An Open Letter to Police Brutality Protesters

A call for reformed activism

Jonah Woolley
Aug 23, 2020 · 11 min read
Source: Flickr

Dear Police Brutality Protestors,

Well, our country has certainly fallen apart in the last few weeks, hasn’t it?

In early May, I can confidently say I had never heard the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmad Arbory, or if I had, it was in passing. At that point, everyone was still stuck in a quarantine mood, being unproductive and posting about filler activities and memes online.

Then, in a sudden flurry, news of police brutality began surging on the internet. Article after article showed up on my homepages, posts on my Instagram feed, emails, the works. Police brutality seems to be the only thing we can talk about now.

Being white, it’s been difficult for me to talk about this issue. All of the people who’ve been killed by police, or at least the cases we’ve focused on, have been black, so predictably, liberals have made this into a race issue. Rightfully so, because it certainly is racially charged.

Therefore, I have to tread incredibly carefully, which I’ve done by being silent. My views on most racial issues tend to air just on the side of slightly offensive to most liberals, meaning I tend to get devoured when talking about them, and now seems like the wrong time to stir the pot.

When there’s news every other day of protestors being abused by police during peaceful demonstrations, more deaths, and continued rising resentment of the police, saying anything contrary to the popular line of thinking on social media is suicide. Even suggesting the smallest criticism is seen as being opposed to the entire movement.

Saying things at this point like “looting is bad” and “police are necessary for a functioning society” have become controversial statements, and the entire fight has just become a massive anger war.

I’ve mainly participated by not doing anything. I’ve endured the endless black screens for #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram, the posts of increasing extremism on social media, the stories, but I’ve stayed out of it. I’ve watched and supported Black Lives Matter from the sidelines.

However, it appears now that liberals are trying to make even silence impossible. There’s now the notion that, as a white person, if I don’t use my voice to help the fight against police brutality, I’m complicit, and therefore, racist. If I’m not actively fighting the police, then I’m helping the oppression of the African American community.

While I disagree with this sentiment, I understand the intentions behind it, and I’ll humor the Black Lives Matter movement. While I’ve mostly been silent until now, I just want to take a few moments to give my thoughts on the state of these protests, what I believe, and what I think needs to happen going forward.

Part I: Antwon Rose Jr.

Some of you may have heard the name Antwon Rose before. For those who haven’t, let me tell you.

Antwon Rose was a 17 year old African American teenager. On June 19, 2018, Antwon Rose was shot and killed by an officer in East Pittsburgh while he was running away from the officer.

The murder was senseless, brutal, and racist, and caused a massive amount of outrage in Pittsburgh, which I was a part of. I watched as the city investigated the murder, suspensed the officer, and eventually charged him with manslaughter.

I then watched as the officer was acquitted in March 2019, and the outrage it sparked in my community.

There were days of protests against the verdict, my school especially was nearly empty as a majority of our student body (who were primarily African American) left the school to protest. There were cries against the verdict, against police brutality, against systemic racism.

Fast forward a few weeks, and there was an event called the “Day of Action”. It was organized by a local community group in Pennsylvania, who were trying to get people in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to come to Harrisburg and rally for a day.

The rally itself was meant to be in support of a set of proposals in our state house to address police brutality in a variety of ways. Some addressed police arbitration, others allowed statewide transfers of police records, and others laid out processes for disciplining officers and holding them accountable.

They were far from perfect, but they were logical steps to reform police and decrease incidents like what happened to Antwon Rose.

I had not gone to the Antwon Rose protests, as I saw them as futile. They were, in theory, protesting the verdict of the trial, something that couldn’t be reversed, but they also did manage to drum up support for police accountability, which led to these proposals.

I happily signed up for the Day of Action, however. I saw a solution to the problem, finally, a way for us to combat these incidents and actually be proactive, not just angry.

When the day came for the Day of Action, and I went to Harrisburg, I expected to see hundreds of my classmates there. After all, they’d missed days if not weeks of school protesting the verdict, so obviously they could take one day to start pushing for a solution to the problem.

