Zooming Out on America’s Policing Protests
An article with M copy
DALLAS, Texas — In recent weeks American security forces staged a militant nationwide crackdown on peaceful protesters assembling in public squares across the United States to demand cities reallocate policing money to social programs.
The violent police actions failed to stamp out the protest movement, but they fomented riots and looting among opportunists and nihilists, according to activists and news organizations.
Protest is constitutionally protected in the United States, but that fundamental right is often not enforced, especially for Americans who belong to minority groups. Instead, American police have a long history of violently quelling dissent from minority groups demanding equal footing in American society.
This ongoing uprising to defund police is the latest — and most intense — the United States has seen after centuries of popular movements protesting racist police brutality and slavery. But much of this history is sanitized or ignored in school curricula, obscuring it to white children.
Police deployed chemical weapons, including some banned in war, and several kinds of “less-lethal” projectiles, which killed one woman. They brutalized protesters by shooting them with wooden, rubber, and plastic bullets. They disabled protesters’ vehicles. They targeted working journalists, arresting one on live TV and shooting another with rubber bullets on camera.
Despite the police assaults, protesters have reaped remarkable concessions from city governments. Some municipalities vowed to progressively draw down law enforcement budgets and reinvest the money in social and case work, as well as public education, health care, and housing systems — programs that for decades have been systematically defunded by austerity measures and weakened American tax policy. Others have promised to curtail dangerous policing practices that have killed people.
The marches were sparked by video footage of two brutal killings of Black men — one at the hands of a city policeman— and revelations that police fired multiple shots that killed a Black woman who was asleep in bed late at night during an unannounced warrant call.
Police have always killed Blacks at disproportionate rates in such instances in America, but only in the last 15 years have people had access to video footage of the killings, often recorded on new technology like cell phone cameras and body cameras worn by police officers. Before this technological revolution, such killings were easier to obscure in the bureaucracy of police organizations.
Particularly salient in the latest uprisings was footage showing police in Minneapolis, a small northern city, torturing and murdering an unarmed Black man who was accused of trying to buy something with a counterfeit note.
Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly killed George Floyd May 25 in broad daylight on a public sidewalk by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as bystanders recorded video and pleaded with the policeman to let Floyd up.
Floyd’s dying words were “I can’t breathe,” the same final statement uttered by another Black man New York City police choked to death in 2014. That phrase is a rallying cry for protesters.
Protests filled Minneapolis streets and quickly spread across the country.
Law enforcement from all levels of government pepper sprayed, tear gassed, and shot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. Some federal police taped over their badges and department insignia to hide their identities and employers.
Soon television and social media feeds were filled with footage of burning department stores and police vehicles as the demonstrations turned destructive.
There is controversy over who started the unrest. Members of the conservative Republican Party and other right-wing actors accused the protesters of fomenting the violence. Some newspapers reported protesters threw empty water bottles and rocks at police.
But the deluge of video clips and news reports from the events shows the demonstrations remained mostly peaceful until police forces appeared in riot gear.
‘How can we win?’ — Kimberly Jones, activist and author
Some conservative groups have been accused of posing as protesters and destroying property. Uniformed police were photographed slashing car tires in areas of Minneapolis near the protests.
Academics who’ve investigated police violence at protests say militant police presence increases the likelihood that a demonstration will become destructive.
When people march to protest police violence, responding law enforcement officers see themselves as counter-protesters, a journalist said in a radio interview.
“The police were not disinterested parties in the people’s grievances, then or now,” Jamiles Lartey of the Marshal Project told host Terry Gross on Fresh Air, referring to the current and historical protests against police brutality.
The nation’s president, a real estate and reality TV mogul with no government experience before he became leader, wanted to have his picture taken holding a Bible in front of a damaged church. So police shot tear gas and violently expelled demonstrators from Lafayette Park, a public place between the presidential mansion and the staging area, so President Donald Trump could walk to the church unimpeded.
At his first campaign event in the upcoming election since a deadly viral pandemic rendered gatherings dangerous across the United States, Trump urged officials in a large city to “dominate the streets.”
And he expressed a desire to officially label a loosely knit assembly of anti-fascist activists as a terror organization, even though America’s domestic intelligence agency announced there is no sign that the group, called Antifa, was involved in any violence. Trump probably does not have legal authority to apply that sobriquet.
Trump also called Black protesters “thugs” in a tweet, a racist epithet used by powerful white men to otherize Black men they want to tar as criminals.
Trump built some of his fortune by denying housing in his buildings to Black applicants.
