Since George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police last week and protests erupted all over the world, we’ve seen a lot of… statements. The initial protest gave way to a riot, which gave way to a literal global movement that put everyone’s feet to the fire in a way that I have literally never seen in my life. The movement was so ubiquitous that NOT saying something about it, whether you’re a brand or an athlete or just a regular person, was pretty weird! The elephant in the room is on fire and standing in front of the door. You can’t ignore it anymore.
A lot of people and brands that never dabble in politics (or when they do never really take a stand) felt obligated to make statements. As a guy that injects politics into almost everything and thinks that the world would be better off if everyone else did too, I was happy to see it. Whether you agree with the methods or not, one thing an effective protest does is get people out of their comfort zone so they’re forced to confront an injustice they either didn’t see or didn’t want to see. As Martellus Bennett put it, there’s a safety net out now for folks that remained silent before. With that safety net, some people genuinely expressed a willingness to learn, grow and listen in the face of an injustice they had previously ignored or explained away, and that is good. Growth is good. I’ve still got a ton to do myself. But so many more posted meaningless platitudes meant to satisfy anyone that might try to hold their feet to the fire without actually taking a stand or rejecting a previously-held worldview. This post is for them.
George Floyd died at the hands of the police. That’s what started this fire. Black Lives Matter was borne out of police violence disproportionately affecting black lives. The meaning of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, as much as his ideological opponents tried to obscure it, was always about that same cause.
These milquetoast statements don’t mention any of that. White athletes like Adam Thielen, Andy Dalton and Nick Foles made statements condemning “racism” and “racist acts” and then used that platform as an opportunity to push their religion. Drew Brees posted a black square on instagram for “Blackout Tuesday”, a social media movement (ironically) designed to keep the focus on the issue at hand, shortly before confirming in an interview that he would NOT support future Kaepernick-esque protests. Brand after brand posted about opposing racism and standing for equality. Pretty much every NFL team released a statement, but only one or two actually mentioned police violence. Phrases like “we need to bring people together”, “we oppose violence of any kind”, and “the struggles that others face” emerged from public relations meetings everywhere. Many people called for peace and the end of racism (and looting!), but “police reform” and “police violence” was almost never a part of any of these statements.
It’s easy to say you’re against racism. Even racists don’t think they’re FOR racism. It’s easy to say you’re against violence. Few people say they’re for it. Those two things are definitely part of the equation of the uprising we find ourselves in, but the third part of it seems to be the one that few want to publicly address. That’s not surprising. The approval rating for the police overall is quite positive, and among white Americans it is even higher, although some of our social media bubbles can make it seem otherwise. Many of us have friends or family that are officers and know them as good, honest people. For many folks, a criticism of the police seems like a direct attack on those people we know and love. Subsequently, the last place even well-meaning people/brands are willing to go is police criticism. It makes people uncomfortable. I have been told by multiple people that they agree with the majority of what I post on social but can’t get on board with my police criticism. That needs to change.
American policing is a system. It is bigger than any friend or family member. It has roots that go back hundreds of years and encompasses millions of people. You can criticize that system without wishing any ill will to any loved ones. On the contrary: a better, more just police system should make their job even safer and well respected.
These riots were caused by police violence. When people protested that violence, they were met with more. And then things got out of hand, in ways that I don’t fully understand or condone. But in the subsequent days, all around the country we saw the same pattern: Impromptu protests met with police force that turned into riots. Which turned into looting. In response to the looting and arsons happening around the country, many police forces focused their efforts on what they saw as the real enemy: the protestors. Manhattan was picked clean while the NYPD picked fights with protestors all night. Many Minneapolis neighborhoods were left defenseless and businesses burned down as police sparred with protestors.
As much as the anti-reform folks like to complain about the media turning public opinion against the police, the news is actually very hesitant to broadcast police violence and very eager to go along with propaganda. Cops dancing and kneeling and endless montages of looting are all over the major networks. For those of us that live our lives in the sewer of Twitter, however, we have seen and are outraged at the consistent, deliberate brutality of the police during these uprisings. I’m part of a group chat for a fantasy football league that started by posting a couple police violence videos during the first Minneapolis protest, and somehow has become a hub of nonstop examples of police brutality. Every couple minutes a new video is posted, all in real time, all from the current protests. My phone never stops buzzing.