But, in the end, I didn’t see hundreds. I didn’t even see tens. I saw three people. Three classmates, one of them who was me, who showed up from my school to push for a solution to the problem.

And herein lies my primary critique and reason for silence in all of these police brutality protests: they are going nowhere.

The story of George Floyd is nothing new in America. We’ve literally been hearing these same stories, of black men and women being senselessly slaughtered by police, for decades. We’ve been angry and we’ve been protesting for longer than I can remember. We’ve marched and petitioned and tweeted until we couldn’t anymore.

And yet, the murders keep happening.

Now, the Black Lives Matter movement, and most of these protesters, come out and say it’s because of systemic racism and gerrymandering, and how our representatives benefit from a racist system and therefore aren’t listening to the people.

Undoubtedly, this is at least somewhat the case. However, the much larger problem is that, when we’re protesting, we’re presenting zero actual ideas for how to fix this problem.

The closest thing that I’ve heard to a plan for action during the George Floyd protests is to defund the police.

Listen, sorry. I agree that police brutality is bad, and we need to change the system. But literally getting rid of the police, or removing most of their funding, is not how that happens.

Like, what do you think will happen when we do that? Police are bad in many ways, but they also do a great amount of good. They exist for a reason: to enforce the laws, and while getting rid of them would cut down on these murders, it would also mean our laws go entirely unenforced.

No society can exist that way, meaning this proposal is just flat ridiculous.

Outside of that, no one’s given any ideas. The entire movement doesn’t seem fueled by a goal, it just seems fueled by anger. People are just disgusted and pisssed off, as they should be, but they aren’t directing that into anything productive.

They’re just going out and yelling and holding signs, being abused and arrested by police, then posting about it on social media so everyone else can get angry and repeat the cycle. Occasionally they break into a Target and steal a TV, which provokes backlash from conservatives, which creates a flame war and incites more people to protest, get abused, and post angrily online.

This cycle goes nowhere.

These protesters think they’re burning down America, but they’re just burning away their chances at ever achieving their goal.

In what world would a police officer or lawmaker support this movement at this point? There are calls for dismantling key parts of society, and just a general disrespect for the government as a whole. While the cause is good the messaging is so, so bad, and goes so much further than it should, that it cancels it all out.

Even as someone who supports this cause, I have a hard time getting behind it, because I’m not about to get shot by rubber bullets or stung by tear gas just so I can perpetuate hatred of our government.

The way to our goal is reform, as it always has been. The prevailing theory of the protestors is that the entire police system is racist and backwards, and it’s that way by design, which is complete and utter bullshit.

Of course, the system was made by racists. Anything made prior to 1965 was made by racists. But that doesn’t completely invalidate the entire concept of policing, or the system we have.

We need to update the system, certainly. We need to look at what has allowed these officers to abuse minority communities, and do things to increase accountability. We also need to alter societal attitudes to focus on that, although that part has already been accomplished.

However, tearing it down will not work, and suggesting that is a losing game. No one in government will ever even fathom the idea.

The correct course of action now for these protestors is to switch gears. They’ve got the government on its back feet, and now is when they come out with their plan. They say how they’d like police to be reformed, and then discussions can begin.

At the end, we’ll have real, actual progress, reforms in the system to increase accountability and help minority communities who the police are abusing. But this, right now, is not working, and if we continue it, all we’ll do is burn ourselves out and make the government deaf to what we want, which they almost already are.

Part II: Ideological Homogeneity & Rejection of Criticism

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s book Break Through, which is this: “Few things are more terrifying to a white liberal than being accused of racism.”

This is undeniably true, and explains a very large portion of the reactions surrounding George Floyd and the police brutality protests.

At its core, this has become more or less an issue of race. All of the examples of police brutality we have are against African Americans, so we’ve come to agree that this is a racial issue, and succeeding here would be ensuring racial equality.

This also means all of the taboos and emotions of the racial justice movement have now appeared, and have to be dealt with.

