Why policing, not protesting, should be the aim of our critiques
Little is understood without sufficient context, least of all the public demonstrations that turned destructive in St. Louis.
Earlier this month, protesters took to the streets after the acquittal of John Stockley, a former police officer charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man. Demonstrations were peaceful and calm during the day, turning more destructive and chaotic at night, according to The New York Times.
Sweeping glass off the sidewalk from the shattered windows of his small business, Sam Thomas, a resident of the St. Louis, provided an effective frame of reference for the events.
“The window isn’t murdered. Nobody is going to have a funeral for the window. We can replace it,” Thomas said, according to the Associated Press.
Thomas’ perspective exposes the critical difference between the loss of a human life and the destruction of physical property. It’s a distinction that shouldn’t need further explanation. But it’s an important insight when analyzing protests against police brutality in contemporary America. With proper context in view, we learn that protesting—no matter how destructive—is not the culprit of our blame.
An Impossible Burden of Proof
An overwhelming majority of the protests have been peaceful. The Washington Post reported a small group of protesters smashed windows and overturned trash cans in a concentrated area downtown; there was minor property destruction. According to authorities, some demonstrators threw chemicals and rocks at police. In total, over 80 people have been arrested.
But with every public demonstration in our country, peaceful or not, warranted or not, comes backlash from those who profess the need for public safety, the virtue of moderation, and the myth of waiting for a better time. More often than not, these attitudes give way to direct criticism and condemnation of fellow citizens who take to the street to demand the most basic forms of justice.
This harmful line of thinking is especially pertinent to those with political beliefs and personal ideologies somewhere in the center, often branded as “the white moderate,” “the silent majority,” members of “middle America.” We may know them as the suburban mother who stresses the need for more respect on both sides; the grandparents who ask where common decency went; the friend who is quicker to defend 1st Amendment rights for Nazis than black protesters. Often, they remain silent on police brutality and racial injustice; that is, until a few windows are broken.
But these attitudes are nothing new. Throughout history, calls for change and pushes for progress have been met with public skepticism and excessive scrutiny. Terms like “riot,” “chaos,” and “agitation” flip the narrative from battling large-scale injustice to citing minor infractions.
Social justice movements are held to an impossible burden of proof: adhering to principles of nonviolence and norms of civility, even when opposing forces do not. Today, detractors of contemporary black activism measure campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of nonviolence—bleached and shined by the polish of history. Yesterday, the criticism was directed at MLK Jr. himself. In 1966, 63% of Americans held an unfavorable view of MLK Jr., with half of white respondents saying he hurt the Negro cause of civil rights. Today, opinion has drastically changed: Nine out of 10 Americans support MLK Jr.
From the Civil Rights Movement to the Blank Panther Party to Black Lives Matter, accusations of violence, actual or imagined, have been used to stall momentum and diminish public support. Even the slightest misstep—a single insult, punch, or rock thrown—can discredit the cause. Any form of violence, real or perceived, is wholly unacceptable.
In his famous (and oft-misquoted) speech at Stanford University, MLK Jr. added nuance to violent demonstrations: “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.”
Unfortunately, this lesson has been corroded by time. In the aftermath of St. Louis, many people, including Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, have been quick to criticize protesters’ responsibility for property damage and clashes with officers. They have been noticeably less vocal about police reform.
Who’s Really at Fault
We must remain focused on the issue at hand. Protesting is not the problem in our country. Police violence, and the murder of young black men, is. One is a significant and recurring problem, and one is not.
After all, the protests are but a response to yet another murder at the hands of the police, without significant repercussions. The Stockley case is particularly insufferable. According the Associated Press, Stockley pursued Smith by vehicle after a suspected drug deal. The dashcam video during the chase recorded Stockley saying, “Going to kill this motherf—er don’t you know it.” He would go on to shoot Smith five times.
Prosecutors alleged that Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car, with evidence showing Stockley’s DNA on the weapon but not Smith’s. Even so, Chief O’Toole decided to single out protesters’ petty crimes.
“These criminals that we’ve arrested should be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” O’Toole said during a news conference. Gov. Greitens signaled his allegiance in a Facebook post, “If you break a window, you’re going to be behind bars.” If only the same level of enforcing justice applied the officers meant to uphold it.
If we are to seriously condemn violence, destruction, and harmful actions in our society, let’s put blame where blame is due. The violence generated from police is far more prevalent than from protests. Not to mention far more harmful.
In the past year alone, police have shot and killed nearly 1,000 civilians, according to the Washington Post. A disproportionate share, almost 25 percent, were black civilians. Imagine if violent protests occurred at that rate. In the past five years, there have been less than five noteworthy destructive demonstrations in response to police brutality.
Other critics cite the economic impact of protests. They are right in one regard: public demonstrations, similar to those in St. Louis, are expensive. The unrest in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 cost St. Louis County more than $4 million, the largest amount paying for police overtime, with substantially smaller payments for property damage.
Yet, these costs pale in comparison to the settlements cities pay for police misconduct. After the killing of Tamir Rice, Cleveland will pay $6 million to Rice’s family. New York City will pay $5.9 million to the family of Eric Garner. Baltimore will pay $6.4 million to the family of Freddie Gray. North Charleston, South Carolina, will pay $6.5 million to the family of Walter Scott. And the city of St. Anthony will pay $3 million to mother of Philando Castile.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases in 2014. Over the course of five years, the cities collectively paid out $1.02 billion for cases involving alleged beatings, shootings, and wrongful imprisonment.
That’s only the economic impact. The cost of lost human lives is immeasurable.
Focusing on the few instances of violence and destruction obscures the many instances of police brutality against Americans with brown and black skin. Singling out the damage of storefronts subverts the larger damage to segments of our populations who don’t feel safe by those sworn to protect and serve. Blaming protesters, and the victims of police brutality, for the consequences of injustice ignores who’s really at fault.
The Roots of Violence
Let me be clear: I am not condoning or advocating the use of violent tactics. Surely destructive demonstrations are not desirable. Fellow citizens can get hurt. Local businesses suffer the economic impact. Neighborhoods and communities get destroyed. I doubt their overall effectiveness, and I am certain there are far better ways to induce change. Most people likely agree.
Although destructive protests may not be an effective solution, they are an inevitable consequence of our current state. Violent responses are products manufactured by generations of oppression, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment.
What MLK Jr. understood is that public displays of violence do not arise out of thin air: “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? … it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity… In a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
This is especially evident in St. Louis, which retains some of the highest racial-economic disparities and most segregated areas in the country. Black residents in St. Louis are three times as likely to live in poverty and earn half the income of their white counterparts.
Combatting True Injustice
Let’s ask ourselves which injustice is greater—breaking windows or murdering civilians?
Taken at face value, protests resulting in property destruction and violence seem to afford little justification. But this perspective only holds merit if we forget the history of policing in America—one of violence, discrimination, and oppression targeted at black communities—and disregard the tragic events provoking such a response.
When considering the events in St. Louis, we should keep in mind Sam Thomas’ response to broken windows and MLK Jr.’s perspective on riots. The damage caused by protesters is a matter of context and degree—compared to Lamar Scott’s murder and John Stockley’s acquittal, it is negligible.
It’s time for us to start criticizing the perpetrators of violence, not the victims; to hold police officers accountable, not petty crimes; to combat true injustice, not protesting.
I for one will begin criticizing violence coming from protests only when violence coming from police stops.