police killings. And we must certainly denounce the efforts of the racist-in-chief to define the protests as acts of ‘domestic terrorism’ and use that as an excuse to, as he puts it, “crush the protests “.
Thirdly, we must denounce acts of vandalism, looting and arson. But we must do so without demonizing the people who commit these acts out of their despair and trauma. We must find a way to provide those who have been driven to the streets by rage and hopelessness a space for hope, for healing, and for love. To do so, Rev. Barber has pointed out, requires this nation to listen to the despair and anguish of the protestors, because to do so is the first step towards understanding, and towards healing.
The work to end police violence against Black people will take time and enormous effort. So much has already been accomplished: we can now imagine a society whose safety and well-being does not require police or prisons; we now understand the intersections between many converging issues of queer, transgendered, poor and immigrant communities; we are building a broad multi-racial coalition; we are connecting protests to politics. This work has been years in the making, but there is so much still to do. Thanks to the large number of innovative and relevant grassroots organizations working hard at both ending police violence against Black and brown communities and developing new approaches to safeguarding marginalized communities without the police, the millions of people who have protested George Floyd’s murder will have many opportunities to continue to work for justice. The work that millions of protestors have
For now, let us honor the spirit of these historic protests. We must acknowledge the pure human emotions that are being demonstrated. The fact that the protestors have broken the silence should give us all great hope at a time of pandemic and economic crisis. Let’s denounce the violence: let us denounce the violence of racism; poverty, sexism, homophobia, militarism, and ecological destruction. Let us teach one another how to express our grief and mourn. Let us embrace all the raw and difficult feelings exposed in this terrible moment and heal this nation.