Sunday, June 7, 2020

Protest, police, pandemic

We are living in remarkable times. Nobody needs to tell you this.

We are completing nearly two weeks of daily nationwide (and now global) protests following the death of an African American, George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, while he was under police custody and handcuffed.

The first week of the increasingly growing protests were marred by looting and violence, unlawful activities that unfortunately almost always seem to follow in the wake of righteous, constitutionally protected protest.

But something seemed different this time. Most of the protest marches in major cities across the country seemed peaceful enough in daylight hours, but turned violently ugly as darkness came on. To me, that suggested a different element was involved, an element with agendas not related to the civil protests.

Consequently, a larger law enforcement presence was required. Consequently, frictions increased.

I think a turning point came on Monday when peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, were turned back by mounted officers and chemical agents that resembled (and might have been) tear gas, clearing a path from the White House so that President Trump could purchase an awkward photo op, with Bible in hand, in front of historic St. John's Church.

Since then, the wave of protests has been largely – and remarkably – peaceful. What has amazed me is the diversity of the protesting participants. Whites. Blacks. Asians. Women. Children. By the thousands. Nationwide. I don't know if we've seen that kind of protest before. It's powerful. And promising.

To a point.

The protests now have kind of morphed a second branch focusing on police brutality, particularly in metropolitan areas with large populations. And not just the brutality of pressing a knee into the vulnerable neck of a handcuffed citizen, but the brutality that tazes and pulls college students out of a car, the brutality of rubber bullets fired into an unarmed crowd, or the brutality that knocks a 75-year-old man to a concrete sidewalk, rendering him unconscious.

This is protecting? This is serving?

So in addition to the specter of racism, the conversation now includes a discussion of defunding police departments. Minneapolis, for example, sees 60 percent of its annual budget go toward law enforcement.

I don't know what defunding the police really means. Clearly, we need law enforcement, otherwise there's anarchy in the streets. Good, honest policing is the bedrock of democracy. Police often put their lives on the line for ridiculously low pay. I don't want police not to exist.

But I think we also need police reform, and education, and training with a different culture and mindset to match the era we live in. It shouldn't be us against them, which is what it often looks like right now. If defunding means diverting funds to other programs for the public welfare, then I think it really does have a chance to serve and protect. But it's certainly a complicated issue, far beyond my pay grade.

All of this is happening, of course, in the dark shadow of a Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of nearly 110,000 Americans in the span of three months. I see face masks almost everywhere among the protesters, but I don't see much social distancing. Will there be a spike in the virus in two or three weeks? That remains to be seen.

But racism is also a pandemic. It means protesters are facing a serious decision when they take to the streets. Is risking your life worth the cause? North Carolina alone saw a new high of 1,370 cases reported on Saturday, and this while we're in Phase 2 of reopening the state. If the numbers spike in a couple of weeks as a result of the protests, then where are we headed if an expected second wave develops in the Fall?

Protests, police and pandemic. Where are we headed, indeed?

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