In the northeast city of Buffalo, local police shoved elderly antiwar protester Martin Gugino to the sidewalk and calmly walked past him as a pool of blood leaked from his head and grew on the sidewalk. They released a statement saying Gugino tripped and fell, but video footage of the assault later went viral on social media. Trump tweeted without evidence Gugino may be an Antifa operative who was there to jam police communication equipment. Gugino was hospitalized.
In Dallas, a large city in the country’s south, police trapped hundreds of marchers on a bridge, gassed them, and arrested them. This is a widely used police tactic to put down protests known as “kettling.” Dallas police aimed at protesters’ faces, shooting at least one man with an unknown projectile. The man will lose his eye.
American states and the federal government deployed military forces against the protesters in some places.
In Louisville, a southern city, soldiers fired three rifle shots into an unarmed cook whose arms were raised, killing him. The cook, David McAtee, had a reputation in the local community for providing free meals to law enforcement officers.
Police also fired tear gas canisters at people peacefully observing the protests from their own property.
The number of police officers in the United States has nearly doubled since 1975, while the population has grown by only about one-third. Though the conservative Republican Party more vocally supports impactful, violent policing than its rival Democratic Party, this dramatic increase in police presence has been a cornerstone platform of leaders of both political parties.
Democratic President Bill Clinton, who led the country from 1993 to 2001, added 100,000 police to American forces through expansive crime legislation that dramatically increased racist incarceration of Blacks.
At least 1,000 Americans die at the hands of police annually, according to the Guardian newspaper. Blacks lopsidedly suffer this toll. Black men are 280 percent more likely to be killed by police than white men of the same age group and 170 percent more likely than Hispanic men, according to a Drexel University study. Even though legislators require it to, the American federal government does not keep data on police killings.
The violence of recent weeks has taken place against the backdrop of economic recession. The United States was forced to close large sectors of its economy in response to the deadliest viral pandemic since the Spanish flu killed up to 3 percent of the global population and hundreds of thousands of Americans a century ago.
Trump’s government was warned early and often about the threat of the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, but he barely responded until it was sickening and killing thousands of Americans. He banned most travel from China, where the virus originated, but for months refused to require companies to increase manufacture of testing and protective equipment or to mobilize the federal government’s health agencies against the crisis. The pathogen, which causes a respiratory illness known as COVID-19, has killed more 110,000 Americans and more than 400,000 people globally.
The pandemic exposed systemic unpreparedness to handle any health crisis in America, especially during a time of heightened social unrest. Since the United States conditions health insurance on employment, those who lost their jobs also lost their access to medical care.
Russia and the United Nations sent the United States, the world’s richest nation, humanitarian aid.
The pandemic disproportionately killed Black people who, after centuries of violent oppression and segregation in the United States, are subject to more environmental and health ills than whites or the general population.
Police forces are seen by many Americans as a peacekeeping force. Departments across the country inscribe their vehicles with the motto “To protect and serve.” They are among a vast body of government employees referred to in popular argot as “public servants.”
In fact, they were created in the United States to stop Black people from striving for equality. Intentional or not, that mission — expanded to a suite of other functions — continues today as police quell uprisings with violence.
America has long been seen by the world as a haven for stability, opportunity, and prosperity. It was forged almost 250 years ago in a bloody revolution when wealthy, landed, white colonists angry about taxes declared independence and wrested themselves from the British empire.
Over many decades of shrewdness and good luck, the United States positioned itself as a global superpower, creating its own global empire through military force and wielding covert sway on other polities through a global surveillance operation and robust campaigns of cultural influence.
Boasting the most wealth of any state and a defense force the size of the seven next-largest militaries combined, the modern United States is home to the world’s largest economy, measured by gross domestic product. Migrants clamor at its doors in hopes of a better life. (Current American leadership has been unusually hostile to newcomers, separating families and jailing children fleeing violence in their home countries at the country’s southern border. Some of these children have died in state custody.)
But America’s story of wealth applies mostly to whites. Some Americans of all races are bitter and restive over racist and sexist outcomes of public policy in a country where the average annual Black household income sits around $41,500, compared with more than $70,000 for whites. America is home to the largest number of billionaires of any country, but not one of the wealthiest 100 is Black. Many other Americans, mostly white, have become sanguine with race relations in the country, seeing mistreatment of Blacks as a thing of a bygone era.
How was such racial inequality molded?
America’s astronomical wealth was built by the free slave labor of Africans kidnapped from their home continent, domesticated, and meticulously bred for physical labor, sex, cooking, and entertainment. Black slaves plied mostly agriculture in the South and mostly textiles in the North. Both industries represent the foundation of American wealth.
