Our Opinion: Protest and policing in a plural democracy
George Floyd died last week, gasping for air beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and tens of thousands of Americans are on the march.
George Floyd was not the first man to lose his life unjustly in an encounter with law enforcement agents. He likely will not be the last. The officer who pressed him to the ground for nearly nine minutes, with his knee on his neck, was fired and will be charged with murder. But police officers have been acquitted before of homicides no more justifiable, and not even prosecuted for crimes no less egregious.
George Floyd was a black man. A disproportionate number of victims of police brutality are black. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated in American jails and prisons are black.
Racism in the United States of America is systemic, with deep roots and innumerable impacts. And in the wake of George Floyd's death, people have filled the streets and public squares of Portland and other major cities, as well as rallied and held vigils in smaller cities like Beaverton, Tualatin, Forest Grove and St. Helens, to take a stand against racism and brutality.
Thankfully, protesters in Washington and Columbia counties have been peaceful and law-abiding, and local police have been respectful and unobtrusive in kind.
But in places, protests have spilled over into acts of violence, vandalism and burglary. And at times, even peaceful protests have been suppressed with excessive force by authorities, who seem to believe they can impose peace on an unhappy populace with tear gas and flash-bangs.
Demonstrations are born of passion, but in proof, they are a balancing act.
The Constitution — written, it must be said, by land-owning and often slave-owning white men some 230 years ago, when the United States was barely a dozen years old, had a population of less than 4 million and encompassed just 13 states on the Atlantic seaboard — explicitly states in its First Amendment: "The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the Legislature by petitions, or remonstrances, for redress of their grievances."
How do you express the immense anger and grief over the unjustified slaying of men and women, many of them people of color, many of them black, at the hands of law enforcement agents across the United States — while remaining peaceable?
How do you channel that pain into the petitioning of our elected officials for the redress of millions of people's grievances — and secure reforms, real reforms, that will save innocent lives?
How do you open people's eyes to the injustice you've seen clearly all your life, and open their hearts to your needs — without images of arson, broken glass, tear gas and beatings on television screens all over the world?
There is a desperate need for these protests to succeed, because the status quo cannot continue. We cannot live with police officers who crush unarmed black men into the ground until they are dead on suspicion of some minor offense. We cannot live with prosecutors who refuse to bring charges against law enforcement agents even when people die needlessly in their custody. We cannot live with guardians who incite and escalate violence and chaos when they are entrusted with keeping the peace.
And for these protests to succeed, they must open eyes and win hearts. They must demand change that is both meaningful and reasonable, action that is supported by and does right by the people of the United States. They must not stampede over the livelihoods of business owners, trample the photographers and videographers recording this moment in history, or uproot and abuse the people who live on the streets they claim, perpetuating a cycle of pain and injustice and tearing at the wounds already inflicted by a pandemic and economic turmoil.
And the way that authorities respond — our elected leaders, our administrators and judges, and our police — must also be a balancing act.
The duty of police in our society is to prevent crime. Smashing windows, looting stores and setting fires are criminal acts. Peaceably assembling to petition the government for a redress of grievances is a constitutional right.
Police in Portland, augmented by state troopers as well as deputies and officers from neighboring jurisdictions, have tried a variety of tactics. It should come as little surprise that the velvet glove has fared better than the iron fist.
That hasn't played out the same way everywhere. Take Monday night:
• In New York City, media and eyewitness reports described organized groups of looters roving through Manhattan. Instead of making political statements, they were taking whatever they could get their hands on. Police did little to stop them.
• In Philadelphia, at least one journalist reported being severely beaten by anti-protester vigilantes for having the temerity to record them. Police did little to stop them.
• In Washington, D.C., people peacefully protested across from the White House as President Donald Trump gave a televised address. Reportedly without warning, federal police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, even assaulting an Australian news crew that was reporting live from the scene, so the president could walk to a nearby church after his speech and hold up a Bible in front of cameras. (The White House wasted little time setting the footage of this stunt, conveniently omitting the suppression of demonstrators minutes earlier, to triumphal music and posting it on Twitter that night.)
Here's what the president and others howling for "law and order" need to understand: You can't curtail a protest movement against police brutality with more police brutality.
When the president told police officers "don't be too nice" to suspects in 2017, he may not have had the asphyxiation death of a black man in Minneapolis in mind, but he was also endorsing the kind of policing that erodes trust between agents of the law and the people they're sworn to protect and serve. He was signaling the type of leader he would be in this moment, infatuated with the use of excessive force to, as he has taken to saying, "dominate" a restive citizenry. He was ignorant at best, openly disparaging at worst, of the function of law enforcement in a civil society, wherein government is derived from the consent of the governed and laws are upheld not for the sake of vengeance, but for the people.
Tigard Police Chief Kathy McAlpine has described her small suburban police department as "a customer service operation," in which the role of officers is to address the needs and concerns of the people it serves. That's a good analogy. And last month, city voters approved a measure that will allow police to provide better coverage for their community, as well as give them training on crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics.
De-escalation is what we want to see, and it's what we expect to see. Just as we expect protest organizers to peaceably petition in the spirit of the First Amendment, without violence or thievery, we expect police to strive for peace and ensure the safety of all people, whether demonstrators shouting slogans at them, journalists recording them on their smartphones, or suspects who have surrendered or been restrained. We expect them to use the minimum amount of force possible to prevent crime, avoiding the use of force — especially lethal force — if there is any way to keep the peace without it. We expect them to work with the people they protect and serve, not to work against them. We expect them to be accountable when they fail in their duties, and we expect them to stand before a judge and receive the sentence that befits them when they violate the laws they are supposed to be upholding.
And these are expectations we think the vast majority of Oregonians, and Americans, also share. It's not just liberals who seek justice. It's not just conservatives who want order. It's the framework for the preservation of civil society. It's the system as it is meant to be, not a machine that crushes people for the color of their skin or the size of their bank account, but an institution that vouchsafes the democracy that generations of people in this country have gone to war, gone to work, and yes, gone into the streets in order to build.
The looting must stop — not only of our stores and shopping malls, but of our American dream. It will take time, it will take perseverance, but it cannot be done with a truncheon and it cannot be done with a bat. It will take passion, it will take anger, but it must be done with eyes that are open, rather than blinded by hate and rage.
The word "peace" recurs again and again, in the chants and handmade signs of protesters, in the slogans and jargon of law enforcement, and on this page. Peace is the responsibility of us all. It is not a right. It is not something we can take or give. It is something we must work toward and can only achieve together.
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