Jun 1, 2020

SPECIAL EDITION: 'The worst civil unrest in decades.'

SPECIAL EDITION: 'The worst civil unrest in decades.'

A special edition focused on this weekend.

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

I have received dozens of emails, texts and phone calls about the last 72 hours — so today’s issue will be solely focused on the protests and riots this weekend. There will be no “Numbers,” “Your questions, answered,” “A story that matters” or “Have a nice day” sections. Given the events over the last three days, I’ve also decided to wait until tomorrow to announce the winners of the Tangle sharing competition, as I think it’d be inappropriate and tone-deaf to do it today.

A sampling of newspaper homepage from across the U.S.

What D.C. is talking about.

Demonstrations broke out in at least 75 cities this weekend. The Wall Street Journal described it as “the worst civil unrest in decades.” More than 5,000 personnel from the National Guard were dispatched to 15 states and Washington D.C., and curfews were put in place in cities across the country. Over 1,000 people were arrested in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago alone.

Elderly activists said they can’t think of a moment in history as tense and charged as this since MLK was assassinated. Marches, protests, looting and riots occurred in big cities and small cities and even some suburbs and rural areas, all with a focus on police brutality against black Americans and systemic racism. The protests came after the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia.

In Minneapolis, the Governor and mayor said many of the people arrested in their state were not from Minnesota. That became a trend over the weekend, with many Governors and mayors insisting their protests or riots were sparked by “outsiders.” They blamed left-wing radicals, right-wing nationalists, drug cartels and even “foreign agents” — all with little to no evidence. (It seems far more likely that police were just arresting young people who have out-of-state licenses.)

President Trump also fueled this speculation, saying anti-fascists and “organized” outside groups were working to make demonstrations more violent or appear more serious than they were. He even designated far-left anti-fascists a terrorist organization and tweeted that crossing state lines to riot was a federal crime.

In the meantime, local reporters insisted that the protesters and organizers they were seeing were ones they were familiar with in their cities and states. While both the left and right have called on the officers involved in Floyd’s death to be arrested, they have had very different reactions to the last 72 hours.

My friend Eva Woolridge, an award-winning photographer, took this photo in New York City on Saturday. You can follow her on Instagram here.

What the left is saying.

Generally speaking, the response to the last 72 hours on the left has focused on the root cause of the anger and frustration, with people calling for systemic change to address the pain that produced the riots.

“Unarmed, yet shot. Unarmed, yet strangled. Unarmed, yet dead,” Mitch Bloom wrote in the Detroit Free Press. “George Floyd is not the first black man to die from a white cop’s indifference. He’s not even the first to die from a chokehold. When something unforgivable happens over and over again, what are people to do? Where does the grief and the anger go?”

Former President Barack Obama published a story on Medium, saying violent rioters were “detracting from the larger cause” and listing a set of priorities and law changes that activists should be focused on getting implemented.

In the meantime, black organizers in nearly every city across the country have published video and documented evidence of young, white protesters who started violence and vandalism. In Portland, a white protester was caught on tape paying a group of black men to help him destroy some property. In Chicago, black protesters were filmed forming circles around white police officers to stop white protesters from attacking them. In Washington D.C., peaceful protesters literally tackled a vandal and handed him over to police.

In Brooklyn, a group of young protesters surrounded a Target to stop people from smashing its windows or looting. In Kentucky, a group of protesters surrounded a police officer who was separated from the force to protect him from an angry mob. Several Tangle readers sent in several Facebook posts from several different cities across America describing the destruction as targeted against corporate branches while local small businesses were spared.

There was a good deal of awful police conduct revealed by the left, and many writers have made the case it’s police escalating violence, not protesters.

There are videos of police shoving over young women and an elderly man with a cane, bowling through crowds of protesters in their cruisers, pulling down the mask of a young protester with his hands up to mace him in the face, smashing the windows of a couple’s car only to tase them and drag them onto the street and even shooting one Denver protester in the face with a pepper pellet for no reason. Cops in Flatbush, Brooklyn were photographed covering up their badges.

People are making lowlight reels of these police screw-ups that have been viewed millions of times.

