Paul Butler is a Consulting Editor to CRIME STORY. He is also a Professor at Georgetown Law, a frequent contributor to MSNBC and the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men. You can find his contributions to CRIME STORY here.
THUGS! That is the word the President of the United States used to describe a group of mostly black protesters in Minneapolis. The protests began after a Minneapolis Police Department officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by using his knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s neck down to the ground.
“Very fine people” was Trump’s description of white nationalist and neo-Nazis at a rally in Charlottesville. One of these very fine people ended up killing an antiracist protester by running her over with his car.
“These are very good people.” That was how the most powerful man in the world described a group of protesters that brought guns to demonstrate their disagreement with a public health decision.
In April, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Michigan State Capitol to protest the State’s coronavirus lockdown measures. Many protesters were armed with military style assault weapons and were able to push inside the State Capitol building.
According to reports, the protesters were chanting, “Let us in!” and several state legislators were so afraid that they even strapped on bulletproof vests.
Despite protesting without permits, brandishing weapons, and violating social distancing orders, none of the white protesters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan were arrested by the police. At Huntington beach, California, protesters were not even given citations.
In New Jersey, a group of mostly white protesters gathered outside a gym where a police officer actively abandoned his responsibilities to enforce the State’s lockdown of nonessential businesses. Before allowing the gym to reopen in violation of the law, he told the crowd, “formally, you are all in violation of the executive order. On that note, have a good day. Everybody be safe.”
Far from being told to have a good day or to be safe, on the very first day of protests in Minneapolis, demonstrators were met with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons. These war tactics were used again on the second day of protests. And on the third day the National Guard was sent in and the president threatens to shoot the protesters saying, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Trump tried to walk back his threat to start shooting protesters, but no doubt some people think the protesters got what they deserved. They argue that white demonstrators were not met with aggression because they showed no aggression toward police. Some of the protesters against police brutality, the argument goes, got brutal themselves.
Don’t believe the hype. Outsiders’ role in escalating violence when black people demonstrate is well recorded. In response to a series of insurrections that occurred during the long, hot summer of 1967, President Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to produce a report on the causes of the violence and destruction that occurred in 1967. The Commission’s first draft report, “highlighted how the police either incited violence, or overreacted once it occurred.” While copies of this draft report still exist today, it was officially ordered to be destroyed by politicians on the Commission who considered it too inflammatory.
Dating all the way back to the civil rights movement, the police’s response to black demonstrators shows that African Americans, unlike whites, are not given the benefit of the doubt. We are guilty until proven innocent.
While an armed white man can carry a military weapon inside the Capitol building of the State, Tamir Rice, a black 12-year old boy, is shot outside his home within two seconds of his encounter with police for playing with a toy gun.
As for now, we can only hope that the next time a black American’s life is threatened by an officer, someone will be there to pull out a camera. Maybe next time it will be enough to encourage the officer to lessen his grip and lighten his touch. Maybe next time that camera will be enough to afford a black man arrested by the police the simple opportunity to breathe.