The right to protest (June 4 column)


We've seen the way a protest of the death of George Floyd while he was detained by police in Minneapolis turned into a riot, and I've seen questions about Black Lives Matter with queries about why All Lives don't matter.

This week's riots were the most serious in the U.S. since 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

And while it's understandable to believe MLK Jr. would have been wholly against rioting, and it's impossible to attribute beliefs to someone who's been gone over 50 years, he had this to say in “The Other America,” March 14, 1968, less than a month before his death.

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

I don't have wisdom or answers for this tough topic. All I can do is love you with facts and data.

A local reader who is black, who pointed out her parents and her in-laws were born before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 such that she is connected to a time black people didn't have civil rights in the USA, a supposedly free country, recommended movies, including:

13th Amendment

When they See Us

Emmet Till

12 Years a Slave

White Fragility

Just Mercy (with a suggestion to read the book first)

I would add The Autobiography of Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington, and also read the book first, because although the story as-told-to Alex Haley is thick with pages, Haley writes in a beautifully straightforward way and it was, for me, a quick read.

If you would rather digest the history in smaller nuggets, I subscribe to PushBlack, which sends lesser-known historical figures and events, as well as notifications of new incidents of injustice, and some fluffier stories of everything from celebrities to the history of black-eyed peas to my inbox.

The idea to educate yourself is not because white people should be ashamed of being white. It's not because the fact that if your ancestors, as some of mine hailing from Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia did, owned slaves, you personally have done anything wrong.

It's not because every human life doesn't matter.

It's not because you, sitting right there, that you don't matter. You do. And Blue Lives Matter. I have deep respect for those who put their lives on the line to protect and serve, and I hope we all do for those who treat the people they encounter with dignity. But this isn't that moment.

Now that we've covered that, we can focus on the fact that these aggressions and killings seem to happen with such frequency to black people that we, collectively, have to do something.

So, in the American tradition, we protest.

We haven't given up the right of dissent and protest guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution due to the pandemic, even if local governments, like a police department in Raleigh North Carolina, claims over Twitter, “Protesting is a non-essential activity,” as an explanation for breaking up a protest.

In a nutshell, black Americans have had hundreds of years of injustices from the time the first slaves were brought over, and over 55 years after the law finally protected their civil rights, they still don't enjoy all the rights we white people enjoy. And now what they're standing up for with Black Lives Matter is a right to life.

Back to the Constitution. We have a right to peaceful protest and free assembly. But not a riot? Not necessarily, but my recollection of U.S. History is that our nation was founded on a protest that turned rowdy on the principle that we shouldn't be taxed by the British government without representation in its lawmaking body. And that wasn't just a night of tea partying. Colonial rioters also tarred and feathered British tax collectors who came to call. It was not pretty.

The government may regulate the time, the place, and the manner of protest, as long as its restrictions are: content-neutral – they must treat Black Lives Matter the same as Women's March or Occupy or demonstrations in favor of gun rights, or any other protesting group. The restriction must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest like public safety, and it must leave “ample alternative channels for communication,” for protesters whose plans are prohibited at a certain time and place.

The George Floyd protests that turned violent have been limited to larger cities, causing a list of municipalities to impose curfews. The National Guard has activated 5,000 personnel across 15 states and Washington, DC in the face of riots and looting.

Protests are one thing, but why do they turn violent?

According to Professor Clifford Stot of the UK, who studied the 2011 England riots extensively, especially the sociological forces behind them, said the riots spread because people believed they were having a broader experience with others across the country. This experience was similar to the moments around George Floyd's death: some feel relationships between the police and the black community are of low quality. Others feel there's a deeper structural inequality. These common threads meant when police in one city were overwhelmed, rioters in different places began to mobilize.

So why bring the protest to Spencer, Iowa? Some young people from Emmet County told me they are planning to attend. Professor Stot said violent protests are less likely when police have a good relationship with the local community, though how they respond to demonstrations on the day is also a factor. Officials in Spencer seem to have an open line of communication with protest organizers. However, tension can be set off with just a few people confronting the police. The police might, following protocol, react toward the crowd as a whole, and if people feel the use of force against them is unjustified, then already triggered, they have an increased “us vs. them” mentality.

Professor Stot said police forces that have invested in de-escalation training are more likely to avoid violence at protests.

Still, why looting?

Studies of previous riots state big business gets looted more than mom and pop businesses, though there were exceptions in Minneapolis, including a black bar owner who had invested his life savings into his bar.

Professor Stot and other experts say looting is complicated. Lots of people take part, including people in poverty who may very well want that giant TV, people in organized crime who run off with all the TVs to sell on the black market, and those with a variety of motivations.

Riots, Professor Stot said, can be a symptom of deep-seated tensions and complicated issues with no easy solution.

So here we are in 2020, with myriad problems that have no easy solutions. Am I ignoring the good things that are also happening in so saying? Right. I get it. All Things Matter.

In my work on this column, I understood more about why justice cannot be neat and tidy. If you're a union worker, your rights came from people who rioted. The 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdicts brought reforms in local police departments, including actively hiring more police officers who are from minority ethnicities, civilian review boards of cases in which police use force, and residency rules that require officers to live where they police. It seems to have worked: citizen approval of the LAPD rose from 40 percent in 1991 to 77 percent in 2011, one way the change that's rooted in a riot can benefit the entire community.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 needed additions after it passed, but there was, of course resistance. It was after 1967's Long Hot Summer with the 12th Street riots in Detroit, Mississippi Burning, the Chicago Seven at the Democratic National Convention, and 100-plus rebellions after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 that the additions passed.

The uprising after Freddie Gray was shot in Baltimore was followed by six police officers being charged. Would that have happened with such urgency were it not for the community rising up? Cities like Baltimore and Charlotte faced years of neglect before riots brought international media attention.

Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan, a scholar of 1960s riots in the U.S., said, “Riots never come first. They only come after a sustained attempt to change whatever is the problem through other means.”

Northwest Iowa isn't immune from protests, because we aren't immune from the problems that lead to them. The protest tonight in Spencer is set out as a peaceful one. We can only hope it stays that way, and that it leads to the changes needed across the country.


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