It’s not just protesters getting the brunt of this, either. Members of local, state and federal governments were maced by police while walking peacefully down the street in cities across America. There are a dozen clips showing cops shooting at or arresting reporters even after they identified themselves as the press.

The national guard was marching down a residential street in Minnesota and shot tear gas at residents standing on their porches filming them. On their own property in their own homes. “Light them up!” the National Guard soldiers screamed. In Denver, police gave protesters approximately six minutes to go home after curfew, while it was still daylight, then escalated the situation by launching tear gas onto them and marching through the park.

Many reporters across the U.S. documented instances where police escalated violence as opposed to containing it. “And what else do you expect?” folks on the left have asked. We’ve armed our local police forces with riot gear and military equipment but given them a fraction of the training that actual soldiers and members of the military receive to use that equipment. The result, in many instances, has been embarrassing.

This, of course, comes just weeks after we watched heavily armed anti-quarantine protesters storm Capitol Buildings with guns, or press up against, curse at and shove police officers on the front lines without being pepper-sprayed, beaten or otherwise arrested. The videos of those protests show a stark difference in how police responded to the protests this weekend.

What the right is saying.

Generally speaking, the response to the last 72 hours on the right has focused on the rioters and the destruction, with people calling for more police force and saying the riots are unacceptable and counterproductive.

“Outrage shouldn’t be directed at innocents and culminate in yet more senseless violence,” The New York Post editorial board said, noting that another man died during riots in Minneapolis. “The rioters also burned something that would’ve helped the community: the site of an affordable-housing project that was to provide 189 low-income apartments, including dozens of super-low-income ones.”

Protesters and rioters beat a man nearly to death in Dallas (protesters allege the man had chased them with a sword). They beat up and chased down people who seemed to have little to do with the protests. They looted with glee, they burned buildings and they provoked the police. They, too, beat elderly people in the street for trying to protect their own businesses from being destroyed.

Few things were spared. A small, independent, progressive newspaper in Raleigh was destroyed in the same way a Minneapolis Target was. One black woman in Minneapolis wept on local television, pleading with protesters to stop destroying her neighborhood. “These people are tearing up our livelihoods,” she said.

In National Review, Michael Dougherty highlighted long-term studies on rioting that indicate riots often initiate “a general spike in violent crime” and “dissuade individuals, families and businesses from staying in or joining a community.” Dougherty argued that “riots are never a coherent or moral response to injustice, they just multiply injustices and the rioters themselves often suffer more in the long run.”

“The looters are not grieving over the stomach-churning arrest and death of George Floyd; they are having the time of their lives,” Heather Mac Donald wrote in City Journal. “You don’t protest or mourn a victim by stealing oxycontin, electronics, jewelry, and sneakers.”

Many conservatives also pointed to moments of good policing — unity between officers and protesters. In Flint, Michigan, the sheriff marched down the streets with protesters, hand-in-hand. So did the chief of police in Norfolk, Virginia. And police in New Jersey. The police chief in Atlanta, a white woman, stopped and talked to nearly every protester in sight for hours on end. In Kansas City, Kansas, there was no looting and there were no arrests made during the demonstrations. Cops held up signs calling for an end to police brutality.

Police and demonstrators in Miami Dade County took a knee together and said a prayer for George Floyd. Police and demonstrators in Queens did the same as civilians read the names of black people killed by police (note: some activists claim that a few of these were photo-ops and police immediately became aggressive after reporters captured them kneeling together).

In Seattle, on live TV, a police officer quickly, quietly and peacefully disarmed a protester who pulled a loaded AR-15 out of a burning cop cruiser without any incident. One particularly moving video showed a young black boy crying in the arms of a white police officer in the middle of a protest.

My take.

Over the weekend, I fielded a number of texts, calls and emails from Tangle readers and politically involved friends. Some, on the left, probed me about my newsletter Friday that described riots as “radically unproductive.” Others, on the right, sent me photos of burned up businesses in Louisville, Minneapolis, and other cities — rhetorically asking if I thought looters and rioters destroying businesses were “victims” or should be “celebrated.” Some simply texted me neutral, concerned questions: “Are we going to be okay?”

