Rodney King was the first victim of police brutality caught on video that I can remember. I was a kid and I only vaguely knew what was happening. The police were acquitted, which seemed unbelievable.
I heard adults criticize the LA “Riots” as stupid for the same reason people are criticizing the current demonstrations in Minnesota. “Why would you destroy your own community to make a point?” The answer is well, many things. It can, actually be very rational.
But if there is anything unclear about why protesters would rebel against businesses to respond to the police killings of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, there should be absolutely no confusion about the logic of destroying a police station in response to the police killing of George Floyd. You can agree with or disagree with the action. But you cannot deny that there is a logic in targeting a police station after the police have lynched a man in broad daylight, on video. It’s an attempt to create a different order in the society.
In 1992, Rodney King was beaten by police on video. The officers were acquitted, sparking outrage and not only that fact, but of all the other times officers abusing their power had gotten away with it. The video was proof of what people had been saying for years about police interactions. I mean, there was even a song. If a video showing the violence wasn’t enough to convince the public then what hope was there? If there is no hope of justice then there is only anger and anger needs a release.
Putting aside the logic of destructive protest, if any of you have ever seen someone scream, yell, punch, jump, shout, dance, or any other expression of human emotion then you can understand why someone would throw something in a fit of rage.
As it happens, seeing things can and does change minds. In the 1960s, the video and images of police beating otherwise peaceful marchers was a big driver of change. The photos of the Vietnam war turned public opinion. The last decade has been a transformative one for media. People can show not tell and that has made it harder for the people in power to keep spinning the interactions. It took a while, but the reactions by officials and institutions in Minnesota reflect a change in rhetoric around these atrocities. As Thrasher wrote:
This new outlook was developing and spreading long before the police encountered George Floyd. Black Lives Matter activists and scholar organizers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor and Mariame Kaba deserve credit for raising consciousness about the carceral state. Occupy Wall Street activists deserve credit for helping Americans to see that the real looting is happening with wealth transfers towards the ruling class, and endured police intimidation and abuse to do it. Clearly such work is getting more people to challenge the premises of policing more seriously.
Still, newspapers and media still run with the official police statements as fact, a function of the cozy relationships with the cub reporters and well that is not such a good idea, is it? The official report in the George Floyd murder did not match up with written police statements.
It is an institutional problem. Everyone knows someone who is in the police force but it is not about individuals. This nation was founded on the idea that power cannot be consolidated in one institution or person because of the tendency for power to corrupt. The police have amassed power and have nearly no oversight aside from citizens recording them on their phones.
Police are shooting reporter’s cameras. They arrested a reporter for no reason. This is a continuation of the crazy stories that happened during the protests in Ferguson. Police have been militarizing for years and the consequences are that they are using it on citizens. If we cannot trust the police to engage in violence with citizens and then accurately report the reasons we should simply remove the ability for police to engage in violence with citizens.
Add to all this the endemic systemic racism in this country and it is not a surprise that black people are getting the brunt of this power imbalance first. It was why Amy Cooper thought to call the police and say “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog“. The public is conditioned to accept the police’s word, and believe awful, untrue, stereotypes of black people. When people make up lies, they think of one group of people for this very reason. It’s racism.
We have to act. We can reduce the power of abusive institutions, and force change we need. We have to take our role as oversight for these institutions seriously. Readers of this site are fans of sports teams made up of predominantly young black men, precisely the demographic that is affected most by this kind of police brutality and abuse. It is imperative that we stand up for justice.