Enslaved Blacks built families and communities on cotton and tobacco plantations. They were often forced to separate as their owners, struggling with drought, sold fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and babies.
Most Americans did not own slaves because owning a slave in America was a symbol of wealth, much like owning a home today, that most couldn’t afford. In the same way that housing is the gold standard of assets today, slaves were the gold standard then. Slave ownership was a sign a person had achieved the American Dream.
Researchers conducted junk science to conjure a scientific justification for the enslavement of Blacks. They were portrayed as a subspecies of human, inferior to whites in intelligence and morality. They were, slave owners said, better off as property to be maintained. (Prominent racists propagate that argument today, citing horrid living conditions in some Black communities.)
Violence was required to keep the slaves from rising up.
White communities formed “slave patrols,” deputizing whites who “helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property,” according to an academic.
These patrols’ mandate to protect physical property carries through to modern law enforcement, which are mobilized to protect department stores, halls of government, public monuments, and other institutions in times of unrest.
Abolitionist activists constructed underground escape networks for slaves, and many Americans still believe the worst treatment of slaves was confined to the South. The North had even called slavery a “peculiar institution.” But Northern communities, states, and the federal government also imposed fugitive laws requiring the return of slaves to their owners.
The Southern states formed a Confederacy and tried to secede after the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, whom they saw as hostile to slavery. This sparked a war between North and South during which Lincoln banned slavery in the South, though not in the five border states. The American Civil War is still the deadliest conflict in United States history. The North won the war, and the states remained legally united.
In 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ostensibly freed all slaves but reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Emphasis added.)
The italicized phrase created a loophole in the ban that allows slavery as a punishment for crimes. Blacks are disproportionately convicted of nonviolent but jailable offenses, like drug violations. Because of this, Blacks today represent nearly 40 percent of the American prison population but only about 12 percent of the general public. The United States continues to deny basic constitutional rights to its Black citizens, such as freedom from unreasonable search and property confiscation.
After most slaves were freed, Southern communities established the “Black codes,” variously requiring Blacks to carry proof of employment, barring them from occupations unrelated to physical labor, limiting the kinds of property they could own, suppressing Black compensation for work, and requiring young Black orphans to work for free on plantations, effectively re-enslaving them.
The federal government enacted short-lived civil rights legislation, known as “Reconstruction,” forcing states to apply constitutional protections to Blacks. It made it legal for minorities to vote. Blacks were elected to governments from 1867 to 1877.
But vigilante groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, formed to torture and kill any newly freed slave who tried to exercise these rights. These groups tied themselves to local governments when they could to amass power and operated covertly when they couldn’t. Some local politicians were revered members of these organizations. At least thousands of Black men in the South were dragged from their homes by white mobs, corporally tortured, and hanged. Hundreds of whites who supported Black rights shared this fate.
In 1921, a wealthy Black community had risen in Tulsa, a city in America’s south. It was known as “Black Wall Street,” a fully autonomous and wildly successful district of Black-owned businesses.
But a local chapter of the Klan had been growing alongside this community, officially called Greenwood. After failing to lynch a young Black man held in local police custody, the Klan, which had airplanes and help from the National Guard and local police, formed a brute squad of Tulsa whites and bombed and savaged 35 blocks of Greenwood to rubble, killing uncounted Blacks. It was the first aerial bombing of an American city.
Nate Morris, a Tulsa activist and senior editor at the Black Wall Street Times writes:
[T]hey arrested nearly 6,000 black residents and forced them into temporary internment camps in the Brady Theater (now a popular Tulsa music venue) while their thriving community was systematically leveled. Many of those imprisoned were staved, beaten and killed …
In just a few short days, Greenwood was completely destroyed and nearly every single one of its 10,000 residents were left homeless. While the official death toll from the American Red Cross at the time caps the loss at 300, some researchers estimate that the true number could rival that of Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks.
Ten whites died in the violence. The Tulsa massacre is considered the worst single act of oppression in United States history.
When the slaves were freed, they were not sent out with any belongings or means to provide for their families. So they found themselves in a system of sharecropping, a euphemism for a different kind of slavery. Agreeing to share the profits, Blacks sewed and reaped crops on land owned by whites. But this agreement was a sham.
Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic:
Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt — and they often were — the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.
This system, also called debt peonage, was so brutal that Black sharecroppers fled it for the North, which was seen in the South as a place of solace from oppression.
Southern states oppressed Blacks in other ways. They took their right to vote through subtle legal measures that unevenly affected Black people. Some localities taxed polls. They subjected Blacks to literacy tests. And they segregated them from services and places that whites enjoyed. These were known as the “Jim Crow” laws, and they remained in place for nearly a century.
