To understand America’s racial hierarchy, you need only look at the pictures.
On Monday in Minneapolis, a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd died not long after an arrest during which a white police officer, responding to an alleged forgery, kneeled on his neck for at least seven minutes. A video shows Floyd crying out what’s become a black refrain: “I can’t breathe!”
“This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America,” former President Barack Obama said Friday. “It can’t be ‘normal.’”
In recent days, thousands of people, many wearing masks to protect against Covid-19, have poured into streets around the country to condemn yet another instance of police violence. For the most part, these heavily black protests have been peaceful. On Tuesday, unrest erupted in Minneapolis after a small group of people tagged squad cars and broke a window near a precinct house where they believed the officers who harmed Floyd worked. (Four officers were fired for their involvement in Floyd’s death.)
The images of police escalation over the past 72 hours are striking: flash grenades, projectile launchers, rubber bullets, protesters doused with milk to calm the sting of tear gas.
These scenes couldn’t contrast more profoundly with those from a different kind of protest. In late April, armed with assault-style weapons, mostly white and mask-less demonstrators entered the Michigan Capitol building during a rally against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Police officers, however, stood still; glaring, not escalating. (Notably, this defiance followed the publication of evidence indicating the virus disproportionately afflicts black Americans.)
Not that state force should’ve been used against the militaristic reopen agitators. The point is that, together, the opposing images speak to the noticeably uneven treatment protesters receive — depending on who is protesting, and what issue is at stake.
“There are different sets of rules, there are different sets of consequences,” Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, told Vox. “Armed men with guns have been showing up in Capitols across the country, in essence, demanding that things open back up. What’s been opening back up are places where black and brown people work.”
Put another way, the great power of the pictures is that they not only capture the current antagonism between black Americans and the Minneapolis police — they clarify racial realities and broad battles against bigotry that have long existed in America. I can’t breathe. Hands up, don’t shoot. Stop killing us.
In a similar vein, to see the riots flaring in Minneapolis is to be transported to the past: to the 2015 riots in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody; to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins and the initial acquittal of officers involved in the infamous beating of 25-year-old Rodney King; to the 1965 Watts riots after a dispute between a black motorist and a white cop.
As before, there’s been handwringing over the riots and, specifically, the “looting.” (In a tweet on Thursday night, President Donald Trump wrote that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a sentiment that recalls tough-on-crime rhetoric from the 1960s.) As before, such narrow focus has been misguided. Above all, instead of interrogating the cause of abiding black anger — a system of control via deep-seated racism — it latches onto its symptom. It obscures the fact that, given the ferocious institutional disregard for black life, an honest negotiation for equality in this country must, necessarily, be a confrontational one.
“He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you,” as author James Baldwin put it in a 1968 Esquire interview. “You’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.”
Or here’s Martin Luther King Jr., arguably a more soothing figure, if only because the years have sanded his radical edges: “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,” he said in a 1968 speech. “And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
How many times must we hear it before, in today’s parlance, black lives matter?