Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – Outfitted in militarized Robocop regalia, the police viciously attack protestors, bystanders, and journalists with batons, chemical weapons, and “less lethal” rubber and bean bag bullets. In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot in the head with a “less-lethal” round. Rioting police fire tear gas in quantities that threaten the health and safety of demonstrators, especially in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic. Police ram vehicles into crowds, recreating the assault that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. These violent interactions seem to be viewed by police as necessary to do the job of dealing with unruly gatherings. But it’s clear that police are using indiscriminate violence against peaceful demonstrators to terrorize and intimidate them.
This horrifying spectacle is playing out across the United States: a savage police riot is being waged against citizens whose crime is daring to criticize police violence and systemic racism. The torture and murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers ignited a righteous fury that instantly erupted across the country into a passionately intense and inspiring multi-ethnic protest movement driven by Black Lives Matter. The police’s overwhelming response to accusations of violence and unchecked power has been ferocious violence and unchecked power. This anti-democratic police assault is partly fueled by the white supremacist Looter-in-Chief President Trump who called racial justice protestors “terrorists,” urged shooting looters, threatened an attack of “vicious dogs and ominous weapons,” and blustered about occupying American cities, or “battlespaces,” with the U.S. military.
In many cities, curfews have escalated tensions — criminalizing what would otherwise be lawful assemblies, giving officers free rein to attack citizens. Used to curb uncontrolled crime or violence, curfews invariably lead to more confrontations between police and the communities they are supposed to protect. This despicable police response disgraces their mission to “protect and serve” and instead violates the public trust. For example, Police swung batons at protesters in New York City last Thursday night, enforcing the city’s curfew as soon as 8 p.m. arrived. Journalists were shoved and pinned against cars in retaliation for breaking the curfew. When they explained that they, as press, were exempt from the curfew, an officer said “Get the fuck out of here you piece of shit.”
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NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 02: NYPD officers block the exit of the Manhattan Bridge as hundreds protesting police brutality and systemic racism attempt to cross into the borough of Manhattan from Brooklyn hours after a citywide curfew went into effect in New York City. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images).
Aside from the provocative imposition of a curfew, the police response to these largely peaceful demonstrations is characterized by urban-warfare strategies that derive from fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. This warrior culture is reinforced by the recent trend of militarizing the police with the most frightening and sophisticated warfighting gear possible — battle uniforms, armored personnel carriers, military grade weapons — that turn them into quasi-military shock troops. An even longer trend among police — derived from the Vietnam War protests — is to treat demonstrations as tantamount to revolution and protesting citizens as enemy combatants. “Police are not warriors — because we are not and must not be at war with our neighbors,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer and current police officer. The military mindset is contributing to the overreaction by the police.
Major media outlets are not covering the breadth of indiscriminate and unrestrained police violence against protestors who have broken no law, disobeyed no order, or made no threat. Initially focusing on the early, more militant aspects of the protests, reporters now often speak in generalities about tensions and clashes with police before inevitably lapsing into moralistic commentary on whether or not the protest has been “peaceful” as they see it. The one event of outrageous police violence they did cover was staged by Reality Show Director Donald Trump. Upset about reports of his cowering in an underground White House bunker, Trump emerged from his hidey-hole, under extreme military protection, and gave a rabid speech condemning the protests as “acts of terror” without a word of empathy for George Floyd. His bloated attorney general William Barr ordered that Lafayette Park be cleared out. This was accomplished by gassing, shooting, and beating peaceful protestors and journalists so Trump could walk through the Park, transparently preening as a fake tough guy, which Masha Gessen described as “performing fascism.” In an apparent nod to his evangelical base, the cowardly president posed for a photo op in front of a boarded up Church he doesn’t attend, holding up a Bible he doesn’t read. With fencing, blast walls and soldiers, Trump has now created the White House as a Baghdad Green Zone, a potential military defense if he loses the election.