Seven decades ago, the United States took advantage of the devastation of World War II, which had mostly spared its shores, unlike the rest of the world. As older powers ceded territory because they could no longer afford to pay for it, America occupied the vacuum. It handily established itself as a leading world power, funding ambitious nation building overseas and creating vast social programs at home.
It created a “G.I. Bill” that paid college tuition for military veterans. It launched a robust home-loan regime. New credit schedules allowed middle class families to buy items that were previously available only to the rich, like houses and cars. These programs created the largest middle class in world history.
But in keeping with its racist past, the United States withheld these benefits from its Black population. Even in the North, Blacks were denied G.I. benefits and any of the social protections afforded whites. From 1934 to 1968, only 2 percent of federal housing loans went to Black families.
The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, a body sponsored by the federal government, created a coding system to rate mortgage security in specific neighborhoods, marking places largely populated by Blacks in red and designating them “hazardous.” This practice, known as “redlining,” perpetuated Black poverty by trapping many in bad neighborhoods with toxic mortgages.
Food deserts — expanses of city with no nearby grocery store that sells healthy food — appeared in these neighborhoods. They remain today and are filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell highly processed, nutrient-deficient food that increases the likelihood of many types of chronic illness, from diabetes to heart disease.
Redlining was outlawed in the 1960s, but it has ripple effects today. Redfin, a company that analyzes housing data, writes in a new report:
The typical homeowner in a neighborhood that was redlined for mortgage lending by the federal government has gained 52% less — or $212,023 less — in personal wealth generated by property value increases than one in a greenlined neighborhood over the last 40 years. Black homeowners are nearly five times more likely to own in a formerly redlined neighborhood than in a greenlined neighborhood, resulting in diminished home equity and overall economic inequality for Black families.
During the time of redlining, vast byway systems linking inner cities to newly constructed suburbs transported whites away from Blacks. Property values declined in Black communities and rose in white enclaves.
As people rose up against these racist policies, cities and towns across the American South erected monuments to Confederate officers in the form of towering marble statues. Whites said the structures are simply a recognition of history, but enemies of the Confederacy often did not receive the same recognition in those communities. Indeed, scholars have noted statues are built to exalt a figure, not only to recall it. The Black community saw these structures as reminders that they were still not free. Ten United States military bases across the South were named after Confederate soldiers.
Blacks and supportive Americans of other races peacefully marched for years to end segregation and the violence that accompanied it, calling for civil rights legislation that would guarantee Black access to voting and public places. Police forces were militantly deployed against people who revolted against this negligence and brutality.
In 1965, hundreds of Black activists with the Dallas County Voter’s League were joined by white supporters in a march from the southern city of Selma to Montgomery, 54 miles away, to demand voting rights for Blacks. During the first march, police kettled the protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which passes a highway over the Alabama River in Selma and is named after a Confederate general.
Alabama state police and members of a posse beat the peaceful marchers with billie clubs, rendering some unconscious, and sprayed them with tear gas. Seventeen protesters were hospitalized. The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
One leader of this movement, the Black Christian minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became infamous across the nation for a fiery brand of nonviolent civil disobedience. He spearheaded many nonviolent protests similar to the Selma march and appeared on a generous speaking circuit. He was an ardent critic of state violence and was vilified in newspapers and the public square as a communist. He was assassinated in the Southern city of Memphis in 1968 by a racist.
These uprisings spurred significant progress for Black rights, including official desegregation of schools, businesses, and public places in 1964. The federal government could no longer discriminate in doling out housing loans. It strengthened voting rights for Blacks.
But regressive school funding models and a concerted effort to exploit loopholes in these new rules protracted segregation and housing discrimination.
Making matters worse, the 1980s saw a full-scale assault on the broader public sphere. As social institutions were slowly dismantled, quality higher education became seen as a product and students as customers. Health care became a for-profit marketplace. Welfare programs were defunded and onerous requirements imposed to qualify for them.
This systematic divestment of the public sphere became known as “The Great U-Turn.” Bridges and roads crumbled. Higher learning institutions backfilled the holes in their budgets with easily commodifiable services like fancy dormitory halls and sports merchandise. They hiked tuition so drastically that Americans collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student debt.
America consistently ranks surprisingly low among developed and some developing nations in metrics of human wellbeing, ranging from life expectancy to freedom of the press (which is enshrined in the American constitution) to literacy to health to general satisfaction with life. It ranks 45 on a press freedom index. It lags far behind Estonia and Slovenia in reading. It has the second lowest score, placing it 108 of 140 countries, on a happiness index.
