This seems the right time to start a thread on this topic. I am in San Francisco at the moment and like many people around the US (and in some other countries, too), we are coming to grips with systemic racism involving another police murder of an unarmed African-American man and expressing outrage through mass (peaceful) protest and civil disobedience.
There are many articles, podcasts, and television shows covering what’s happening. I am looking for ones that are particularly insightful since this isn’t something new nor will it (sadly) be something old in the near future. However, there are some issues of note that I have come across.
The first is how the extreme ends of the political spectrum craft their narratives. The progressive side highlights the police brutality against peaceful protesters (and there is lots of it; the most egregious being the attack on Lafayette for the president’s photo-op). The right highlights the lawlessness, looting and property damage, urging for a strong show of force. Indeed, DOJ Bill Barr went on television and claimed agitation from Antifa and other well-organized extreme left groups (aka, “terrorists”) without offering any proof or corroborating evidence. These narratives are important to each of their political agendas. The right is crafting its narrative to justify extraordinary measures and military force against citizens. The left is calling for structural changes in policing and in society by highlighting double-standards and cruelty.
The second is how much the rioting is overshadowing the peaceful protests. Rioting is exciting to news agencies and makes for more riveting viewing. This is the drama that cable news craves. And it poses an uncomfortable question, “If there was no rioting but only peaceful protests, would these demonstrations have gotten as far as they have in achieving an outcome?” The uncomfortable fact is that the US is a very violent society. It has very violent sports, entertainment, and an overactive military. It has a rich history of violence through revolutions, civil war and protests for social justice. On top of all that, it is a place that has come to regard capital as more valuable than human life. One only has to look at the Covid death rate coupled with the cry to open up the economy to see this in action. Why are these two things - health and economy - considered opposing forces? The US pays attention to violence. That is an unfortunate fact. The bottom line is that when businesses and buildings are damaged, authorities start to care more than when actual people are attacked and injured on the streets. This may be an unintended consequence of our unique form of capitalism and the financialization of everything, including human labor and life, itself. To those who cry injustice at the sight of looters in their city, it might be worth remembering that this umbrage is distracting us from the more extreme violence that has been perpetrated for centuries and which led to the death of Mr Floyd.
Third, the protests have prolonged a debate about the role of federal government versus State authority, a debate that was started by the Coronavirus pandemic. The administration is considering sending troops against the will of State governments to crack down on their residents. This has made The Federalist Papers (once again) required reading. In fact, the relationship between Federal and State governments in some way mirrors that between citizens and government. How much responsibility should we take for ourselves and how much should we expect from government? In other words, we can avoid becoming victims by taking charge of our own predicament. This is what States have done in the absence of federal assistance. That said, in a very complex society it makes sense to coordinate efforts (especially laws and logistics) on a national level. However, the protests raise similar issues between communities and police. How do communities take back control of their streets from rogue police forces?
Finally, the last point raises another fundamental question about the role of police in society. “To protect and to serve” is the motto. This suggests that the police are servants to the community and not their overlords. What happened? Police increasingly see themselves as in conflict with the communities they police and communities of color stopped trusting the police force long ago. This lack of trust on both sides begs for a re-examination of the whole policing enterprise. What is the purpose of the police force if not to protect and to serve? Maybe, we need to reimagine what police are for in order to create something that is more supportive of communities and less combatitive.