Aug 27, 2020

Making sense of the chaos.

Making sense of the chaos.

There's a lot to learn from the riots in Kenosha.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here. Today is a special edition.

Two days ago, dozens of protesters stormed past a wall of police to enter a state government building. The protesters smashed windows, kicked down doors, were armed with rifles and handguns, were unmasked, were carrying signs and were shouting chants. They eventually made their way into committee rooms and began taking over hearings, ripping up seating assignments and mocking the alarmed lawmakers who were present.

These protesters had absolutely nothing to do with racial justice, police reform, George Floyd or Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man who was shot by police earlier this week.

No, there’s a good chance you didn’t even hear about these protesters. I didn’t cover them in Tangle and the mob of them overtaking state troopers was not featured in primetime on Fox News or CNN. It was nothing more than a blip on my newsfeed, and some of you are paying me to tell you what the news is. There were no covers of newspapers dedicated to the story, no long editorials about the legitimacy of their protests and no Tucker Carlson monologues about whether they had the right to do what they did.

The protesters I’m talking about were in Idaho, led by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy. Instead of bandanas around their faces and “No Peace, No Justice” signs above their heads, they were wearing cowboy hats, carrying firearms and fighting restrictions the Idaho state legislature was trying to implement to slow the spread of COVID-19.

These protesters were not met with violence. They were not hit with tear gas, not beaten with batons, not shot with rubber bullets, not dragged into paddy wagons or charged by a line of riot police. A few were arrested peacefully for trespassing. Much like the armed Michigan protesters who stormed a state capitol house a few months ago, they simply shoved their way past police while pointing and screaming in their faces.

There are theories about the differences in how these protests get treated both by police and by the media. The obvious one, the one you might be thinking and the one many on the left like to say, is that it’s because these protesters were white. Some might note that in Idaho and Michigan, things are just done a little differently than in Los Angeles or New York City. More space is given to citizens who want to tell the government to get bent. Some might argue it is because the police protecting those statehouses see themselves in the protesters — because the cops share the anti-COVID-19 restriction sentiment, because the cops have some anti-government feelings themselves, maybe even because the cops recognize their family and friends and comrades in the folks they are being ordered to control.

I’d argue it’s a combination of all these things.

Yesterday, police arrested a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse as the shooter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who killed two people and injured another during the protests. A 17-year-old. He’s a kid, a little baby-faced teenager who across state lines to stand in front of a gas station with his illegally owned rifle and play law enforcement. Immediately after he was identified, journalists swarmed his online record. He was obsessed with law enforcement on social media, a “Blue Lives Matter” activist teen, and someone quickly found a photo of him in the front row of a Trump rally from seven months earlier. He is the polar opposite of the Black teenagers I wrote about yesterday, the ones who are being inundated every day with images of police beating and shooting and killing people who look just like them.

Around the time he was identified publicly, so too was the cop who shot Jacob Blake. His name is Rusten Sheskey, and he apparently shot Blake seven times by himself. Sheskey’s name had been floating around, it was already being spray painted on buildings in Kenosha and it was largely “out there” amongst activists and reporters on the ground in a small city where people tend to know each other. The Wisconsin Department of Justice finally confirmed it was him yesterday. Along with his name, the Kenosha police released their own account of the interaction with Blake for the very first time.

They said a female caller rang 911 to say her boyfriend was present but was not supposed to be there. The police arrived and tried to arrest Blake, but after a tussle with the cops, a deployed taser did not stop him. Blake walked around to his driver’s side door, in the video many of us have now watched, opened his door, leaned down, and Sheskey unloaded his gun into his back. The police said Blake had a knife in his possession, and agents recovered a knife on the floorboard of Blake’s vehicle. No other weapons were found.

Around the time Sheskey and the teenaged shooter were identified, documentation of Blake’s criminal history also began circulating. An arrest record showed he’d once pulled a gun on a patron at a bar. He’d also caused a “soft tissue injury” to a police officer during a previous arrest and had been charged with third-degree sexual assault and domestic violence. There was a warrant filed for his arrest in July.

It should go without saying — but it doesn’t — that Blake’s arrest record should’ve had no bearing on how the police acted in their interaction with him. There’s no evidence the police knew his record before responding to the 911 call (only three minutes elapsed from the 911 call, where Blake is not named, to police arriving on the scene), and even if they did, the punishment for charges of domestic violence and third-degree sexual assault is not “the death penalty.” You don’t get to shoot someone seven times in the back for that. Nor do you get to shoot someone for keeping a knife in the driver’s side door of their car, something my own dad has done since I was a kid.

