Protestors raise their fist in front of a George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis. June 4, 2020 Photo: Lorie Shaull / Flickr

⁠The moral force of violence and the limits of reform

  • June 13, 2020

Race & Resistance

After George Floyd’s murder, the authorities’ moved fast to indict the killers. But protests and riots erupted nonetheless, because reform is not enough.

The video is disturbing, damning and inarguable. It shows a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on the neck of an African-American man, George Floyd, as he lay handcuffed and prone in the street. The video shows Floyd complaining that he cannot breathe, begging for his life, calling for his mother. It shows onlookers remonstrating with the cops, arguing with them, and pleading. And it shows the cops’ absolute indifference to human life, human decency, morality, reason and the law.

The video spread with lightning speed across the internet and around the world. Demonstrations soon followed, many of which turned into riots. Within a week, over a hundred cities had seen protests. Police cars, police stations and courthouses have been burned. Stores have been looted. Cops, protestors, bystanders and journalists have all been injured; at least 22 have died. As always, the casualties are mostly protestors injured by police.

At first glance, this all seems very familiar, a standard piece of American pageantry, like a second-rate USO show. The video immediately recalls Eric Garner, choked to death by a New York City police officer while gasping, “I can’t breathe.” It recalls Oscar Grant, shot in the back by transit police while laying face down in handcuffs. It reminds us of Rodney King, whose videotaped beating by the LAPD played incessantly on television, promising to finally prove what Black people had always known about the police.

Each incident unleashed a wave of unrest, coincident with a period of national soul-searching, and followed by reforms, concessions, new rules about police discipline and new mechanisms for accountability.

On closer inspection, though, this time something is different.

Justice, whatever the consequences

It is the order of events that seems strange. At about 8pm on Monday, May 25, Floyd was arrested; he died an hour and a half later. That same evening, the video was posted online. That same night ⁠— at 3am, May 26; not even six hours after Floyd’s death ⁠— the FBI announced an investigation into possible civil rights violations. A vigil in Floyd’s memory began assembling around noon. By 2pm, the Minneapolis Chief of Police announced that all four officers present would be fired.

Around 6:30 that night protestors began throwing rocks at police, and police began using pepper spray and less-lethal shotguns against them. An hour later, the windows were broken out of the Third Precinct stationhouse, and police fired teargas.

The following day, May 27, the police released the names of the officers involved, and the mayor called for criminal charges against them. That night protestors began looting stores and police fired rubber bullets. On May 28, rioters set the Third Precinct on fire and the Minnesota National Guard was deployed. Protests spread to several other cities, including New York, Denver, Phoenix and Louisville.

On Friday, May 29, Chauvin was arrested, charged with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter. That weekend, protests erupted in over one hundred cities nationwide, many of them escalating to looting, arson and running battles with police.

Compared to similar occurrences, this timeline is extremely compressed. The protests began almost immediately, escalated quickly and spread rapidly. More surprising, though, is the official reaction. The authorities responded with unusual speed, beginning a federal investigation, firing the officers and filing criminal charges all within a few days. Notably, these actions seem to have been taken in anticipation of public outrage.

Similarly, the usual script has police and civic leaders suspending judgment until all the facts are in and asking the public for patience; but in this case, the mayor, police chief and public prosecutor all made a point of very publicly saying the right things at the very first opportunity ⁠— even highlighting the racist aspect of the murder. That sentiment has been echoed by police leaders in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston and smaller cities around the country.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis has stuck to their usual strategy of making no apologies and offering no sympathy ⁠— calling Floyd a “violent criminal” ⁠— but the leaders of other organizations, including the National Association of Police Organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and the National Police Foundation, were all quick to condemn the killing or praise the firing of the officers.

Even the Fraternal Order of Police called for justice “whatever the consequences.” One can almost hear a rejoinder: and by any means necessary.

A moment of pure rebellion

These are the dividends of decades of organizing and, as importantly, of previous riots. Earlier cycles of unrest taught the authorities that they have to take such high-profile incidents seriously, and that, sincerely or not, they had to be seen expressing sympathy with the victims and outrage at the inequality of our society. The previous incidents had also produced a standard menu of demands: identify the cops, fire them, prosecute them, invite federal intervention.

These could be implemented right away ⁠— and were, in what was clearly an effort to get ahead of the controversy, to assure the public that justice would be done, that things were being handled, that the system was working.

Remarkably, these maneuvers did nothing to assuage the public anger. Demonstrations escalated to violence after the police were fired; the riots metastasized, nationally, after Chauvin’s arrest. What the authorities accomplished, no doubt inadvertently, through their preemptive concessions was instead to push the protests out of the discursive framework of negotiations and reforms.

By offering the concessions up front and in advance, they not only robbed the movement of its standard demands, they also highlighted the fact that meeting those demands would not possibly be enough.

Similar demands had been articulated, fought for, and even granted in several previous cycles of unrest ⁠— and yet, the racism of our society has barely diminished and the police murder of Black people continues. The one recurring demand to gain traction in the present moment is, notably, that police departments should lose funding. That is, in effect, not a demand to reform policing, but to reduce it; not for better police, but for fewer.

The protests have been stripped to their essential form, a moment of pure rebellion against an intolerable state of affairs. This has given the rebellion its distinctive character, and may well have contributed both to its militancy, and also to its popularity. For while demands can motivate and direct a movement, they can also contain it. Distilled to its radical essence ⁠— a refusal of injustice, which also contains an affirmation of the value of every human being ⁠— the motive force behind the protest is readily comprehensible and undeniably compelling.

Asserting humanity, becoming ungovernable

What the protestors want is blindingly simple. It is far simpler than any investigations, prosecutions, policy debates or bureaucratic reforms can conceivably be. What they want is to live in a world where the authorities cannot simply murder us ⁠— any of us, but Black people in particular. What is more, the protestors know that this desire of theirs will be understood, as it has already been summarized, and in fact endorsed, by one of their adversaries. In his initial statement on George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey admitted, “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.”

Too often it is a death sentence ⁠— not only because of the police, but from the effects of poverty, environmental racism and the resulting lack of access to life’s necessities: clean air and water, nutritious food, adequate housing, reliable health care. If, as the slogan has it, “Black lives matter,” then they must matter not only in the relatively rare conditions of widespread urban uprisings, and not only in the more common event of the death of individual Black people at the hands of police. They must be made to matter at every level of policy, in every institution of our society.

The police are of course a symbol of institutional racism, as well as the enforcers and defenders of the entire system of white supremacy. George Floyd’s death resonated so viscerally, not merely because of the cold inhumanity of the police and the heart-wrenching pleas of the man they were killing, but because of its peculiarly iconic character: the literal knee on the neck provided an immediately legible metaphor for the relationship between Black people and the government. Changing that relationship will require a change to the very structure of our society.

It is probably too much to expect a fully thought-through political program to emerge in the midst of street-fighting. But, that is not to say that there is no strategy evident in the riots: the present unrest clearly shows that police violence will carry a cost for society’s masters. And every act of resistance implicitly threatens an escalation to such a point that the status quo becomes untenable.

What disturbs our rulers is not the violence of the demonstrations. The state employs violence on a far vaster scale every single day ⁠— in wars, in prisons, at the border, in the preservation of inequality. What disturbs them is the moral force behind the violence, that those from the lowest levels of society may assert their humanity, refuse to see it denied, and thus make themselves ungovernable.

Kristian Williams

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy, and Fire the Cops! He has written about policing and state violence for Clamor, Counterpunch, New Politics, In These Times and Toward Freedom. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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