For the last ten days we have witnessed the mental meltdown of many Medium members of the Politics section. This section has always had a strong tilt towards the far left, but the events subsequent to the murder of George Floyd have definitely pushed many members of this community over the edge. We’ve seen a parade of stories announcing the end of civilization as we know it. That has usually been Umar Haque’s territory, but of late he’s had a lot of competition. We’ve had people screaming that we need to dump the First Amendment to protect ourselves from the fascists (huh?). And of course the phrase ‘police brutality’ has been so frequent that I fear that Google’s search dictionaries will be overwhelmed. One fellow condemned me as morally deficient because I’m not angry. Meanwhile, concepts like facts, logic, evidence, and reasoning have been discarded ‘due the extremity of the current crisis’.
The most important failure in most of the posts is gross oversimplification. The most common theme boils down to “Urgh… Police bad… protesters good.” We see lengthy diatribes about the evil crimes committed by police officers. We seldom see any mention of anything less than saintly done by citizens. And do you notice that these writers slather the adjective ‘non-violent’ over their descriptions as heavily as politicians use the adjective ‘hard-working’ on ‘Americans’?
The notion that there might be some heroic police officers or some dastardly protesters is entirely too nuanced for many of these people.
Here’s another common flaw: wild hyperbole. For example, one of our commentators claimed that a New York police car crashed into a crowd of protesters — sorry, “innocent protesters” — sending “bodies flying”. Here’s the video of that incident:
I saw no airborne bodies. Indeed, after closely watching that video many times, I could not find a single person who was even knocked down, and not a single person in the video shows any indication of injury.
Another example of hyperbole was the fellow who applied the label “violence” to just about everything that is bad. No, calling people names is not violence. Income inequality is not violence. Poor education is not violence.
Then there are all the claims that this is a revolution, that nothing like this has ever happened before, that the people are finally standing up to the evil oppressive Establishment, etc, etc. etc.
A lot of people seem to think that these events are unprecedented and represent some sort of collapse. That’s ridiculous; they say these things only because they are too young to remember the far worse riots of times past. I suggest that these people consult this brief list of riots in this country.
For example, in the summer of 1967, there were 159 race riots in this country, with at least 85 deaths, over 2,000 injured, and over 10,000 arrested. In 1968, the riots in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King led to 37 deaths. There were demonstrations and riots all through the late sixties and early seventies, in which hundreds of people died, tens of thousands were injured, thousands of business were looted, and thousands of buildings burned.
Riots and demonstrations continued; there were few years without some sort of public violence by crowds. One of the more serious riots was in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992. 63 people died in those riots.
So if you have any sense of the history of communal violence in the USA, you have to rate the current spate of riots, with only 11 deaths so far, as second-rate. Sure, 11 deaths is bad, bad, bad — but we’ve seen much worse.
Another factor that few people have noticed is the sharp decline of cases of police overuse of force. It’s not that the police have suddenly seen the light and are now singing “Halleluiah, brother!” as they dance down the sidewalk kissing happy citizens. No, it’s technology: the ubiquity of smartphones that can record video. Let’s face it: almost everybody today is ready and eager to record every act by every police officer in the country. This is revolutionary. Just 15 years ago, police actions were seldom recorded. Then Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, followed just a year later by the Android. In 2010, 20% of the US population owned smartphones; by 2015, that had grown to 60%; now in 2020 it’s 72%. Nowadays, we don’t just get a single video recording of a police attack; we get the view from above, from close up, from far away, from the left, from the right, and from below. It makes football on TV look positively antediluvian. Of course, the people shooting the video don’t seem to know how to hold their phones; we get lots of shots of sky, asphalt, and fingers along with the occasionally useful imagery.
Next we come to the issue of police brutality. I must say, I find the manifold accusations of police brutality generally laughable. In the first place, some people apply the label “brutality” far too widely. They seem to think that anything that isn’t nice is brutal. Brutality is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “inhumanity, savage cruelty, or inhuman action”. I would characterize brutality as the deliberate infliction of pain and injury for sadistic reasons or to terrify. By that standard, I have yet to see a single clearcut case of police brutality in the current bout of demonstrations. I’ve watched a lot of videos, and yes, I have seen many cases of police using physical force against people. In many of those cases, the victim was not engaging in any kind of physical violence against others. But I would characterize most of these events as “police impatience” rather than “police brutality”. For me, the defining element of brutality is injury. Here’s genuine police brutality:
If you think that the police are a little too quick to turn to violent, take a moment to contemplate this photo from a demonstration in 1970:
There are many, many other cases of true police brutality; I have on a number of occasions been outraged by some of these cases. Here’s one that really got to me.
Here’s another one that is REALLY scary: these cops deliberately murdered a guy who was pleading for his life. And yes, they were acquitted; what do you expect?
Yes, police brutality is genuine, and there have been many, many cases of police brutality, and in many of these cases, blacks are the victims of completely unjustified shootings. But I haven’t seen any examples of that from these demonstrations.
If a police officer shoves a citizen, that’s not brutality. It’s not nice, and it may be improper or inappropriate, and the police officer may be subjected to disciplinary action if the shoving was improper. But police are the people who enforce the law against those citizens who in some fashion violate the law. They have the dirty, ugly job of applying physical force against people. Sometimes they overstep. Sometimes they go way, way overboard. But shoving somebody just isn’t police brutality.
Protesters versus sociopaths versus looters
These demonstrations are populated by three kinds of people. First, there are the protesters. These people are protesting the racial injustices epitomized by the murder of Mr. Floyd. They comprise the great majority of the people on the street.
Next come the testosterone-drenched fools who are out looking for a fight. These are the same people who get into fights at bars. Although they mouth all the right slogans, their true purpose is to duke it out with police as symbols of authority. These guys have father-issues that they never resolved, and they’re going to take it out on the police. They’re easy to find: they’re the ones who come equipped for a fight, with gas masks, helmets, and non-lethal weapons such as slingshots. They show up prominently in a lot of photos because they’re the ones on the front lines throwing stuff at the police.
Last are the looters. There are a lot of these people. They usually come out at night, when they are harder to catch. They smash windows, pour in, and strip the place faster than piranhas in the Amazon. They see themselves as Robin Hoods, only they rob from the rich and give to themselves — and the people they rob aren’t really rich.
If you’re a police officer, your job is to protect the first group while avoiding getting hurt by the second group and protecting shops from the third group. You can’t be sure who belongs to which group. Good luck.
Please, people, take a moment to breathe into a paper bag. Calm yourselves. We’re in the middle of a bad time; people are dying out there. We don’t need you egging people on and fanning the flames with wild crazy rhetoric; that’s what Donald Trump is for.