The Meaning of Protest

And why we can’t lose sight of what’s at stake.

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Attacking the innocent is never appropriate, nor is destroying one’s own community. While I do think that for many, defacing and burning police cars is an expression of exasperation, most protesters don’t want their communities and businesses torn down, or the inhabitants of their neighborhoods hurt.

It’s why people like MMA fighter Jon Jones have been actively stopping people from graffitiing buildings. It’s why NFL players like Auden Tate, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Isaiah Rodgers have been stepping in to clean up after protests. It’s why a man dressed in all black and wearing a gas mask breaking the windows of an AutoZone doesn’t represent the meaning of the protest for George Floyd, but is instead a suspected intentional agitator.

There are opportunists who use this to benefit selfishly and loot indiscriminately, like the people who showed up in a Rolls Royce to loot, and the people who looted a car dealership. There are people who don’t take it seriously, and think of this as a relatively exciting event that beats the monotony of quarantine (Jake Paul Looting). There are people who want to destroy black businesses, disrupting and contributing to poverty in black communities under the guise of protest. The photo of the burning building isn’t symbolic of a fight against big corporations, or against the government. It’s the torching of an affordable housing development, whose destruction first and foremost harms its inhabitants. There are evil people who want to cause as much mayhem as possible, like this person who was handing out bombs. There are people who just want to kill, as in the case of the murder of the retired black police captain David Dorn, who was shot to death by looters — his life mattered too, and we need to recognize that this movement is being intentionally hijacked. Think about how his family must feel, knowing that his death will be treated as collateral and forgotten. George Floyd’s own brother, Terrence Floyd, has been calling for an end to the violence.

Some law enforcement officers have shown solidarity with protesters, but even that’s a point of contention and distrust. There are reports of law enforcement officers pretending to show solidarity then attacking protesters when the media leaves, and police destroying water bottles and medical supplies of protesters. A reporter was arrested while reporting live and appropriately complying with law enforcement directives, while shots were fired at another reporter. Officers slashed the tires of cars belonging to protesters, and in this twitter thread you can find numerous examples of gratuitous violence and overuse of force.

Here are a few particularly poignant examples of people being attacked and harassed while exercising their rights as protected by the Constitution:

In Kansas City, Kansas, a peaceful protester was arrested and pepper-sprayed:

In Columbus, Ohio, peaceful protesters in a designated area behind a police line were pepper-sprayed without prior warning:

In Richmond, Virginia, tear gas was thrown on kneeling, peaceful protesters before curfew:

Mayor Levar Stoney later apologized for their actions, calling that violence “inexcusable”.

They’re not rioters. They’re not looters. They’re victims of the sort of violence and overuse of force that the black community has been protesting for years. In many of these instances, the actions of the police were indefensible, and cause for outrage. Whether or not you condone rioting, you must understand how frustrating and difficult it has to be, as a civilian protesting police violence, to remain peaceful in response to police continuing to commit the very same violence you’re protesting. If you agitate peaceful protesters to the point that they fight back, it’s easy to paint the movement as a violent one and overlook the initial protests. I’m not saying this represents all police. Many of them have shown genuine solidarity, and I believe most are good, but as long as the good ones don’t take action against the bad, then none of them can be truly good.

Ultimately, change is complicated. There are many people who have an interest in protecting the status quo, so if the media convinces you that the looters and rioters represent the movement as a whole, then we’ve lost hope for real change from George Floyd’s death. If your conversations are evolving from “wow, what a horrible death, how do we prevent this?” to “why can’t black people protest better, they don’t need to loot and riot,” then the cycle of protest-to-distraction-to-obscurity will remain unbroken, and we’ll likely see cars burning and neighborhoods getting destroyed again the next time someone is murdered by the police.

I ask that you keep your eyes open and not lose sight of the meaning of the protests. It isn’t about rioting, nor is it about looting, and to a large degree it’s not about the death of a single person. It’s about the future and ensuring the list of people unjustly slain by police doesn’t grow any longer. It’s about every black person being seen as a human being and a fellow American first, deserving of equal rights and equal protection of the laws. It’s about remaining focused, demanding justice, protesting peacefully, and achieving lasting legislative change.

This is part two of a three-part piece. Part one can be found here:

Part two can be found here:

(This is my personal opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect that of my employer, university, or organizations with which I’m involved).

Written by

Computer Science student at Brown University, hometown Boston.

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