“Violence is not a symbol, but a reality: people get hurt, businesses get destroyed, kids get arrested, and catharsis is always momentary. Always it is the most vulnerable – people of color – who get hurt, watch their businesses burn, get arrested, and then have their catharsis with tears in their eyes.” Stephen Eric Bronner, Board of Governors Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, in an article published in Reader Supported News, 6/6/20
So here we are, with the country still in massive turmoil and my city, Cleveland, still in lockdown. At least where I am, the protests have subsided, but the mayor is evidently taking no chances.
I read Mr. Bronner’s article, cited above, which decries the violence of recent days, and I agree wholeheartedly with his stance that assaults and destruction should be extreme last resorts. And there’s no question that the impetus for the mayhem in the streets over the weekend is the direct reaction to George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. Outrage and sorrow, along with a determination to effect change, are all appropriate, justified responses to that tragedy.
I take issue, however, with Bronner’s broad generalization, above, as well as his overall framing. The vandalizing and damage in our city were not visited on minority businesses; in fact, our city center, with its priceless historic theater district and its pedestrian street of eateries and entertainment venues, was the target for the weekend violence. The largest theater complex in the country, which features shows and programs for all ages and backgrounds, now sports boarded-up doors and windows as a result of the protests, along with other destruction. Attacks on these theaters, as well as the restaurant-and-venue row ten blocks away, were senseless and egregious.
Nor is police injustice meted out only to minorities. For example, several friends and I (none of us black or Latino) were victimized in various incidents over several years by the cops in a middle-class suburb just west of the city. I was stopped and questioned so many times while driving peacefully down my street late at night after work, in a late-model car, wearing a full tux, stone sober, that I finally moved out of that municipality. More than one person I knew back then told of much scarier treatment. Granted, none of them was beaten or choked, but the hassles were continuous, and we were afraid of the cops. This little ’burb is known throughout the area for its Gestapo-like police presence.
Further, framing the happenings last weekend, and similar previous such events, as a purely or even mostly black problem does us all a disservice. Police brutality affects African-Americans disproportionately, yes. However, the militarization of police forces, plus the accompanying aggressive mindset, affects everyone. It’s a blight on the nation. Limiting the framing does two things. First, it allows the brutality to be dismissed as a “black” issue by those who don’t care what happens to minorities, thus downplaying the extent and seriousness of the danger. Second, it presupposes racism as the only cause for the brutality, when that’s only partly true. Meaning that all the instances of victimization of non-minority people go unremarked, again hiding the increasingly authoritarian, “we are the law” attitude that so many members of the police forces have adopted. There’s a difference between drug dealers, thieves, rapists, and murderers, and law-abiding citizens who are assembled to voice their opposition to injustices inflicted by city-government-appointed law enforcement. The fact that people are calling out police brutality doesn’t make them “perps,” to be assaulted and maced. Skin color is irrelevant in such situations; it’s wrong for any nonviolent protester to be beaten or shot with rubber bullets, and that’s what needs to be written large in our newspapers, spotlighted in news broadcasts. In this country, the ideal many of us grew up with, the helpful beat cop who lived in the neighborhood, cared about all the residents, practiced de-escalation, and used violence as a last resort, has all but vanished. The police as a whole are becoming more and more distanced from the civilian population, more like a self-sustaining army, accountable to no one outside their command.
Let me say that, in fairness, all policemen and women certainly do not fit the military-minded description; there are photos of some officers kneeling in solidarity with protesters last weekend. I have encountered some of those regular Joes in my urban community, who attend resident meetings and who really do want to protect and serve. Those dedicated individuals, who fairly enforce the law for all, without swagger or brandishing of weapons, are the ones who seem to be increasingly marginalized, however. Instead, we need to honor them and hold them up as examples of policing the way it should be. My late father-in-law, 20-year veteran of a suburban police department, and as much a macho-man as I’ve ever met, once remarked that the only difference between the cops and the criminals is the badge. That truth is the one we need to focus on and rectify, because otherwise, we’re all at risk.