On Memorial Day, four Minneapolis police officers killed a black man named George Floyd. In a video taken by a bystander, one can hear Floyd, who is on the ground and not resisting as an officer named Derek Chauvin kneels on his neck, pleading for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe” and moaning in pain. (Chauvin was involved in at least two previous police shootings of civilians.) Onlookers can also be heard begging the police not to kill Floyd, while another cop named Tou Thao just glares at them, indifferent to the gathered crowd’s increasing panic. As the cops take Floyd’s unconscious body away, one man can be heard yelling, “You just really killed that man, bro.”
The video is incredibly disturbing, so it’s no surprise that thousands of people hit the streets in protest on Tuesday, breaking lockdown in a city with a rising rate of coronavirus infection to register their outrage.
The vast majority of protesters weren’t violent and none were armed. But Minneapolis police showed up ready to rumble. News photos show the cops pouring out of vehicles fully clad in riot gear and as soon as a handful of protesters committed minor acts of property damage and threw some water bottles (the Star Tribune reports that peaceful protesters pleaded with others to stop the vandalism), cops used that as a pretext to shoot tear-gas canisters into the crowd.
Those images are much like the ones we’ve grown accustomed to in the era of Black Lives Matter protests (though this time with the addition of face masks): Cops in riot gear striding like conquering soldiers through clouds of tear gas, unarmed protesters running in terror and weeping, surreal images of people’s faces covered in milk as they try to wash the tear gas from their eyes.
But what I can’t get past — and judging from the reactions on social media, I’m not alone — is how wildly different that scene played out compared to the astroturf anti-lockdown protests staged in various state capitals across the country over the past month or so.
In places like Lansing, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, right-wing protesters have showed up literally armed to the hilt, carrying assault rifles and menacing state legislators who were simply trying balance public safety and the economic needs of their citizens. In Michigan, protesters literally stormed the state capitol and stood in the galley with guns, in an obvious effort to intimidate the politicians below.
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs
— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
Yet police in these situations didn’t show up in full riot gear. They didn’t shoot tear gas at anyone. When protesters pounded on the doors and got right in cops’ faces, officers just stood there stoically, unwilling to do harm to these particular citizens, who were almost all white and big fans of Donald Trump.
Will be forever haunted by this image of protestors in Ohio demanding the governor open businesses back up pic.twitter.com/P0nivaYSsY
— future canon (@futurecanon) April 15, 2020
Photos from a Michigan protests were armed white people wanted to end the lockdown v unarmed POC protesting against police brutality. This shit is fucken disgusting. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! #BlackLivesMatter #GeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/AjOI0ZPAsX
— hay-SOOS (@JesusMireles___) May 27, 2020
No doubt liberals are in danger of letting conservatives drag them into a nitpicky, line-by-line debate over what constitutes “peaceful protest” and who started what in Minneapolis. But there’s no reason to get into that.
The bigger picture is clear: The police showed up in Minneapolis looking for a fight and were ready to use even the slimmest excuses in order to unleash violence on protesters who weren’t armed and didn’t injure anyone. (And some of whom were literally children.) But in Ohio and Michigan and other places, anti-lockdown protesters literally showed up to threaten politicians with an implicit message of violence by performing their paramilitary cosplay — and police did nothing.
To be clear, I’m glad the police didn’t do anything to the jackasses who showed up to protest the lockdowns. I’m against gratuitous police violence being inflicted on anyone. What’s relevant here is that the police reaction to the Trumpist protesters proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that law enforcement officials are being dishonest when they claim they need to bring down the hammer of violence on Black Lives Matter protesters. If cops can stand by calmly while men with guns scream in their faces, they sure as hell don’t have to tear-gas a crowd of peaceful protesters just because somebody broke a window.
Why are cops cracking down so hard on BLM protests? It’s not because those protesters pose a real threat. It’s because police are eager to punish citizens who dare to question their authority to kill whoever they want whenever they want. Whereas the cops don’t much care about some entitled man-babies who literally menace people with guns because they’re missing out on Margarita Tuesdays at Chili’s.
The differences between the two protest movements don’t stop at the police reaction, of course. The two groups of protesters couldn’t be more different.
For one thing, the BLM protests are a genuine grassroots uprising. Thousands of people in Minneapolis organized rapidly on social media because they wanted to express their outrage, and they don’t think the cops should get away with murder.
Meanwhile, the anti-lockdown protests are an astroturf operation funded by right-wing billionaires. Those billionaires oppose lockdown regulations because they’re afraid that the stimulus spending and expanded unemployment benefits necessary to get the country through this crisis will spark greater public demand for a more robust social safety net. So they spread propaganda that feeds on people’s desires to return to normal life to induce right-wing idiots to hit the streets, demanding their “right” to force hairdressers and waitstaff back to work during a pandemic.
For another thing, the BLM protesters have a legitimate grievance. They believe people of color should be able to live without the threat of random violence by police, or threats from whiny white ladies who want to break the leash laws in Central Park. The protesters in Minneapolis are both speaking against injustice and actively trying to save lives.
Meanwhile, the anti-lockdown protesters are arguing that your right to live matters less than their immediate desire to hit the Cheesecake Factory after a long day of perusing camo gear at Cabela’s.
Of course, there’s also the difference in tactics. The BLM protesters are almost entirely nonviolent. The fact that a few of them acted out and caused minor property damage (breaking windows, not bodies) doesn’t change that.
It’s true that anti-lockdown protesters who pack high-powered rifles and scream in cops’ faces haven’t hurt anyone, at least not yet. But their clear purpose is to use the threat of violence to get their way. That’s why they show up heavily armed and say things like, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” to cheering throngs of yahoos. Their rhetoric and their tactics are all about the possibility of anti-government violence, or even the second civil war some of them call “the boogaloo.”
What happened this week in Minneapolis is shameful. The killing of George Floyd was shameful, and the way the cops behaved like petulant bullies, latching onto any excuse to inflict violence on peaceful protesters is shameful.
Cops are flat-out lying when they claim they need to use force to break up BLM protests. They stand by and do nothing while armed right-wing protesters gather at state capitols and threaten Democratic politicians with lynching or execution. If police can restrain themselves in the face of violent threats, they can sure as hell choose not to tear-gas a nonviolent protest against an apparent police murder.