The biggest of these is that even the smallest critique of the Black Lives Matter movement or these protests is now seen as an attack on the entire movement, and therefore an act of racism. Given the fear most white liberals have of being seen as racist, this has meant everyone has refrained from criticism, and even white liberals who disagree with the methods of the movement will label others who criticize them as racist because they feel the need to do that to keep from being seen as racist themselves.

This, of course, has bred a movement with many of the problems I outlined above, which is angry and directionless, and will ultimately fail to accomplish anything.

When you have a room full of yes-men and only one guy calling the shots, it’s no surprise the product is bad. Something can only succeed with layers of skepticism and critique, reforming to make sure it appeals to as many people as possible.

But, for these protests, you can’t say anything. Even criticizing the looters at the protests, or saying we should tone down the messaging, is seen as a racial attack. There are likely many readers of this letter who already think my claims about the directionlessness of the movement are ignorant and racist, because that’s how we’ve been trained in a way.

While white people are seen as holding most of the power in society currently, black people do seem to have a unique position in political discourse as being completely immune to criticism, lest you want to be labeled as racist. This is exclusive to liberals, of course, because conservatives don’t give a damn.

Any time you criticize them, they come back with passion and the race card, and your only choice is to meekly apologize and crawl back into your hole.

This has turned many people away from the movement, and made it very hard to convince people. I mean, if your impression of the movement is a bunch of angry black people fighting police, looting stores, and trying to essentially overthrow the government, why would you ever side with them?

In many cases, how you say something is more important than what you say, and that’s exactly the problem here. The police brutality movement has grown angry with decades of abuse, rightfully so, but they also haven’t changed their tactics to make reform more likely. Instead, they’ve just become madder, which plays well with the base, but not with those who really matter and who need to be convinced.

Conclusion

At this point, you can probably see why I have not spoken out yet. In the frenzy on social media, sharing these opinions would only serve to provoke and stir up unnecessary controversy from people who have lost their ability to listen.

In many ways, the police brutality movement exposes exactly what’s wrong with politics in America. People are angry and tired, one side feels oppressed and the other feels threatened. As a result, everyone talks and no one listens, so nothing ever gets done.

It’s just a show of one upmanship, of who can be more angry and make the larger symbolic gesture, but never anything of substance. Substance requires more nuance and thinking than just posting #BlackLivesMatter and calling everyone you disagree with racist.

I have frankly gotten fed up with it all. I’m tired of the posts and the protests and the anger, because anger is unproductive. It’s been scientifically shown that being angry just feeds into more anger unless you find a way to just switch it off and diffuse it, and that’s exactly what we need now.

We’re burning each other through these protests, and in the end, they will go nowhere. I can tell. Know how? Because they never have.

The American story is one of racism and unresponsiveness, and expecting anger to solve things is a terrible idea. The current protests are like if you knocked on a door and were told to go away, and then thought knocking more loudly would mean you’ll get let in.

In history, protests like these rarely make good things. Sometimes, they will get change, but never the change you want.

I don’t know where things go from here, but I can’t see the rosy future. I think the movement has its heart in the right place but has become misguided and out of touch, and at this point, doesn’t have a clear message or a clear goal. It’s just a rejection of racism in principle, which is great and all, but rejecting racism doesn’t mean you’ll get justice for George Floyd or the endless other people who have been brutalized by police.

Now, I want to talk to you directly, protestors. You are part of the wrong movement.

You say you want to be on the right side of history, and I understand, but this is not it. What you’re part of is a waste of time, a cause of suffering and chaos that will never get anything substantial done for the cause you claim to support.

If you want to really get justice, you should focus on solutions. Support groups that are getting legislation passed, not ones who just organize rallies in the streets. Those rallies are something, but they’re like using Duolingo 5 minutes a day and expecting to become fully fluent in a language. Technically productive, but woefully inadequate.

So find something that can more productively use your anger, and don’t just go to rallies. Or, if you do, at least wear a mask.

Sincerely,

Jonah Woolley

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