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Protests around the world: This time it’s different

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

A profound, historical difference separates the protests across America the past six days from past eruptions of anger over police violence against black men and women. It’s a difference that that isn’t showing up in news reports, televised or print, even though it’s quite apparent

The differences are where these demonstrations are taking place and who is protesting. Historically we’ve seen white people burn down black neighborhoods or black Americans demonstrate in their own neighborhoods, as with the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles and most of the 1992 riots after the acquittal of white Los Angeles Police officers in the Rodney King beating.

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Not this time. This was black and white together, along with Latino and Asian and elderly and disabled. These protests transcend class and income. And they show that cellphone videos have awakened the consciences of many white Americans with irrefutable evidence of everyday police abuse of black Americans.

Protesters and police together took a knee in Minneapolis, Oakland and other cities, a symbol of peaceful civility and solidarity.

As Gandhi taught, there is something in the human heart, in our biological makeup, that is offended by immoral brutality and oppression. But as he also taught, people have to know about it to be offended. America’s long history of denial about racial oppression by the police and other instruments of state power simply cannot withstand the power of the digital witness we all carry in our pockets.

In Los Angeles, both cable news channels and local television focused on demonstrators gathering in places like the prosperous and mostly white Fairfax neighborhood on that city’s West Side. There were also demonstrations in the seaside town of Santa Monica, in Long Beach and other predominantly white coastal towns.

In New York City, there were demonstrations in the South Bronx, home to the poorest Congressional district in America where 95% of residents are black or Latino. But what was revealing were the demonstrations in the prosperous Union Square area in Manhattan, part of the second richest Congressional district in America.

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In Chicago, the impoverished Armour Square neighborhood on the South Side where demonstrators demanded an end to police violence against people of color, but so did people of many colors in the rich neighborhoods just north of the Loop near the Magnificent Mile.

This pattern of protesting in central business districts and prosperous commercial areas surrounded by mostly white populations holds true in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Seattle, and many other cities.

These are not your grandfather’s — or great grandfather’s — protests.

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The other focus of demonstrations has been government buildings, symbols of the official oppression of black Americans since the invention of racism four centuries ago to justify New World slavery.

Acting in Solidarity

The demonstrators are also remarkable in this time of coronavirus for wearing facemasks to protect others and themselves from spreading the lethal pathogen as they exercise their First Amendment rights of speech, assemble and petition for a redress of grievances.

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A looted store in Seattle (Megan Farmer/ KUOW)

Ruhel Islam, an immigrant whose Minneapolis restaurant burned during the protests, declared his solidarity with those protesting the lynching of George Floyd. “Let my building burn,” the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant’s Facebook page declared. “Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.”

Where I live, and likely in other cities as well, volunteers turned out Sunday to clean up broken glass, help merchants take inventory, and otherwise show compassion for the victims of the few who moved from peaceful protest to criminal conduct.

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But we also saw tons of police misconduct captured by news and cellphone cameras, which should remind us how deeply police violence is rooted in blue uniform culture, something I exposed four decades ago when I critically examined the LAPD for three years.

This time, however, some of the brazen police brutality was corrected by other officers, suggesting that we may start seeing many more cops speak up instead of quietly going along to get along on the job.

In New York when a white cop gratuitously slammed a white woman demonstrator to the sidewalk, shaky cell phone video captured a black cop pursuing the wrongdoer and upbraiding her fellow officer for his assault. In Salt Lake, a white cop pushed an elderly man with a cane into a barrier and onto the pavement. Almost instantly another officer reached out to help the man stand up, assisted by the perpetrator, again an incident captured on cell phone video.

Taking a Knee

Protesters and police together took a knee in Minneapolis, Oakland, and other cities, a symbol of peaceful civility and solidarity. We also saw protesters in New York City negotiate with police to open a line so people could peacefully pass.

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The short history of taking a knee reminds us of the silent protests by Colin Kaepernick when he was the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. He bent his knee rather than stand during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans.

Some other black and a few white athletes joined in this. Unable to stand this, Trump went into a Twitter rage. Trump even spent $325,000 of our tax dollars in 2018 to send Vice President Mike Pence to make a show of walking out of a football game where players took a knee to protest police violence.

Perhaps these protests will end the blacklisting of Kaepernick by the National Football League team owners, breaking their solidarity with Trump in trying to deny racial oppression in America and dictate to the oppressed how they may protest and where and when. The football audience is shrinking at an accelerating rate, driven in part by this racist conduct of team owners.

In Salt Lake City, a white cop pushed an elderly man with a cane into a barrier and onto the pavement. Another officer then reached out to help the man stand up, again an incident captured on cell phone video.

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Protesters and police together took a knee in Minneapolis, Oakland, and other cities, a symbol of peaceful civility and solidarity. We have seen protesters in New York City negotiate with police to open a line so people could peacefully pass.

