It is all but universally recognized that the death of George Floyd at the knee of a (now fired and arrested) policeman in Minneapolis last week was a travesty. Whatever the circumstances leading up to the apprehension and detaining of Floyd, there is no question that he did not deserve to die on the street. Nor is there any denying the resultant culture shock. Viewing the nine minutes of the street video is on the order of viewing a snuff film.
Outrage has its place and can be constructive. But it is also susceptible to exploitation, especially where it is not tautologically obvious against whom to direct that outrage. It can rapidly devolve into what Herbert Agar described some 80 years ago as “the anarchic passion to smash,” which we are seeing on the streets at this point.
Whatever your views on the topic of the uses of state force, it is (or ought to be) unconscionable to associate the fate of George Floyd with the right to destroy businesses (many of which are minority owned), deface property, and throw rocks at police (who had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Floyd's death and found it at least as inexcusable as anyone else). It is one thing to express outrage over what appears to be a wantonly cruel act. It is another to say that outrage entitles you to destroy someone else’s livelihood or to injure or even kill police officers and bystanders.
Legitimate, peaceful protest occupies an important place in our society as political expression, which is why it is explicitly protected in the Constitution. Rioting, vandalism, looting, arson and violence, on the other hand, are crimes against society. The distinction is not opaque.
The violence and anarchic excesses we have witnessed in the streets of Denver and other cities is also counterproductive. A week ago, the country was united in grief over the death of Floyd and in the desire for justice for the person responsible. The abhorrent acts committed ostensibly in Floyd’s name have created a whole new wedge.
Unfortunately, for some that is the point. The demonstrations generally draw three types: those who feel compelled by events to peacefully and lawfully express their anger and advocate for change of one sort or another; bored young people, unemployed and cooped up for weeks by the pandemic lockdown, whose knowledge of the underlying issue extends not much further than the crude slogans copied onto their poster papers; and a radical, but well-organized, anti-social element which sees itself at war with the police and civil society.
This last group is expert at organized mob violence and at cultivating the theater of street warfare with the police as the enemy. But they are simply exploiting the reductionist anti-police narrative that has been making the rounds for years.
As abhorrent as Derek Chauvin’s depraved action was, it was an aberration. The police are not the enemy. Yes, there is violence associated with policing; policing is a necessarily violent job in that its primary purpose is to protect society against the violent. Most police tactics and procedures, including those that may seem excessive to the uninitiated, were written in the blood of police officers injured or killed in the line of duty. The darker corners of the real world can be a rough place, and that is where we ask our police to be.
Which is not to say that police officers are either universally angelic or immune from the baser instincts that plague all other groups of humans. The problem of the criminally overactive police officer is one properly dealt with by impartial application of the law. In this particular case, all the officers associated with the incident were fired, the former officer most directly responsible was investigated, arrested, and charged with 3rd degree murder. It will now be up to a jury, at some point, to examine the evidence and pronounce upon his fate.
Justice here is not served by anarchic lawlessness and destruction. The irony of the violent devolution of these protests is that they demonstrate, quite starkly, why we need the police, and why we need them to be ready to do battle, if necessary, to restore order and protect the innocent. Order, after all, is a prerequisite for justice.
The whole thing leaves a bitter taste, beginning with the action of the former officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, and following along to the actions of those who foul his name by urging destruction of the system that arrested and will prosecute his killer.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.