A proper response to nationwide protests that often morph into violence
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Most readers are familiar with the basic facts about the death of George Floyd, who was placed in a lethal chokehold during a police arrest gone wrong. The date was May 25, 2020; the location was Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Mr. Floyd was being arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill in a nearby convenience store. He had been placed in handcuffs and, judging from the videos that have been shown, did not appear to be resisting arrest. Nevertheless, he was lying on the ground, and one of the officers had placed a knee on Floyd’s neck. Three police officers observed, and to some extent facilitated what was happening. After 8+ minutes, the suspect expired. Last but not least, Floyd was a black man; all of the officers, at least to our knowledge, were white.
If anyone thinks the police acted acceptably in this situation, they haven’t said so. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Floyd was the victim of abusive police tactics and the officers involved should be held criminally responsible. All four officers were fired within hours, and criminal charges followed. The lead officer is now charged with second degree murder and manslaughter; the other officers will be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the crime.
This tragic situation understandably triggered Minneapolis protests. And within days, there were similar protests in locations across the country, including big cities (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, & Washington DC), medium-sized cities (e.g., Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, & Seattle), and smaller cities (e.g., Wilmington & Dover, DE).
Many of the protests were peaceful, but others resulted in acts of violence and/or wholesale looting. Additionally, the protests conflicted with orders and guidelines (notably social distancing) that had been observed around the country for the purpose of minimizing deaths from the coronavirus epidemic.
Query, what were the protestors trying to accomplish and how should the authorities have reacted to keep the violence and/or flouting of public health requirements from getting out of hand? And if the situation wasn’t properly controlled, who should be held accountable?
Unsurprisingly, progressives (Side A) and conservatives/Trump supporters (Side B) reached very different conclusions. How could that be when there was basically only one set of facts to work with? Simple - observers picked the facts to which they would pay attention and relegated other facts to the category of incidental information.
As an example of how selective review works, we parsed two days’ worth of protest coverage (20 news stories and commentaries) in the News Journal (Delaware’s largest newspaper, and a member of the USA Today network). Selectivity wasn’t hard to spot; it was apparent in terms of both the information considered and the information ignored.
The general thrust was to emphasize feelings of the black community (not just about this particular arrest, but about their lives in general), downplay the violence that had occurred, and blame any failures to maintain control on the US president versus on state and local leaders who traditionally are the first line of defense in maintaining law and order. Placing the blame for violent protests, June 2-3, 2020.
This entry will reprise some of the News Journal coverage and note additional points that should be considered for a balanced view of the situation.
A. Purpose of the protests – The tragic death of George Floyd was eloquently described in a column published by the News Journal. Placing the blame, item A (George Floyd’s last words should haunt us all).
This piece failed to note, however, that (1) there was no contrary opinion, (2) the police officers involved were promptly fired, and (3) both state and federal reviews were swiftly initiated to determine what criminal charges would be appropriate – resulting in the charging decisions that have already been noted. So why did the protestors keep chanting “no justice, no peace”?
A report about Wilmington area protests suggests that the real complaint wasn’t the Floyd death per se, but a perceived history of systemic racism in this country. Placing the blame, item B (Frustration boiled over, protests turned violent; Riots may stem from unresolved issues, unheard voices.)
Examples can certainly be cited for systemic racism claims, typically involving black suspects who died at the hands of the police. Many of the worst examples took place in a different era, however, and in more recent cases the facts are typically far less clear-cut than in the Floyd case.
Perhaps the suspect appeared to be armed and the officers had legitimate reasons to be concerned about their own safety or the lives of innocent onlookers. And remember that decisions may have been required on a “split-second” basis based on incomplete information.
When police misconduct does occur, moreover, it isn’t necessarily racially motivated. While some individual officers may exhibit racial bias in performing their duties, empirical evidence suggests this is the exception rather than the rule. The myth of systemic police racism, Heather MacDonald, Wall Street Journal, 6/2/20.
The latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is “no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” they concluded.
If the claim of systemic police racism isn’t grounded in fact, protestors may be demanding action to cure a non-existent problem. Instead of lashing out against racism, it might be more productive to focus on improving police training or ensuring that complaints about alleged police misconduct are objectively investigated. A proactive approach to abusive policing, Kyle Rozema and Max Schanzenbach, Wall Street Journal, 6/3/20.
