Across the country, Americans are taking to the streets again to protest the deaths of black people perpetrated by US law enforcement.
These citizens are using their constitutional rights — “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” — to express their frustration and discontent at the longstanding racial injustices of the US criminal justice system. It is one of the few remedies available to them because, too often, police officers who take the lives of black people don’t face any professional or criminal consequences for their actions.
Many Americans turned out, with the risk to their health coming not only from aggressive law enforcement but also the unprecedented public health threat of Covid-19, to register their anger at their country’s institutional racism. Most of them are doing so peacefully.
However, that is often not the story being told on television news networks or social media. Instead, instances of destructive or violent protest — usually against private property, not people, though there was one report of a man being shot and killed near a protest in Detroit — have become the dominant storyline.
Pictures and videos of fires and physical violence might be of most interest to news producers or politicians who wish to deflect attention away from the underlying problem of police brutality. Scenes of police exerting force against protesters are also dramatic. But in different ways, by focusing on specific conflicts rather than the problems that led to them, these images rob the protests of their context. They are not the whole story.
Those violent demonstrators could redirect attention away from the structural inequities that motivated the protests in the first place — though these incidents are not yet fully understood. State and local officials in Minnesota said on Saturday morning that many of the people arrested during the protests did not actually live in the area. We are still learning the exact nature of the story unfolding right in front of our eyes.
That’s why it is useful to stay focused on what we do know: police violence is a longstanding and disturbingly intractable problem in American society, and the many people who peacefully demonstrated their distress at that reality deserve to have their grievances heard and understood. They should not have to answer for the actions of the few just because violence attracts the media’s attention, and because political leaders find that violence useful fodder to move the conversation away from the pervasive injustices undergirding the American state.
Because while the protests will end, police violence against black Americans will not. The white now-former police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis has been arrested for murder. The white vigilantes who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia have been charged as well. But no one has yet been held accountable for the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville; the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Tamir Rice were never charged with a crime. History tells us that when a law enforcement officer takes the life of a civilian, they rarely face criminal or professional repercussions.
That is the fundamental injustice that Americans across the nation are coming out to protest — and most of them are doing it peacefully. Take a look.