It is impossible to keep up with all the examples of police brutality we have seen in the last week. There are compilations that are hundreds of videos long that update so fast they’re out of date as soon as you share them. Peaceful protesters getting maced, tazed, run over, spit on, shoved, and beaten. Random citizens on their porches and sidewalks are getting sprayed with rubber bullets. Journalists are targeted and brutalized in a way that puts democracy on the brink. More people have died via police crackdown than any riot. Many cops are not even trying to hide the transgressions, either. In many cases, they’re making it as obvious as possible what lengths they’re willing to go to oppose this movement. Make no mistake: in many cases, police responded to a global uprising against police violence with much more police violence, on purpose.
One of the reasons that these protests became so explosive is that all too often police do not function as “peacekeepers” when the protest issue at hand is their own violence and corruption. We saw how peaceful they were with right wing anti-lockdown gunmen in their face, but when the protest centers on their OWN actions, their function changes. They are now counter-protestors. An old, conservative institution does not change willingly. With every launch of tear gas, spray of mace, or swing of the baton, the police have staged their own riots throughout American cities. Property damage isn’t out of the equation either. For many departments around this country, it’s not about keeping the peace, it’s about beating the enemy back. For those that don’t see it in those terms, results have been much more positive. Camden’s police let protestors demonstrate without interference, even joining them at times, and things were peaceful. It has been well documented that more police force only creates more violence.
The last few weeks have been the most violent example of backlash to police criticism in recent memory, but the backlash itself is pretty standard. Any criticism or talk of reform is usually met with intense pearl clutching and defensiveness. San Francisco cops threatened to stop working 49er games when Colin Kaepernick started kneeling. St. Louis cops did the same when Rams players did a “hands up don’t shoot” demonstration after the Michael Brown slaying. Miami Police threatened to boycott working Beyonce events for… reasons. Union heads for departments all over the country pull these types of stunts constantly. Police must realize that these reactions have helped foster the anti-police sentiment they warn us about so much, when an open dialogue would go so much further to enhance their image.
With that said, the current temperature has undoubtedly made the jobs of the police much more difficult and dangerous, and after the last week it’s going to be hard to put the genie back in that bottle. But the police must try to lower the temperature themselves by leading by example. It’s in the best interest of everyone involved. You can’t just keep upping your level of force until everyone shuts up. President Trump tried that, by teargassing peaceful protestors and deploying the military for a photo op, and the next night the protests were even bigger.
The protests will not stop until the killings stop. The killings won’t stop until meaningful police reform has taken place. Police reform will not take place until the police are put under the microscope. Police will not be put under the microscope unless these weak statements get more direct. “We all need to get along” isn’t going to do it.
What does it even mean, in practice, to “all get along” or “bring people together” in the context of the George Floyd uprising we’re seeing right now? Unless you’re calling for police reform, it literally means that the black people that are really mad about this need to eventually get over it so things can get back to normal… for me. There is no “getting along” or “peace” until those issues are addressed. The activists that started this movement have very clear demands. You will never truly bring people together or have peace until you acknowledge and address them. You will have peace and blissful ignorance for yourself, but that’s it. I hope that’s not enough.
Fine. I know what you’re thinking. When are you going to denounce the property destruction and looting? I have chosen not to focus on that for a couple reasons.
- Folks who focus on looting often say “the looting is just going to distract from the cause” and become self-fulfilling prophets by themselves distracting from the cause by talking about the looting. I choose to keep the focus on the original topic at hand.
- We don’t even really know who was doing it. It could be protestors, it could be random criminals, instigators, bored kids, it’s probably all of the above. But to focus on the looting as a counterweight to police reform insinuates that it was all the fault of the Black Lives Matter pro-reform protestors, and that just isn’t the case.
- The looting is not a strategic plot to advance the cause. It is just random chaos. I don’t have to criticize a strategy that is not actually a strategy.
- Police officers are agents of the state that get paid to protect and serve our communities. We elect their bosses that control their purses.
Criticism of them can lead to change. Looters are just random people. Criticism of them leads to nothing.
- Property is not as important as human lives.