America’s cities are burning again.
In Minneapolis, after an unarmed and unresisting George Floyd, 46 and black, was killed by a white cop after being arrested for the non-violent alleged crime of trying to pass a fake $20 bill, protests immediately erupted.
Minneapolis cops, with a reputation for violence, responded to the initial protest with tear gas, rubber bullets and physical violence. After that the protests became more determined, leading to the overrunning and torching of a police precinct station, damage to stores and other businesses, and the blockading of streets and bridges. Eventually a major call-up of the state’s National Guard was ordered by the state’s governor in an effort to regain control of the situation.
But the protests continue in the face of this martial law action.
As the protests grew, the killer cop, Derek Chauvin, was summarily fired and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter for having put his knee and body weight on a prone, face-down Floyd for nearly nine minutes, during which time Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe and pleaded for his life until his heart stopped. The other three cops who stood by and allowed fellow officer Chauvin to brutalize and kill Floyd, were also fired, but have not been charged with wrongdoing or even professional for not stopping their brutal fellow officer’s abuse.
Meanwhile, across the country other protests erupted from Atlanta to New York City, and from Los Angeles and Oakland to Philadelphia, as well as at points in between like Memphis, Indianapolis, Boston, Columbus and Denver.
Predictably, we’re hearing the voices of moderation condemning the “violence.” Not the violence of the police, mind you, which often, as in Minneapolis, precedes violence among protesters in cases like this, but the “violence” of the protesters.
“Citizens rightly assembled, expressed their outrage [at Floyd’s death] and called for the arrests of Chauvin and those three cops/spectators who let this happen,” said Fox TV commentator Deroy Murdock. “But then things went too far. The protests — as CNN called them even after the violence erupted — soon became riots.”
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called an end for the city’s rioting, saying, “This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.”
But here’s the thing: This is protest. The reason these other cities are seeing these uprisings in response to the police murder of George Floyd is because each of these cities has it’s own brutal, militarized police force which regularly abuses black and poor people too.
And the protest that’s burning across much of Minneapolis is protest that works. Odds are that had protesters in Minneapolis — who by the way were black, asian and white — simply assembled in a permitted park to demonstrate politely and listen to speeches denouncing George Floyd’s killer, Officer Chauvin, who already had 18 brutality complaints lodged against him, including two involving killings of “suspects, during his 10 years on the force (only two of of which led to any even minor disciplinary action), this thug cop would probably never have been charged with murder. He might have been fired, but probably, based on Minneapolis Police history, he would not have been prosecuted. He might even have gotten his job back after going through an appeal backed by the police union.
Martin Luther King, Jr., a brilliant civil rights hero whose organizing skills, charisma, and success at rallying African Americans and liberal whites and whose decision to tackle not just American apartheid but American empire made him feared by a Washington establishment which may well have had him assassinated, was adamant in his insistence on protest being non-violent. But King knew he was not alone in his righteous struggle against segregation, Jim Crow and civil rights outrages and later against the war on Indochina. There was also the much more militant Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party, and there were also the string of fiery insurrections by blacks in the nation’s cities. There was Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark and other cities in 1967. Then in 1968, following King’s assassination, there were what the media called and still call “riots” in 120 cities across the nation.
These explosive protests, uprisings and insurgencies led to major efforts to end Jim Crow, to improve urban housing and schools, and to eliminate hidden forms of apartheid like bank redlining in lending, not because the ruling white establishment had a change of heart but because the disruption of the nation’s business had become too severe and too costly.
I am not alone in arguing that it was the threat of what Atlanta Mayor Bottoms calls “chaos” and what Fox commentator Murdock calls “violence” that led to those changes as much as and perhaps more than the organized protests led by the Rev. Dr. King.
The American left used to understand that this is how protest works. Protesters in the 20s and 30s didn’t apply to the police or to municipal authorities for permits to demonstrate. They just called a demonstration and people gathered. If the police tried to break it up, fights and arrests would ensue, and sometimes fires would be started and storefronts damaged.
The US anti-war movement, which began in Gandhian fashion in the mid-60s, grew increasingly militant as the war itself grew in scale, violence and genocidal viciousness. As US troops in Vietnam began refusing orders to go into battle, began “fragging” commanding NCOs and first lieutenants who were too gung-ho about sending them on dangerous missions, and as many came home to join protests wearing their battle fatigues, as once peaceful protests started turning into “days of rage,” and as underground groups like the Weather Underground arose from the ranks of protesters and began blowing up banks, university facilities engaged in military research, and even a restroom in the Capitol in Washington, even Republican President Richard Nixon realized that the endless war he had inherited from Lyndon Johnson had to end. (His solution was to the cynically named “Vietnamization” of the war, handing it off to the corrupt neocolonial regime in the south to fight or lose, and in fairly short order, Vietnamese liberation forces finally finished it off by capturing Saigon.)
The point here is it was not mass peaceful anti-war marches in Washington, New York, San Francisco and other cities that finally ended the Indochina War. It was Vietnamese fighters — the People’s Army from the north and the Viet Cong in the south, together with increasingly determined militant resistance at home in the US that did it.
Sadly, it will be also be not peaceful, polite, carefully controlled and fenced-in protests but rather militant, unruly and “chaotic” actions and uprisings that will end the growing plague of police militarization that is infesting the United States.
There will always be a need and room for peaceful protest, for petition signing, and for lobbying of politicians in Washington, state capitals and city halls. But let’s be honest: Without the threat, actual or potential, of chaos and destruction of property and the disruption of ordinary business operations lying behind those peaceful forms of protest, change ain’t gonna come.
Personally, I draw the line at physical violence against others. When protesters turn from the (hopefully targeted) destruction of property and disruption of commerce to violence against police or against counter protesters (except in defense), they will lose. That said, expecting people who are constantly being bullied, threatened, abused, arrested and even inured and killed by police to be nice, to be polite, to obey orders and not to damage property is asking too much. People who are wronged and angry need to, should and will fight back, just as the victimized and oppressed people of Minneapolis are fighting back today.
Only when they do so will they win, despite what our high school civics textbooks may claim.
Policing in America urgently needs to be reined in, police officers need to be held accountable for their actions and prosecuted aggressively when they are abusive or worse, and the US justice system needs to actually be about dispensing justice, not punishment. The vast sums being spent on a vast army of civil law-and-order enforcers needs to be shifted to education, drug rehabilitation, and housing rehabilitation.
We as a nation can demand and make that happen now, or the frustrated and angry residents of our decaying and corrupt cities will continue to rise up and explode in fury until we do.
No Justice No Peace!