It is impossible to justify the violence, looting, arson and vandalism that took place in Minneapolis and other cities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Smashing windows, torching buildings and plundering stores do nothing to improve police behavior or help the African American community. They amount to useless destruction.
Impossible to justify, yes. Impossible to understand? Not at all. Police have participated in a quiet riot against black people for generations.
The African American residents of Minneapolis had seen the graphic video of a gruesome event. The most obvious interpretation of the footage is that a black man was being calmly, slowly killed by a cop who knelt for seven minutes on his neck, as other officers stood by.
The images provided a searing display of police cruelty. There was no reason for Floyd to die. But he did.
It would certainly be more constructive for the city’s African Americans to respond to this outrage in a civil manner, as befits citizens of a democratic society. But when peaceful requests consistently fail to elicit changes that are a matter of life and death, we shouldn’t expect endless forbearance from the victims.
The president of the United States doesn’t get this. With his usual viciousness, he tweeted that the “thugs” deserved to be gunned down: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He values the merchandise in Target so highly that he would spill blood to protect it.
Ehud Barak, who served as prime minister of Israel, was a highly decorated soldier who had killed terrorists. In 1998, Barak said the tactics used by Palestinians fighting Israel were “abominable, villainous, inhumane and inappropriate.” But he also said: “If I was (a Palestinian) at the right age, at some stage I would have entered one of the terror organizations and have fought from there.”
Barak was not condoning Palestinian terrorism. He was acknowledging that behind it lay legitimate grievances.
The same has to be said of the unrest in Minneapolis. The police department has long been accused of racism and brutality. A 2018 study by 24/7 Wall Street said, “The city is highly segregated by race and has some of the largest disparities in poverty, income, and home ownership between black and white residents of any U.S. metro area.”
I find the destruction tragic, unnecessary and counterproductive. But if I were a black person living in Minneapolis, I might feel enough anger and despair to take part.
Rioting may be the wrong way to persuade authorities or white Americans to bring about long-needed changes. But that raises the question: What is the right way? The problem for African Americans is that most whites have never been sympathetic to the methods used in the long fight for racial equality.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington is now enshrined as a proud moment in American history. But at the time, a Gallup poll found, only 23% of Americans had a favorable opinion of this peaceful protest. Asked in 1964 whether “mass demonstrations by Negroes are more likely to help or more likely to hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality,” 74% said they would hurt.
In 2014, after several African Americans were killed by cops, Black Lives Matter organized rallies to demand reforms. Though some of the protests blocked streets and snarled traffic, they were largely nonviolent.
The movement commanded broad support among African Americans. But 59% of whites, according to a 2015 PBS News Hour/Marist poll, said it “distracts attention from the real issues of racial discrimination.”
Most whites reject violent measures to combat racial inequity and reject disruptive nonviolent demonstrations. But a majority of them agree that racism remains a big problem in American society. So you would think quiet, peaceful, nondisruptive protests would generate a positive response.
But no. That’s exactly what Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players tried when they kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality. And imagine this: In a 2018 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 58% of whites said such protests were “never appropriate.”
White America is always insisting that African Americans find an appropriate way to register their complaints and demands. Alas, nothing ever seems to hit the sweet spot. The methods of protest bother most whites more than the abuses that generate the protests.
Rioting may not bring about the changes that would establish genuine equality for black Americans. But neither has anything else.