Unfortunately, Chicago, Minneapolis and many other cities don’t take civilian complaints as seriously as they should. State laws and union contracts often prohibit leaders from making use of complaints unless they’re “sustained”—found to have merit by an investigator—after a long and highly regulated investigation. Moreover, even for the rare civilian complaint that is sustained, any major disciplinary consequences are typically subject to lengthy arbitration or appeals.
B. Protests vs. riots – Side A commentators typically aver that looting, arson and violence are wrong – and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They suggest that the vast majority of protests are peaceful, however, and that if there are a few “bad apples” in the crowd they are probably from out of town. Placing the blame, item L (Carney: Wilmington protestors inciting violence “not from here”).
It’s further suggested that the police can best maintain control by exercising restraint, respecting and negotiating with the leaders of the demonstrators, etc. Placing the blame, item K (Negotiations, restraint and little intervention). Although this story reports that some violence and looting took place on the night in question, the general thrust is that the police handled the situation commendably.
Note, however, that one of the protest leaders chose to go home at a certain point because he reportedly “didn't want to take part in vandalizing businesses.” And given “the crowd's outrage over police brutality,” he did not choose to judge those who had continued the protest. To us, this explanation seems to imply foreknowledge of what was going to occur.
Also, the distinction between peaceful protestors and rioters is not clear-cut, e.g., the mood of a crowd can change quickly once the first brick is thrown or the first store is broken into, with previously peaceful protestors joining in. If this happens, as the News Journal coverage did acknowledge, police may need to act quickly in order to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. Placing the blame, Item K (Negotiations, restraint and little intervention).
Edward Maguire, an Arizona State University criminologist, offered a series of observations supporting the negotiating/ conciliatory approach that was generally followed. He did, however, endorse "very targeted arrests" of those engaging in looting or other violent acts "while simultaneously communicating to the rest of the crowd that's behaving lawfully" that "you guys are good."
No doubt the severity of violence and looting was worse in other areas than it was locally, but it seems that a dozen or so businesses in Wilmington and Dover were vandalized. The News Journal reported that such activity had occurred, and it also ran two letters to the editor from law and order advocates. (Placing the blame, Items I & J). The prime thrust of its coverage, however, was that the outbreaks of violence (aka rioting) were incidental to the overarching goal of protesting systemic racism.
There has been extensive video footage of violent protests around the country, which resulted not only in property damage (reportedly $55 million to date in Minnesota alone, probably in the billions nationwide) but also in injuries and in some cases deaths of people assaulted by demonstrators. This certainly doesn’t honor the memory of George Floyd (as members of his family have pointed out), nor does it serve any other valid purpose.
C. Public health implications – After several months of policies designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, some states had begun dialing back the restrictions while other states were saying it would be wise to keep “stay at home” orders in effect a bit longer. When the protests began, however, it seemed to be accepted almost instantly that there should be no attempt to stop them in the interests of safeguarding public health.
No schools, - nonessential businesses - meetings of 10 or more – church services – etc., yet large crowds of people participating in outside political demonstrations were apparently OK. Having previously suggested that the coronavirus restrictions involved a bit of overkill, we won’t belabor the seeming inconsistency. But it is striking how quickly medical experts who had previously warned of the dangers of lockdown protests changed their tune. Suddenly, public health officials say social justice matters more than social distance, Dan Diamond, politico.com, 6/4/20.
[Many] say the protests are worth the risk of a possible Covid-19 surge, including hundreds of public health workers who signed an open letter this week that sought to distinguish the new anti-racist protests “from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders.”
Those protests against stay-at-home orders “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives,” according to the letter’s nearly 1,300 signatories. “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”
D. Political responsibility – What should our political leaders do in a situation like this? They have several responsibilities: (1) Investigate alleged police misconduct, and if appropriate sanction and/or prosecute offenders; (2) Permit peaceful protests to take place, as required by the First Amendment; and (3) Maintain order, preventing and if appropriate punishing lawlessness on the part of protestors. Hmm, seems pretty straightforward, but points 2 and 3 may often conflict in real life situations – and the conflicts tend to be resolved based on political considerations.
Side A has a bias for allowing protests to proceed with a minimum of government intervention, which is rationalized by downplaying the incidence of violence and faulting the police for mishandling the situation. For its part, Side B tends to view protests around the nation, taking place night after night with no end in sight, as a sign of trouble that needs to be monitored and effectively controlled. Compare these examples of the respective reactions. Placing the blame, op. cit.