The most complete source for information on what has actually transpired between protestors and police is user-generated video that shows attacks on protesters and bystanders — including young children, journalists, and medics. These videos demonstrate a gigantic convulsion of police violence — a nationwide police riot. While there’s no complete collection and cataloguing of these videos, Durham, N.C,. lawyer T. Greg Doucette has collected, in a Twitter thread, over 360 incidents of police violence that is exhaustive and exhausting, but still not complete. Some examples: In Buffalo, NY: police take down a man while he’s being interviewed by the press with his hands in the air. In Seattle, police beat the crap out of a subdued protester as other police block and pepper-spray anyone who might want to help. In Philadelphia, a police officer pulled down a protestor’s mask to pepper spray her in the face. In Atlanta, police surrounded a car, smashed the windows, tased the occupants and dragged them out onto the ground. LAPD officers enthusiastically slam protesters with nightsticks in the Fairfax district. In the posh suburban paradise of Walnut Creek, California, soldiers in tanks scream, “If you do not move, you will be dead.” In Salt Lake City, a police officer apparently thought that an elderly man — walking with a cane — was moving too slow and shoved him to the ground. What adds to the disturbing nature of these videos is the cops’ brazenness — they know they’re being filmed as did Derek Chauvin, the killer of George Floyd who casually looks into the camera as he’s strangling the life out of Floyd.
The demonstrations that began as spontaneous eruptions of outrage over police violence appeared this weekend to have cohered into a national protest movement against systematic racism, marked as much by organization and determination as by street fury. Protestors kept up the pressure and momentum toward overhauling what is a broken law enforcement system plagued by racial injustice. This new American Insurrection is breathing life into a moribund democracy and has been gathering strength for two weeks — marching in all fifty states and Washington DC including over 430 cities, towns and suburbs as well as internationally — Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The anger goes far beyond that one heinous incident to address an abhorrent accumulation. The image of a cop holding his knee to the throat of the handcuffed black man was not only another demonstration of police racism and shameless cruelty but a powerful symbol reflecting the history of systemic racismin America.
African-Americans have no illusions about who the police are meant to serve. The first real organized policing systems in America began in the South with slave patrols, according to Radley Balko in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop. The slave patrols’ main responsibilities were to guard against rebellions and to look for escaped slaves. They had the power to enter slave quarters at will, whether or not they had permission from the slaves’ owners. They could even enforce some laws against plantation owners, such as those prohibiting the education of slaves. By the middle of the 18th century, every Southern colony passed laws formalizing slave patrols, which morphed into the official police force.
Systematic racism still infuses the police. Numerous recent investigations show that many law enforcement officers are sympathetic to racist alt-right ideology. An FBI intelligence assessment—titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” raised alarms over white supremacist groups’ interest in “infiltrating and recruiting law enforcement personnel.” In response to the Floyd protests in Philadelphia and Chicago and elsewhere, white men walked the streets — un-harassed by the police — with automatic weapons and baseball bats. In Olympia, Washington, cops posed with their vigilante buddies. In the midst of today’s protests, police friendliness toward armed white vigilantes and groups they consider allies underscores the extent to which the police view themselves not as guardians of public safety, but as anti-protestor combatants.
The police system is not malfunctioning, but functioning as it was intended to function — enforcing and reinforcing the subordination of black and poor people. “The system is working perfectly, it’s working as designed — that’s why we still have structural racism and institutional deficiencies,” says Ron Davis, an African American former police chief. “If you have operational systems that are flawed, good people will have bad outcomes and bad people get to operate with impunity. While the vast majority of police are good men and women honorably serving, they are still having terrible outcomes.” This is because the police are operating under the same system that was designed to protect slavery, reinforce Jim Crow laws, and oppress black and poor people. As Davis says, “We have to start over again and go back to square one and build this system again by asking what would be the role of police in a democracy.” The police riots are violent reactions to demands for radical change.
It comes as no surprise when the police respond to demands for change with anger and contempt. This is reflected not only in the police riots generally, but can be seen more specifically in one of the few widely publicized instances of police violence during the protests. In Buffalo, officers shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground while enforcing curfew, causing him to hit his head on the sidewalk. Officers marched past him, with casual indifference, as he lay motionless on the ground and bleeding from the ear. Two officers were suspended and charged with a felony. Yet, all 57 officers on the Emergency Response Team, a special squad formed to respond to riots, resigned in support of the suspended officers. The president of the police union in Buffalo said the union stood “100 percent” behind two officers, claiming the officers “were simply following orders.” In most cases, police unions aren’t unions, they’re protection rackets run to protect bad cops and have a long history of fiercely and successfully opposing necessary reforms.
The police refuse demands for radical change and structural reform. In the face of mass anger over police brutality, they’ve mostly shown — through an assertion of violent power and impunity — that they don’t care. Yet, as Martin Luther King said, in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, “Direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Like Trump’s neo-fascist speeches, the police riots are an attack on democracy and on the demands for accountability. So far, the police and government attempt to crush dissent and intimidate people is failing as vast waves of outraged demonstrators persistently continue to cause a crisis, raise social tension, make demands, and create pressure for change.
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