I do not have all the answers. I do have a lot of thoughts I feel compelled to share, but I also think when you’re done reading this, you’d be wise to seek out black voices, and especially black activists and black law enforcement officers who have the kind of life and on-the-ground experience to speak more eloquently about these issues than I can.

The conversations our nation is having right now are not new. Martin Luther King Jr., who people across the political spectrum love to quote but refuse to listen to, famously said that “riots are the language of the unheard.” MLK is considered the Einstein of political activists precisely for poignant, beautiful, effective sentences like this. And he’s right.

As someone with a “platform” — as self-important as that sounds — there is a societal expectation that I use my platform to encourage calm, reason and nuance. And, fortunately for me, that’s exactly what I want to use my platform for. It’s why I built Tangle.

These issues are not simple. There were white protesters in U.S. cities standing toe-to-toe with majority-minority police departments on the topic of excessive force against black Americans. How’s that for nuance?

But I also want to be clear that I do not believe the average person protesting or rioting or looting is out there because they despise cops, enjoy virtue signaling, want a new microwave, hate Target or like to break windows. These things are years, decades, centuries in the making. This is generations of accumulated pain that you can watch for yourself if you’re willing to look.

And yet, few look back at the protests or riots from the 1950s and 1960s now and view them negatively. Surely, there was a cost to those riots. Rioters were condemned. Black and white activists were hosed down, shot, beaten, arrested, shunned and sometimes killed. Studies show the riots pushed white voters away from support of the civil rights cause, helping to elect Richard Nixon in 1968. MLK was one of the most hated people in America. And then he was shot in the head.

Now, with the wisdom of time passed and the benefit of hindsight — do we view those protests negatively? Do we view those rioters as “thugs” and degenerates? Do we view MLK as a radical nuisance of American history? No. We view them as small parts of the collective action that brought us into the second half of the 20th century, one that was far more just and fair than the first half. And the society they had protested against is universally understood as having been unequal, unjust and draconian for black and non-white Americans.

So, do I support rioters? How could I answer a question like that? It’s complicated. When a reader or friend asks me that, I think of MLK, who defended rioters but also said, “Every time a riot develops… it helps George Wallace.” I think of Killer Mike, one of the most brilliant activists on the planet, who cried and pleaded with Atlanta natives to stay home instead of rioting, all while effectively calling out the system that produced their rage.

I think of the black business owner from 1992 who famously berated younger black activists in Los Angeles who had burnt down his business. I think of the black woman in Minneapolis, who had marched in the 1960s, explaining to a local news anchor that she left the protest because she knew it was fixing to be a riot.

At the same time, it’s worth asking: are the rioters and protests effective? “The language of the unheard.” What’s not being heard? Of the many friends and readers who messaged me about the riots to ask what I thought or implored me to condemn them, not one of them had texted me when the videos of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery were going viral. So what does that say? Would I have written an issue in the newsletter about Floyd’s death if there were no riots or protests or condemnation? Would those friends have stopped to think about it?

What if, as it sometimes happens in the U.S., Floyd died underneath the knee of a police officer but nobody shared the video online — and it was a footnote on the tenth page of a local Minneapolis newspaper. And it passed with little more than a momentary glance from a few thousand Minneapolis readers. Wouldn’t that be worse? Isn’t the alternative — a collective silence over the unjust killing of a human being — worse than a weekend of people crying out that this is not okay? And a few stores being looted in the process?

In that sense, perhaps the protests and riots and viral videos and “virtue signaling” on social media are all doing exactly what they’re supposed to. They’re making all of us pay attention.

And don’t think I come to this position easily. In a subscribers-only edition on Friday, I wrote that riots were “radically counterproductive” and acknowledged the difficult job of policing. Cops are scared, too, and just like everyone else they want to go home to their families. What might you do if your car was surrounded by a mob that’s bashing your windows or trying to flip your vehicle over?

Then I got that slew of texts from friends on the right about those riots, disgusted at the actions of the rioters, and in an ironic way, it didn’t bring me closer to their position. Instead, it did the opposite — it made me wonder, “why didn’t I get a text of disgust from you a week ago when videos of George Floyd being killed were on every Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed?”

Again: this stuff is not simple.