And yet, none of this stuff is binary. Yesterday, I got an email from the wife of a former police officer who thanked me for referencing the training videos cops are inundated with in the police academy. I’ve put her email into a Google document that you can read here, because I was touched both by how open she was with a stranger on the internet and how conflicted she was about everything she’s watching on the news. I think her email illustrates the way so many of us can feel so many conflicting things about the very same scene — and I also think it’s an important look into the way police officers are trained in America.

After Rittenhouse was identified, after Sheskey was identified, after the “maybe he deserved it” campaign against Blake began to spread online, you could feel the temperature rising. NBA players decided yesterday to strike the slate of playoff games they were scheduled to play last night. Then two teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, voted to walk out on the rest of the season, which has left the entire league’s plans in jeopardy. For those of you who are not sports fanatics like me, NBA players have been living in a COVID-free “bubble” for weeks on a Florida campus, playing out their season with nothing but virtual fans in a shockingly high production venue for games — games that have been a reprieve from the craziness of everyday life for many sports fans, including me, across America.

But something broke yesterday. The Milwaukee Bucks, home team of a city not far from Kenosha, led the strike. Then teams scheduled to play last night joined. By the end of the night, players from Major League Baseball had joined in, walking out on their games — something (as a former sports reporter) I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Then the WNBA, Major League Soccer and some tennis pros followed suit.

“We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place to be honest,” George Hill, a guard for the Bucks, told reporters about the bubble. “I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”

The basketball players were met with indignation from the right for their protest. “I’m done with the NBA” was one of the most tweeted sentences on Twitter last night. Conservative pundits pledged to boycott the league (again), something a few of them — like college campus activist Charlie Kirk — have now done several times over the last ten years.

But what are the players and protesters to do? Alton Sterling was killed, and they’re criticized for kneeling during the national anthem. Breonna Taylor is killed and they’re criticized for wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts. Jacob Blake is shot and they’re criticized for sitting out games. George Floyd is killed and they’re criticized for blocking streets. Ahmaud Arbery is killed and they’re criticized for the “black box” on Instagram. It goes on and on. They’re criticized for “virtue signaling.” They’re criticized for “slacktivism.” They’re criticized for supporting reforms. They’re criticized for voting for “radicals.” They’re criticized for donating to bail funds. And when some of them riot — they’re rightfully criticized by everyone for that.

The truth is there doesn’t seem to be an acceptable way for Black athletes or progressive Americans to protest in the eyes of many conservatives right now. While armed anti-government protesters barge into the halls of government buildings with little or no resistance, and certainly no criticism from the right, the left is hammered in every direction. You’re a social justice warrior if you post something online. You’re inconveniencing everyone if you march in the streets. You’re disrespecting the flag and “hate America” if you kneel for the anthem. And you’re a crybaby if you make millions of dollars a year and decide not to play basketball.

Every action these athletes take is mocked, derided or condemned. As Tim Miller asked on Twitter, “If you claim to think that police can't summarily execute people but also don't want violent protests and don't want anthem protests... Then why attack players for a non-violent, non-anthem protest? What do you want them to do? Just be good boys and accept it?”

Perhaps the now-infamous refrain from Fox News’s Laura Ingraham is really how many Americans feel: “Shut up and dribble.”

Last night, at the Republican National Convention, Mike Pence condemned the chaos that has happened in cities across the country. He referenced the violence in Kenosha, violence that was committed not by protesters or rioters but by an armed child who "fancied himself a member of a militia aiming to protect life and property," as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Pence also referenced Officer David Patrick Underwood, who he said was “killed during the riots in Oakland.” He did not mention that Underwood was also killed by members of a right-wing militia, members who police say used the George Floyd protests as “cover” to kill him.

On Fox News, Carlson used one of the most-watched shows on television to offer a tacit defense of Rittenhouse, the teen who shot three protesters. "How shocked are we that 17 year olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?" Carlson asked his audience. To which I’d say: not very shocked at all. Not when the Tucker Carlsons of the world are inundating those teens every single day with images of burning buildings from weeks before, not when the vice president is deceptively blaming murders on the “other” side, not when the president is claiming the suburbs will be “abolished,” not when everyone on one side is doing their best to convince everyone on the other side that the country is burning and the mob is coming to get you next.

