Americans venting their grief and anger at the death of George Floyd in police custody are being confronted nightly with tear gas, rubber bullets and truncheon-wielding, armour-clad riot police — the merciless approach they set out to protest in the first place.
It’s a response not to the peaceful protests against racial injustice that have raged across the country for a full week since Floyd’s death, but to the pockets of destruction — police cruisers set ablaze, rocks and bricks sailing into police lines — that some activists say risk marring the underlying call for just and equal treatment for the country’s black community.
The “militarization” of urban police forces across the U.S., as well as in major Canadian cities, is a symptom of a decades-long arms race between criminals and the cops that’s been going on since the days of gangsters and Tommy guns, said Arthur Rizer, a former police officer and military lieutenant-colonel who now works at R Street Institute, a Washington think tank.
Modern police officers are well aware of the effect their methods, appearance and equipment have on public attitudes, said Rizer, who has spent the last several years surveying his former colleagues and researching their attitudes towards the evolution of their jobs and tactics.
“They know that it scares the public, and they’re OK with it,” he said.
“We have police forces around this country that are feeling like they’re at war, and when you feel like you’re at war, you want all the tools necessary to win that war. And I find that to be the scary part of it.”
The sense of a nation at war with itself is palpable.
Far from Ronald Reagan’s shining city upon a hill, parts of the urban landscape across the U.S. are beginning to resemble end-times Hollywood movie sets, with angry epithets spray-painted on flame-scorched buildings and local shops upended and stripped of their wares. People torch police cars and rob stores in broad daylight.
And in Washington, D.C., clashes between protesters and police in the shadow of a darkened White House are becoming a nightly feature in a part of the city usually overrun with scooter-riding tourists, strolling family members and merchants hawking T-shirts and American flags.
Activists, including some of Floyd’s own family members, pleaded Monday for an end to the violence.
“If I’m not over here wilding out, if I’m not over here blowing stuff up, if I’m not over here messing up my community, then what are you all doing?” Floyd’s brother Terrence said during an emotional visit to the memorial in Minneapolis at the scene of his brother’s killing.
“Let’s do this another way. Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote.”
Terrence Floyd didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, but he didn’t have to — the president’s relative silence of late, save for the occasional provocative “law and order” message on Twitter, has spoken volumes.
So too did a leaked audio recording of his phone call Monday with state governors, in which he singled out Democratic leaders as “weak” in their response to the protests. He called Minnesota an international laughingstock for losing a police precinct to violent protesters Friday, demanded widespread arrests and promised an even larger police presence on the streets of D.C.
Earlier in the day, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, made it clear during an interview on CNN that she’ll take no advice from Trump, even if he is the president of the United States.
“Leaders lead, and he is not leading — he is causing further disruption to our cities,” she said.
Despite the chaos, there have been poignant displays of police compassion, as well — including footage of officers joining peaceful marches, providing solace to weeping protesters, taking a knee in a show of solidarity and paying silent tribute at Floyd’s makeshift memorial.
Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, the man seen on cellphone video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has been charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, but activists are demanding charges against the other three officers involved.
To move forward, municipalities must embrace the need for extensive training on race relations, including “implicit bias” training for police officers to help them better understand the inherent risk of applying different standards to different people, a group of big-city mayors told presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden in a virtual roundtable discussion Monday.
“The most precious and valuable and powerful tool is constitutional engagement with members of the community,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
But she pointed to the almost unanimous condemnation of the actions of the police in Minneapolis, including from the law enforcement community, as a clear sign of progress that wasn’t there in America 20 years ago.
“The fact that we were uniform, police and community alike, in denouncing this officer, who dishonoured and besmirched his badge — it may not feel like it, but that was a big moment that we can’t forget,” Lightfoot said.
“That to me is momentous, and I don’t want to lose sight of that.”
Rizer said he doesn’t believe there’s a direct line between Trump’s embrace of authoritarian rhetoric and the tactics that police are choosing on the streets every night to enforce the law.
What it does do, he said, is encourage those with the necessary power and influence to work all the harder on countermanding some of that influence to help ensure that marginalized Americans, including communities of colour and those in low-income neighbourhoods, aren’t provoked into escalating things further.
“It’s very disheartening, to be honest, because I’ve been working with members of his inner circle on trying to do some stuff that’s good, and then this stuff just makes it so much harder,” Rizer said.
“We have a long history that when we get scared, and when we’re fearful, our (public) policy reflects that fear. And I’m afraid that you’re going to see that happen here.”