•Item C, Biden says he will create oversight board for police as president;
•Item F, Trump slams governors, urges swifter crackdown;
•Item G, Carney calls Trump’s words a complete surprise;
•Item I, Accountability needed after demonstrations;
•Item L, Carney: Wilmington protestors inciting violence “not from here;”
• Item O, Trump reprises image as get tough President;
•Item P, Biden’s reply: “I won’t traffic in fear”.
•Item T, Trump’s lack of leadership stuns.
In the News Journal (and other mainstream media) coverage, the statements and actions of the president have been reported in a one-sided manner. Here are some additional points that deserve consideration.
•The president and Department of Justice swiftly denounced the police actions that had led to George Floyd’s death and launched an investigation of possible federal charges in cooperation with the Minneapolis authorities. Trump asks DOJ, FBI to expedite probe into George Floyd death, Morgan Chalfant, thehill.com, 5/27/20.
•On Saturday, May 30, at the start of a speech re the space shuttle launch in Florida, the president expressed revulsion for the killing of George Floyd, support for peaceful protests, and the need to maintain order. No doubt some of his tweets have been intemperate, but this major statement – which was underreported due to the time frame in which it took place – was about as well balanced as one could hope for. Remarks by the president at Kennedy space flight center, 5/30/20.
-The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy. It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief.
-I understand the pain that people are feeling. We support the right of peaceful protesters, and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or with peace.
-In America, justice is never achieved at the hands of an angry mob. I will not allow angry mobs to dominate. It won’t happen. It is essential that we protect the crown jewel of American democracy: the rule of law and our independent system of justice.
As the instances of lawless violence mounted, however, the president’s emphasis shifted. And who could wonder given night after night of massive demonstrations in front of the White House, which had resulted in several disturbing developments. Notably:
•A wave of protestors surged over temporary fencing that had been placed outside the perimeter of the White House fence, forcing numerous Secret Service agents into action and resulting in the president and family members being relocated to an underground bunker area to ensure their safety. Trump was moved to secure bunker Friday after protestors breached temporary fences, Carol Leonnig (Washington Post), Infoline.com, 6/3/20.
•St. John’s Episcopal Church (often called the “church of the presidents”) on the opposite side of Lafayette Park, was attacked by a would-be arsonist. Fortunately, the fire in a basement area was extinguished without doing significant damage. Rector of church set ablaze Sunday night says damage could have been “a lot worse,” Tyler Olson, foxnews.com, 6/1/20.
On Monday, the president read the riot act to the nation’s governors about how the protests seemed to be spiraling out of control, not just in Washington but around the country. Placing the blame, item F (Trump slams governors, urges swifter crackdown).
And on Monday evening, the president delivered remarks in the Rose Garden that were televised to the nation. His emphasis in this address was clearly on preserving law and order, as opposed to the balanced tone of his Saturday remarks. Remarks of the president, 6/1/20.
As this speech was being broadcast, Fox News used a split screen to simultaneously show protestors on the other side of the White House. Arguably, they were peaceful protestors, but that certainly wasn’t apparent from watching them in action. See also “Not peaceful protesters”: Barr defends actions at Lafayette Park, Jerry Dunleavy, Washington Examiner, 6/7/20.
The president excused himself at the end, saying he was going to visit a “very special place” (not further identified) and walked back into the White House. Moments later, about 6:45 PM, the president and others set forth on foot for St. John’s Church on the far side of Lafayette Park – which by this time had been cleared of protestors. Placing the blame, Item O (Trump reprises image as get tough President).
According to the News Journal, et al. the president “strolled” through the park for a photo op, but your faithful scribe perceived the action rather differently. The walk over and back took a quarter of an hour or so, dusk was falling, and quite a few unidentified persons were in the park moving in various directions. The president and others were at ground level, without armed escorts, and one couldn’t help thinking that their lives might be in danger – with the only true protection being the element of surprise.
Having recently read Case Closed by Gerald Posner, which recounts in chilling detail how Lee Harvey Oswald (a lone wolf fanatic) was able to lie in wait and kill JFK, your faithful scribe watched the action with bated breath until the president got back to the White House. Whatever one may think of the president’s motives, which many have seen fit to question, the on-foot visit to St. John’s Church was gutsy and the American public should appreciate that fact.
#Closing thought about the walk across Lafayette Park is spot on, I was worrying about that too at the time. – SAFE director