And while that 10-second clip from Carlson was widely shared on the internet last night, and he was appropriately trashed for mounting a defense of someone we all watched kill two people on camera, very few commentators talked about the rest of Carlson’s segment, which was far more important.

In it, Carlson notes that human beings will always choose order over chaos. That this reality is something Donald Trump understands and leaders in Kenosha, Portland, Seattle and other places don’t. We all strive toward order — we yearn for it. And while the leftist rioters storm courthouses, bull down fences, drop Molotov cocktails into cars, flip over police trucks, burn businesses, knock out elderly store owners, loot high-end stores, show up to protests hellbent on battling police with shields, fireworks, laser pointers, helmets and sometimes guns of their own — the rest of the country is watching. They’re watching at home and they’re wondering who will stop this madness.

Carlson and Fox News understand this, which is why they go to great lengths to show these images of chaos on their shows every night — even when they have to reuse and photoshop the images. Trump understands it too, which is why he’s shown more interest in appearing tough and strong and decisive than in being a rational, calming, unifying voice. Kellyanne Conway said it out loud on Fox News this morning: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, and law and order.” Message received.

I’ve said it here before but I’ll say it again now: This newsletter is dedicated to a full spectrum of views, and I love sharing arguments I disagree with. But when it comes to police reform, when it comes to cops and shootings and the way our justice system chews up poor people and people of color and spits them out with no lifelines and no help and no regard for their humanity, I’m on the side of the protesters. I’m with the people calling for reforms and I believe in their cause, their central message: What we have now is fundamentally not working. It’s broken. And if you don’t see it now you won’t ever see it.

But people burning down businesses or brawling with police in Kenosha are not interested in reform. They’re not interested in justice or advancing a cause or making changes that will benefit the communities that are hurting right now. If they are, they seem hellbent on destroying their own credibility and setting their own cause back a decade.

Because what they’re doing now is damaging the reputation of the reformers who have been at this work in court, at the legislative level, at the community level, for decades. What they’re doing will make the Kenosha police hate them more than they already do, view them with even less empathy and humanity than they do now. What they’re doing will turn Wisconsin voters who are ripe for embracing their cause against them at the local, state and federal level. And what they’re doing may very well push the whole country toward the presidential candidate promising to restore order and snuff out the chaos, a candidate I can say with utmost confidence the people protesting in the streets across America do not support.

In the meantime, the right may consider viewing Kenosha not as representative of “Black Lives Matter” or “the movement” or “the left” and their calls for police reform, but as a reality we’d like to avoid in the future. The right might consider embracing the kneelers, embracing the reformers, embracing the boycotters and the marches, welcoming the peaceful protesters and — perhaps — hearing them. Not just listening, but hearing.

Another Black American is in the hospital with seven bullet wounds and could be dead not because he committed a crime for which the punishment is death but because he acted out in a system that indiscriminately and disproportionately punishes people like him. To understand this discrepancy you need not look any further than the right wing protesters in Idaho or Michigan, or to Kenosha, where Rittenhouse walked right past a half dozen police cars, rifle in hand, after murdering two people and shooting a third, and was not even stopped, questioned, or arrested at the scene, despite crowds pleading with officers that he had just shot someone. He made it all the way to Illinois before the cops finally caught up with him. Blake was shot seven times in the back three minutes after a domestic dispute with his girlfriend.

Our country is not just “in the mood” for justice, or healing, or riots. It requires change. More of it. Genuine progress will restore order, not doubling down on what we have now — and certainly not more of what we’ve seen this week.

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Reader feedback.

I got quite a few notes about yesterday’s newsletter. Several objected to this paragraph that I wrote:

“Trump and Republicans are trying to sell the country on an idea that more of this is ahead with a Biden presidency, but it’s an idea that defies reality. We’re witnessing it right now, with a Trump presidency. Perhaps Biden could be the calming force some past presidents have been — a voice that can ease tensions and build bridges. But a Biden presidency could be getting less likely every day. For every video of a burnt up family-owned store, every video of chaos spreading in a suburban street, every video of store owners being knocked unconscious — all of it will be used to sell the left as violent radicals. And for a lot of waffling voters, that’s a purchase they’re primed to make.”