I don’t want to see neighborhoods and businesses looted and burned. I also understand people returning violence with violence and defending their properties or businesses they’ve spent lifetimes building. But I don’t want George Floyd’s death to be an afterthought for the rest of the country, because it’s a microcosm of a much a larger issue — a system where black men are more likely to be pulled over for a traffic stop, more likely to be victims of excessive force, more likely to get longer, harsher prison sentences, and so on. The list of injustices is endless.

I don’t view rioters positively. I don’t look at what they’re doing and think “yes, hell yeah, burn it down.” I see them and I fear for our country. I see pain. I think about what it would take for me to pick up a brick and throw it through a window. And then I try to see the humanity in those people and remind myself that they, too, have their lines.

These people weren’t going out on Friday nights looking for windows to smash or buildings to burn. Two of the people accused of throwing molotov cocktails at police officers in New York were Ivy League-educated attorneys who recently lost their jobs. These are not unhinged criminals. These people had a line and they were pushed over it — and it’s worth considering why. It’s worth considering that pain and evolution.

The Target in Minneapolis or the stores in Louisville — many of them will be back. Protesters and community members have already shown back up the next day to help clean up. And if you were angrier, more upset, more moved to “speak up” because you saw a burnt up Target in Minneapolis, Minnesota, then you were when you saw a black man killed for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill — I beg you to ask yourself: “why?” I can’t answer that question for you.

George Floyd is dead. His family will never get to speak to him, feel him, hug him, laugh with him, or watch him walk into a room ever again. Think about your siblings or uncle or mom or cousin you love — do you equate their life and being with the convenience store in your neighborhood? Or the Walmart down the street?

I understand my friends and readers who fear for the people who have now lost property or businesses or homes during these riots. They see a business owner, a family man or woman, standing outside a broken building and they feel empathy. Then they see the people who destroyed that building and they see the “bad guy.” They see the bad guy and the victim clearly. And that’s good. Empathy is good.

So what’s my take? How do I feel about rioters? I’m asking  you to feel that same empathy for the human being who was killed — for his family. For the thousands who came before him and those who will surely come after, and to understand that those buildings were burned up and smashed largely out of pain, anger and frustration. They were burned up because people were pushed over the edge, because millions of black (and white and non-white) Americans have watched similar videos on repeat for the last decade.

Consider the pain of Politico’s Eugene Daniels, a black man and a reporter in D.C. who has to write and cover his own anguish:

“Over the last 3 days, I have cried myself to a fitful sleep,” he said on Twitter. “Imagine being in elementary school & your teachers telling your mom how scared they were of you when you walked in class. As a child. Imagine being asked by law enforcement ‘is this car stolen?’ multiple times by different cops. Imagine being asked ‘what drugs do you have in the car’ as soon as you hand over your driver’s license.

Imagine women clutching their purses when you walk in the elevator for years. Imagine watching men that look like you die knowing it can happen to you. For 31 years, being a big black man has put a target on me. I am college educated, I live in DC, I work at one of the biggest news orgs in the US & I am still followed in stores.

I still have police ask me what I’m doing in MY neighborhood. I am not insulated or protected. I am tired. I am scared. All the time. Growing up, I thought if I made people laugh and went to college and smiled, I would be safe. That’s not even close to true.”

Now multiply that pain and fear and anger by a million. Multiply it by 40 million. These are things real people are experiencing and they’re crying out for the rest of the nation to listen and help.

Do I support the rioters? It’s complicated. Yes and no. Hell yeah and hell no. What I support is using your voice, using my voice, using our collective intellectual energy not to be angry and upset and fearful about the riots or protests or looting, but using it to actually address the cause of those riots and protests and looting.

I support spending our energy on changing the society we live in, on reforming state and local policing and criminal justice to make it fairer. That way, 50 years from now, perhaps the people looking back on this weekend will remember it as a turning point. Perhaps they will remember this as a time when battles were fought and won to make our country a little bit more just for the second half of the 21st century than it was for the first half.

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Today’s Tangle is a special edition of the newsletter, focused exclusively on the historic news events of the last 72 hours. A typical Tangle newsletter includes other sections like reader questions, statistics from the last 24 hours, and a good news story to wash it all down.

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