This weekend’s protests and riots were shocking, though not surprising. It’s important that, amid the knee-jerk responses and talking heads on cable, we not lose sight of some critical facts.
Let’s begin with the fact that this all began because a man died needlessly. The officer who killed George Floyd by pinning his neck down with his knee faces murder charges, and there are calls for the other officers present to be charged as well. It was an ugly, brutal event that was immediately seared into the nation’s consciousness.
Protests were inevitable. Remember, though, that mass protests are not a first resort. They are a response that comes when people feel there are no other options, when they believe that disruption is the only way in which to be heard. Protests have a long history in our nation, and the right to do so is protected.
Not so with rioting, either by people who hijack a protest or by police themselves. Those who opportunistically use legitimate protest as an excuse to engage in violence, whether against people or property, are in the wrong. That goes for the people who damaged businesses in many cities and the police who targeted compliant individuals with tear gas and rubber bullets.
This weekend saw moments in which people overreacted and in which they allowed themselves to be part of a solution. Sunday night in Des Moines police knelt near their station, across the street from protesters. The crowd left peacefully, in sharp contrast to the cases in which police acted aggressively.
It’s particularly disheartening to us to see police engaged in targeting members of the media who were covering the protests. There’s no other way to describe it when an officer points a gun filled with pepper balls and pulls the trigger at a reporter who is identifying herself. The same goes for the stunningly stupid arrest of a reporter live, on the air, when colleagues just a few feet away were not given a second look. And our thoughts are with Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer who was blinded in her left eye after being struck by a rubber bullet. There have been reports of protesters attacking media as well, but the fact there are far more cases in which police were the aggressors speaks volumes.
We must listen to one another. But, more than that, we must HEAR each other. That’s the only real way out of this cycle.
You don’t have to agree with another person to hear them out, to listen and genuinely try to understand what they’re saying. You don’t have to agree in order to recognize that many people are acting out of genuine pain and despair and to empathize with them. It’s entirely possible to see a different solution to a problem without labeling someone else your enemy.
Granted, that’s more difficult to do in person than on paper. When someone speaks from a place of pain and anger, it’s uncomfortable for the listener. It can cause a defensive response that is almost involuntary. But, if we are to come together as a nation and find solutions, we must all make that effort.
Eventually, the protests will end. Eventually, the police will put away the riot gear. The question is who we will be when that happens. Will we return to the way things were, or will we attempt to live up to our national ideal of improvement?
One path offers only a return to this weekend’s violence and pain. The other offers a chance of genuine progress, though not a guarantee.
What’s it going to be?