Sandra from Las Vegas, Nevada, made the counterargument: “You seem to be contradicting yourself. While saying the now is under Trump, you are willing to concede that it is the left who ‘will be’ sold as violent. It IS the left who IS violent NOW. The cities struggling the most right now are predominately Democrat-run. We know this. We also know the President has offered help, which has been sometimes very publicly been turned down. So, it doesn’t really defy reality. Does it?”

“Defies reality?” Anthony from Los Angeles asked. “I guess it depends on what you are looking at. Plato’s cave, and all that. This sentiment is something I hear a lot from my left-leaning family members and shows a myopic focus on ‘Orange Man Bad’ that unfortunately clouds a more clear-eyed analysis and judgement on the situation: That it is Democrats that are in control of the cities, countries, and states where these riots are happening most acutely. Trump’s power to intervene is limited. And when he does, using the jurisdiction surrounding federal assets, he is criticized on tactics and the situation escalates without the support of local officials.”

Several readers also wrote in about the videos of rioters in Kenosha and the mob of protesters trying to force people to raise their fists in Washington D.C. “Almost all of them appear to be white,” one reader said. “I know it's kind of a speculative narrative, but if that's the case it seems to fit with the idea that a lot of white people involved in the protests are missing the point the black organizers, whose lives stand to be impacted by this movement, are going for.”

Quick hits.

  1. The Republican National Convention ran for the third night last night. Vice President Mike Pence accepted his re-nomination and made the case for Trump with an old-school Republican speech, focused on the idea that Trump is a doer, has cut taxes, brought energy independence, and revamped the military. He also hammered Joe Biden for his foreign policy. “It is no wonder that the secretary of defense under the Obama-Biden administration once said that Joe Biden has been, and I quote, ‘wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,’” Pence said. Departing advisor Kellyanne Conway spoke, too. As did Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who told a personal story of Trump comforting her after a double mastectomy. And Richard Grenell gave one of the most “compelling” arguments for the Trump doctrine.
  2. Jared Kushner said he was going to reach out to LeBron James today to see if he would work with Donald Trump on police reform. James is leading a player strike in the NBA, whose games halted last night after players refused to step on the court in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin. Head coaches and executives from Cleveland’s three major sports teams said they’re forming a “sports alliance” to develop a sustainable and direct strategy to address social injustice. Several teams across the NFL canceled practice today.
  3. Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN he was in surgery during an August 20 meeting where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines to say asymptomatic people may not need to be tested for COVID-19. The updated guidelines  were highly controversial, and came under scrutiny given that President Trump has repeatedly said America looks worse because it’s testing so much for coronavirus. "I was under general anesthesia in the operating room and was not part of any discussion or deliberation regarding the new testing recommendations,” Fauci said. "I am concerned about the interpretation of these recommendations and worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact it is.”
  4. A staggering BuzzFeed investigation shows China has secretly built “scores of massive new prison and internment camps in the past three years, dramatically escalating its campaign against Muslim minorities even as it publicly claimed the detainees had all been set free.” The buildings, capable of imprisoning tens of thousands of people, were documented with an extensive scouring of satellite images and dozens of interviews with former detainees.
  5. Aaron Coleman, the 19-year-old Democrat in Kansas who dropped out of a race after admitting to “revenge porn” as a middle schooler, is facing new charges of abuse and now refusing to concede. Coleman’s ex-girlfriend told The Intercept that he slapped and choked her last year after she jokingly broke up with him. The story of Coleman’s actions as a 12-year-old set off a national debate about what should be forgiven in the backgrounds of candidates who are seeking political office.
  6. Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana and Texas last night as a category 4 hurricane bearing historic 150 mile per hour winds. It was downgraded to a category 2 storm shortly after making landfall, but it has already resulted in at least one casualty and nearly 500,000 people are without power. Laura is expected to dump 6 to 12 inches of rain across Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and some storm surges have already reached 14 feet in coastal areas of Louisiana.
  7. Mark Meadows and Nancy Pelosi are scheduled to meet today to revamp negotiations for a coronavirus relief package, Politico reported. Meadows is President Trump’s chief of staff and the lead negotiator for Republicans. Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House and the lead negotiator for Democrats. Talks fell apart several weeks ago in large part over whether to extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits that were giving unemployed workers $600 a week, which Democrats were asking for. Republicans wanted to limit the benefit to $300-$400 a week or begin phasing them out entirely. The two sides said they were “trillions” of dollars apart on how much money to commit.

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