In the early days of the pandemic, did you ever fantasize what we’d do when people could go outside again and gather together? Did you dream of a better, “post-pandemic” America? One with more hugs, more mutual care and concern for our fellow humans, having all gone through (in differing and unequal ways, but still having shared) a harrowing common experience?
People are going out again, all over the United States. But it’s not to celebrate a vaccine or a debt jubilee. The first national connecting event coming out of lockdown is mass protest against police violence after the lynching of George Floyd, and the state’s attempt at suppressing it. The coronavirus—which disproportionately is killing Black Americans—drove us inside. Policing—which also disproportionately is killing Black Americans—is drawing us back out. Almost overnight, the streets have gone from largely empty—though the rate of police killings remained mostly unchanged—to filled with thousands of masked people, often being gassed or beaten. The conditions before, during and after the lockdown are part of a continuum in America—a miserable nation maintained by policing.
For about a decade, I’ve been reporting on police violence in the United States—or rather, I’ve been reporting on the violence of policing, because what I’ve witnessed is that policing is always violent. The order the police protect and sustain is an order in which needed resources remain in the hands of the few. Whether or not they are actually killing or beating somebody, police are always threatening the use of lethal violence (mostly at the poor, disproportionately at Black and other nonwhite people), and that is a form of violence itself. And as I’ve reported on the violence of policing, the encouraging rebellions against it, and the subsequent attempted suppression of those uprisings, a common line of questioning comes up, mostly from white people:
Why did they burn down that Kwik Trip gas station/CVS/Target? Those businesses help and bring jobs to their community! Don’t they know they are hurting their own communities? Why are they destroying their own communities?
Let’s put aside for a moment that such questions elide how much corporations actually “help” low-income communities where they have businesses, making sales of necessary goods to nearby residents while paying poverty wages to their workers that make sustainable life impossible. At their core, the questions assume the destruction of property is more worrisome than the destruction of life—otherwise, a person wouldn’t wonder why the destruction of life by the police in recent years has triggered the destruction of property. In communities where businesses are protected and people are not, damaging commercial property emphasizes the upside-down values of the usual order of things. As NPR Code Switch host Gene Demby wrote on Twitter, “Spike Lee said that when Do The Right Thing came out, a lot of critics thought it irresponsible to show Mookie throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria bc it would encourage riots…but they had far less to say about the cops choking Radio Raheem to death.”
But if there is anything unclear about why protesters would rebel against businesses to respond to the police killings of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, there should be absolutely no confusion about the logic of destroying a police station in response to the police killing of George Floyd. You can agree with or disagree with the action. But you cannot deny that there is a logic in targeting a police station after the police have lynched a man in broad daylight, on video. It’s an attempt to create a different order in the society.
The old ruling assumptions about policing seem neither as necessary or inevitable as they did before. Killings of Black people at the hands of police are not new, but the discourse around them does seem to have shifted with the George Floyd “I can’t breathe” video. I was genuinely surprised when Derek Chauvin and three other Minneapolis Police officers were fired so quickly for the gruesome killing, considering it took five years for Daniel Pantaleo to be fired from the NYPD following the Eric Garner “I can’t breathe” video. I was mildly shocked when the University of Minnesota’s president wrote that the school would scale back its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department and will “no longer contract with the [MPD] for additional law enforcement support”; this is a not the “a few bad apples” approach we’ve been accustomed to, but an acknowledgment of the fundamental danger the entire Minneapolis Police Department poses to a university community. And I was outright amazed, the morning after the Third Precinct was burned, when Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said that “’Brick and mortar is not as important as life,” and the city’s public schools terminated their contract with the police.
This new outlook was developing and spreading long before the police encountered George Floyd. Black Lives Matter activists and scholar organizers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor and Mariame Kaba deserve credit for raising consciousness about the carceral state. Occupy Wall Street activists deserve credit for helping Americans to see that the real looting is happening with wealth transfers towards the ruling class, and endured police intimidation and abuse to do it. Clearly such work is getting more people to challenge the premises of policing more seriously.
But the pandemic has also given many more Americans a chance to see which parts of the status quo are really protected in a crisis, and what policing means for them. When gun-waving protesters swarm legislatures, demanding that public health orders be lifted so people can be sent back to work, what gives them the space to shout down the majority? Policing. When eviction courts reopen and many of the 40 million people out of work are evicted, how will that be carried out? Policing.
Policing has been strangling civic life in Minneapolis and across the country all along. In 2017, Forbes wrote about research which broke down the cities with the largest police budgets. Minneapolis was number nine, spending $163 million each year—nearly 36 percent of its general fund. Only Chicago and Oakland spent a larger percent of their general funds on policing, at 40 and 41 percent respectively. (New York City spent the most money by far, at nearly $5 billion, but that only comes to 8 percent of its budget.)
When I read this Thursday night, I thought to myself: Imagine what kind of city Minneapolis could be if it wasn’t spending that much of its tax dollars on policing. What if Minneapolis had invested that money in homes for the unhoused? In medicine for the sick? In public health officials to help with infectious disease? In food for the hungry? What if Minneapolis put its police budget towards the very resources which would make policing as presently practiced unnecessary? What if every city did the same?
What we are seeing in the streets of Minneapolis and Memphis and New York and Los Angeles is the result not just of a decade of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist organizing amped up by the pandemic. We are also witnessing a rebellion against the many inequities exposed by the pandemic. Health, space, income, race, and the ability to stay away from person-to-person job duties have produced enormous disparities in the impact of the coronavirus. Wall Street has been made so whole it is soaring while renters—prevented from working—have been largely left out to dry. The same forces causing today’s pandemic-fueled inequality were at work when Occupy Wall Street protesters first occupied Zuccotti Park in 2011, and many strands of American protests from the past decade are now working together.
As any military tactician or social justice organizer can tell you, direct action gets the goods. The destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one. The uprising we’ve seen this week is speaking to the American police state in its own language, up to and including the use of fireworks to mark a battle victory. Property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall Riots. And before he unconvincingly qualified a statement so violent Twitter put it behind a warning screen, the president saying he would order shots fired to protect property—that’s as American as the MOVE bombing and apple pie.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, listen to What Next: TBD.