That particular sign of togetherness stands in contrast to the assault Trump launched on Colin Kaepernick when, as the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, bent his knee rather than stand during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans. Trump even spent $325,000 of our tax dollars in 2018 to send Vice President Mike Pence to make a show of walking out of a football game where players took a knee to protest police violence.

Kaepernick has been effectively blacklisted by National Football League team owners. The football audience is shrinking at an accelerating rate, driven in part by the racist conduct of team owners.

Trump In Fear

The fury Trump felt at the original bent knee turned to fear as huge crowds gathered outside the White House. Built with slave labor, staffed for decades by slave servants and home to many racist administrations it is naturally a symbol to many of racial oppression, especially with a racist living there now.

Huge fires were set nearby for two nights.

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Trump fired off aggressive tweets threatening to unleash “vicious dogs” and mayhem on protesters. That only encouraged more demonstrators to turn out Sunday to denounce his loutish, racist behavior.

Sunday night Trump took refuge in an underground bunker even though the White House has bullet-proof windows and is the most securely guarded location in America. Like all bullies, the draft-dodging Trump is a coward to the core.

When Trump comes out of hiding, he will sit in the Oval Office beneath a painting of Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning and murderous seventh president, a not subtle reminder of what he really thinks about black Americans and Native Americans, too.

Protests Overseas

In Salt Lake City, demonstrators focused on the Utah Capitol where police, as in Washington, often acted with discipline and restraint when television klieg lights illuminated their faces.

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In Rochester, demonstrators marched Saturday from an urban park named for the American champion of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr., to a symbol of how racism infects America, the local law enforcement complex with its jail, police headquarters and criminal courts.

Protests also occurred in Toronto, Berlin, London, and in other foreign cities.

Thousands of Canadians, Germans, Britons, and others gathered at American embassies and consulates to shame America for claiming equal justice for all while Trump, who spews racist rhetoric and who was determined in judicial proceedings to have discriminated against blacks, Asians, Puerto Ricans, and women, leads the federal government.

Racist Losers

Who was responsible for the late-night violence? Authorities suspect white supremacists set many of the fires and instigating looting in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Rochester and other cities.

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It makes perfect sense that the hateful racists who Trump calls “fine people” would infiltrate peaceful mixed-race crowds and then foment arson and other violence to further their evil goal, hoping to stick minorities with the blame.

This time instead of vague police and city hall claims that “outside agitators” made trouble we are seeing police forces actually investigate. Among the earliest findings: of the more than 100 people arrested in the Twin Cities only 21 came from Minneapolis or St. Paul.  In Rochester, cell phone video helped police identify a known white supremacist suspected in the burning of seven cars and a trailer near the local jail. Police said they are hunting for him.

A New Hope

The evidence from the last few days is that the racists failed miserably in trying to start a race war.

They will continue to fail because these demonstrations make clear that America has reached a point where the racists can no longer wield state violence as they wish. Yes, we saw tear gas and cops firing rubber bullets at journalists and even people sitting on their porches, but we no longer live in the America of 1921, when white mobs murdered hundreds of African Americans in Tulsa or even the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965 Alabama when police attacked peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. We’ve crossed a metaphorical bridge this past week. The only remaining question is how many more bridges must be crossed to arrive in the land of decency and justice for all.

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These factors and more suggest that at long last America has acquired shame. That at long last America has had enough of official violence against people of color. That racist cops who publicly brutalize people will escape justice less often and perhaps no more.

The demonstrations were not pristine examples of protest and civil disobedience. The window-breaking and looting we all saw on television was wrong and criminal. But compared to the lives lost over 400 years by out of control slave catchers and police, looting is wrong, but small beer. And, of course, ending police oppression of people of color could end our too frequent spasms of fury over police brutality and, therefore, of such looting.

An End of Fearing Police?

Every black American I know, whether working class or multimillionaire, lives in fear of encountering a cop whose blind hatred may end their life or that of someone they love. That includes black cops. Now the day when police crime goes unpunished may be coming to an end thanks to cellphone videos that have shown all of America the brutal truth that black Americans – and cops of all colors – have always known.

The thick blue line that for decades has protected overly aggressive, frequently brutal and openly racist cops in every big city and rural hamlet is thinning as more people of color and women join police forces. Maybe, just maybe, that blue line will begin dissolving as more police officers feel empowered to speak up about calculated acts of brutality.

Let us not just hope so. Let’s act. Let’s tell our elected officials we won’t tolerate this anymore. Let’s demand the repeal of laws that in some states like New York make police abuse complaint files secret. Let’s get Congress and state legislatures to enact laws that cut back on the broad immunity that they and prosecutors enjoy so they face serious consequences for misconduct. Let’s elect lawmakers and a president who will work to achieve that laudable and long-delayed goal of equal justice for all – and let’s quickly vote out those who are just talk and no action.

Doing so will make for an America that is better in every way for every one of us.

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