While crime has fallen to historic lows in America, other ills manifested. Bodily and mental health for Americans have declined. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported last year that for the first time in more than a century, life expectancy in the United States has declined for three consecutive years. This is due to dramatic spikes in suicide, maternal and infant death, substance abuse, and obesity, all maladies that unevenly affect Black Americans.
Police budgets have increased across the country, and the federal government has given or sold war equipment from the Defense Department to municipalities, including tank-like vehicles and chemical weapons like tear gas that are internationally banned in war.
United States governments annually spend more than $100 billion on policing and $80 billion on incarceration. American has the largest imprisoned population of any developed nation, both in raw numbers, 2.3 million, and per capita, 698 per 100,000.
Responding to these trends, police have taken on a labyrinth of social problems, from mental health or addiction crises, to sexual assault, to homelessness. They act as doctors, social workers, suicide responders, and de-escalation negotiators. They are not primarily trained to recognize when someone is having a physical or mental health emergency and have mistaken those instances for aberrant behavior requiring the use of sometimes deadly force.
Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown told reporters in the mid-2010s after five of the city’s police officers were killed amid unrest that police are not the right institution to respond to such incidents.
“Policing was never meant to solve these problems,” Brown said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “I ask other parts of our democracy as well as the free press to help us not put that burden all on law enforcement to resolve.”
Many developed nations and some American cities employ social workers for these problems with less violent outcomes. The result is less need for large police forces. In 2013, the northeastern city of Camden reconstituted its police department, firing the entire police force and rehiring them from scratch. The city required each officer to complete a 50-page rehire application and to become more intimate with the community she patrolled. It was not the wholesale defunding of police demanded by protesters, but it was a significant step in that direction.
The Camden police chief told America’s top national news radio station:
A police is only effective if it has the consent of the people. And to have the consent of the people, you have to be legitimate. … As a police leader, I say, what is the harm with giving them voice, allowing them to come in and be a part of the process? And all the while, it gives us the ability to have the dialogue and the education, in both directions, of how difficult and challenging situations can be better resolved.
Murders in Camden dropped by nearly two-thirds, and excessive force complaints were nearly eliminated.
But most American police forces remained on a trajectory of growth. Because of the massive police presence in Black communities, Black parents sit their children down at a young age for what they call “the talk,” a lecture in which they warn their offspring to exercise unique caution and deference toward police and whites when going outside and even in their own homes because they have Black skin.
In an arresting and emotional viral video, author and activist Kimberly Jones likened America’s history of oppression of Blacks to a perverse version of the popular board game Monopoly, which teaches children about the mechanics of capitalism.
During the first four centuries of American history, which include its time as a British colony, Black people were forced to play the game as proxies for white representatives, building the nation’s wealth in tobacco and cotton.
After whites abolished slavery, Blacks were allowed to play, but every time they advanced, whites burned down their cities, killing many of them. Jones cited the Tulsa massacre, among other attacks on Black communities, as a horrifying and unambiguous example of this. Blacks started over from the rubble of smashed buildings and broken hearts, but they are still targeted by police forces, reminding them that America considers them subhuman.
“How can we win?” Jones said.
The American policing organizations that have emerged from this tragic history are subtle in their racism. Because the fullness of context cannot be adjudicated in courts when a police officer kills someone, the racism of the system can never be addressed, advocates of racial justice argue.
A police officer does not have to exhibit racist behavior outside killing a Black person to prove there was a racial motive. The police officer only has to have been afraid.
“Officers do not have to be ideologically white supremacist to serve that function,” Lartey told Gross.
So from the standpoint that social ills are based in oppression and poverty and that police do not provide security for many Americans, activists want to take the resources that fund police and reinvest them other kinds of social programs they say will reduce poverty and provide that security.
In the wake of the protests, the Minneapolis city council promised to gradually phase out its police budget and reinvest that money in community programming.
The New York Police Department, by far the nation’s largest municipal force with a $6 billion budget, is notorious for its controversial policing tactics, including clandestine surveillance of Muslim populations and a “stop-and-frisk” policy that unconstitutionally allowed cops to stop a person and search them for no reason.
The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has vowed to reallocated some of that vast public treasure to social programs in line with protesters’ demands.
Austin, a southern state capital city, vowed to ban the use of tear gas projectiles by police forces.
Police in the western city of Sacramento, in Washington D.C., and in the state of New Jersey will be banned from choking people.
New York state police will have to relinquish disciplinary records for officers.
In recent days, protesters have toppled Confederate monuments and other altars of American oppression in several cities. They have demanded that the military rename bases named after Confederate soldiers. Some top military leaders have expressed openness to this, but Trump said he would not allow it.