A Dumpster fire burns behind a line of Virginia State Police officers near Richmond’s police headquarters during a protest responding to the death of George Floyd. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
It’s time for the police to clean up their act. Past time, actually.
The curbside killing of George Floyd in broad daylight by a white Minneapolis cop who was on patrol despite a lengthy record of abuse complaints (18 in all) was a game-changer because the whole ghastly thing was recorded on video and seen worldwide.
Across America and abroad, the images have ignited days of protests, looting and arson not seen since 1968 as people of all races take to the streets to vent a deep rage that words alone can’t express.
This is not like upheavals in the past when random acts of police brutality might go unnoticed. Smart phones and security cameras are ubiquitous and the whole world can see. Knowing that, one might imagine a more restrained, self-aware police response.
We’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen documented, unprovoked aggression against peaceful protesters lawfully petitioning their government for a redress of grievances (see the First Amendment for elaboration).
We’ve seen an elderly homeless man in his wheelchair injured by a Los Angeles police rubber bullet to his face. We saw a non-confrontational 75-year-old Buffalo, New York, man bleed profusely from a serious head wound he suffered when riot police knocked him backward, his head slamming into the concrete sidewalk, as officers continued marching past his unconscious body. After two officers were suspended in the incident, 57 of their colleagues resigned from the riot squad in protest. Later charged with criminal assault, dozens of officers cheered them as heroes outside a Buffalo Courthouse after a hearing.
In Richmond, we watched police inexplicably teargas protesters gathered lawfully near a 60-foot monument to Robert E. Lee, then suddenly charge into them, randomly pepper-spraying people. After initially defending the response on its Twitter account, the Richmond police department reversed itself, called the attack unwarranted and pulled officers responsible from the field after video made their claim untenable. The next day, Mayor Levar Stoney and police chief Will Smith stammered their way through apologies before an angry crowd that had gathered outside City Hall to demand their resignations. By Thursday, Stoney and Gov. Ralph Northam, in a bid to quell the rage, announced that statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders would be removed from Monument Avenue where they had stood for a century or more.
A popular mantra among protesters goes “all cops are bastards.” That’s not so. There are thousands of officers who find missing children, solve homicides, who bring thieves to justice, who investigate abuse to children, who stop domestic violence and interdict drunk drivers before they kill themselves or others. They work brutal hours in harm’s way under wrenching stress for shamefully low paychecks. I like to think they overwhelmingly outnumber any bullies, racists and others incapable of managing their anger who seek refuge among them.
Yet all are stained when just one of them commits an act of brutality that sets the nation ablaze as former officer Derek Chauvin did in what amounted to Floyd’s summary execution during a petty crime call.
The video is morbid and damning. It shows Chauvin’s left knee pressing Floyd’s neck into the asphalt for nearly nine minutes, even as Floyd rasps “I can’t breathe,” pleads for his life and finally cries out to his deceased mother. With Floyd on his belly and his hands cuffed behind him, two other officers help Chauvin pin down Floyd’s torso and legs while another stands nearby, holding increasingly horrified witnesses at bay. Chauvin continues crushing Floyd’s neck for more than two minutes after he is motionless and unresponsive, even as onlookers frantically warn that Floyd was dying. Chauvin relented only after a paramedic asked him to move so he could check Floyd’s limp body for a pulse.
All of this over Floyd’s alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes.
Chauvin and three other officers were promptly fired for violating department procedures and standards. Chauvin is charged with Floyd’s murder; former officers Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting the murder.
You need not be African American to feel the rage boil as you view the footage. It ignited protests in which millions of people of all races and nationalities took to the streets the world over – a phenomenon that health experts fear will newly inflame the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Brutal police responses to peaceful protesters has only made their jobs harder and given considerable ammunition to their critics at home and foreign adversaries eager to diminish America’s standing internationally. Perhaps most dangerously, it erodes the essential social compact between the people and the thin blue line that stands between them and anarchy.
The problem coincides with a coarsening culture of confrontation. You see it in the increasingly militarized methods, weapons and tactics police have employed over the past 30 years. Military vehicles now accompany officers dressed in combat-style fatigues with weapons shouldered as they approach protests. In many cities, police readily employ explosives, rubber bullets fired from rifles, teargas and other gases at crowds of people. They’ve arrested and beaten journalists lawfully covering non-violent events.
Unlike any comparable tumult in modern U.S. history, the dynamic this time is starkly different, starting at the top. Rather than appealing for calm and showing empathy to the aggrieved, President Donald Trump has done the opposite. He exhorted governors to “dominate” demonstrators with overwhelming force and threatened to do so himself with federal troops if they don’t. That’s what he did a week ago when troops fired on peaceful, lawful protesters to clear them from a park near the White House so he could walk, unwelcomed, to St. John’s Episcopal Church where he posed with a Bible for a crude, campaign-style photo op.
Police can’t do their jobs without a supportive and appreciative citizenry, and conversely society can’t function without fair, even-handed law enforcement. It’s a delicate, symbiotic relationship.
If police haven’t realized it by now, their every act in such difficult encounters is visually recorded. Any abuses instantly trend on social media. Each time that happens, the anger escalates, the unrest deepens and trust is lost.
While protesters have a duty to respect the law, there is a corresponding duty by those who enforce it to exercise judgment and show restraint.
It must be clear by now to every police chief and their elected superiors that officers have a duty to protect peaceful protest, not crush it. They must understand that it is intolerable for them to provoke violence, to throw the first punch, or to bully the weak. They must understand that one apology, like those Stoney and Smith had to deliver to the seething masses outside City Hall, is one too many.
It’s also the only one that they get.
They must understand that the whole world’s watching.
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