It’s impossible to watch the video of George Floyd dying — handcuffed, helpless, face down in the road, complaining he can’t breathe, as a Minneapolis police officer kneels on his neck for more than eight minutes — without feeling a surge of anger and incomprehension. Learning that the crime for which Floyd was apprehended was “forgery in progress” (he apparently bought cigarettes with a fake $20 bill) only adds to one’s sense of outrage.
Over the weekend, protests in many American cities turned into riots, the most widespread in decades. In places already stressed by the Covid-19 pandemic, violence and destruction surged out of control. The protesters’ anger is right; the rioters’ wanton disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens is inexcusable.
Cases in which police officers kill black Americans without cause recur with sickening regularity. They should never happen, but when they do, the authorities’ job is admittedly very difficult. They need to act swiftly, making it plain that they have seen what everybody else has seen, are no less disturbed and outraged by it, and mean to do something about it. At the same time, they must keep and speak up for public order — and for exactly the same reason: Guarding the safety of all people is their most important job.
Sadly, this is a challenge Donald Trump is singularly ill-equipped to meet. A president who thrives on anger and disorder is the very opposite of what’s needed at moments like this. But leaders at lower levels of government have hardly distinguished themselves in this case, or in other recent instances of unwarranted police violence.
The initial reluctance to arrest police officers, even in a case as egregious as Floyd’s, and investigations by multiple agencies dragged out to inordinate length feed the suspicion that the authorities are seeking not justice but reasons to overlook police abuses and outright crimes. The quid pro quo for the qualified immunity the police need to do their jobs is rigorous and effective accountability, which is frequently lacking, and the ability to recognize plain criminality without equivocation.
It needs emphasizing that police officers are entitled to due process and to an understanding of the hazards they face in their work. But when people of good faith suspect that officers believe themselves, with reason, to be beyond the law, the damage to society is profound.
As much as the anger is justified, it does not excuse the riots. Destroying the property of innocent fellow citizens and putting lives at risk cannot substitute for protest, even when the object of the protests is a great and deeply felt wrong. That wrong needs to be addressed with new conviction and urgency at every level of government. But understanding the rage is not to forgive heedless violence and destruction.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms put this well: “We as a people are strongest when we use our voices to heal our city instead of using our hands to tear it down,” she said in a statement Saturday. “We know our citizens are angry. We are angry and we want justice. If we are to enact change in this nation, I implore everyone to channel their anger and sorrow into something more meaningful and effective through non-violent activism.” –Bloomberg